On Dying And Everlasting Life

I’ve given a fair amount of thought to death.

It isn’t something I talk to other people about very often, death, so I can’t say I really know very much about what other people think. It does seem to me that there is a lot of denial. Religion attempts to soothe our worried minds with a promise of everlasting life. Thoughts of things like euthanasia or assisted suicide are beyond rational consideration. Doctor shows and drug company ads seem based on the premise that death is the ultimate failure. Life must be preserved and maintained at all costs lest we give in to a simple fact: everybody dies.

Someday I will die. You will too.

I realized that there are a few simple questions that when I faced honestly were very enlightening.

A dear friend once said to me that when she died she hoped to go to a wonderful place and be reunited with her lost friends and relatives. Its a very lovely thought, but it’s veracity is neither here nor there for me. What really made me think was the statement that followed, where she explained that if she were to find out there was no after-life, no heaven, and no friends waiting on the other side she would get a gun and blow her brains out.

I tried to imagine the millions of people living in misery, enduring pain with the hope that something better will await them when they die. Being the person I am, I of course had to pose the question – what if there isn’t anything?

I realized at that moment that regardless of a heaven, regardless of religion, living this life in misery only to hope for better luck or a happy reunion in the next is madness.

Immediately I asked myself a very important question: if I were to die tonight – if I knew I had an hour or two left – how would it feel? Would I feel frightened? Sad? Angry? Relieved? Guilty? Happy? It might be a little bit of all those things. But that question put my life into immediate perspective.

I realized that when my physical body is gone, the things that will be left of me are the impressions and effects I had on others. There is my wife, my children, my job. There are the students I have had. There are the people I was unfair or unjust to. There are the people who read my blog. There  are people who love and who hate me.

So if I were to die tonight, what could I say of these relationships? Did I make my wife happy? Did I give my children enough information, enough of myself? Did I teach them? Did they know how much I cared about them and that the *only* thing I ever wanted from them was to see them happy and perhaps share in that joy? Was I an honest worker and did I serve my disciplines well? Was I a good teacher, and did I give my students anything good that they carried forward in their lives? Did I leave even a single reader with a kernel of something that sparked some positive change in their life? Did I try to take responsibility for my mistakes and make up for them if possible? Will even those who hate me, have enough respect to say I tried?

And what if I were given ten more years? Would I use them to be sure I left a rich legacy to those that follow me?

This is *my* concept of ever lasting life.

Some Buddhists meditate on the image of a corpse decomposing. I once read of Buddhist monks who would go to burial grounds of another religion (Zoroastrians?) who left their dead to decay in the open. There they would meditate on death and their own mortality.

A little creepy maybe, but doesn’t it make you value life just thinking about it? Does it shift your focus? I hope I can learn to better make the most of mine.

– link: my visit to an outdoor crematorium and grave yard in Mumbai (Bombay) India

When My Brother Died

JoeyMy only brother was Joey. He was born in December 1964, which made him fourteen months older than me.

He was a Downs Syndrome baby. He was severely retarded and spent his entire life at a mental age of between two and four years.

He was primarily a happy child. Much of my early childhood experience revolves around doing what was best for Joey. I was raised with the belief that his care would be my primary responsibility when we grew up. The phrase, “…my brother’s keeper…” was one I learned early and thought about often.

As a young adolescent I moved away from my brother emotionally. As I continued to try and pursue my own life as a young adult, the distance became greater.

Toward the end of his life, my brother’s personality changed drastically. He went from being outgoing to withdrawn, happy and complacent to angry and violent.

My mother didn’t know what to do for him. She had taken him to a string of psychiatrists, neurologists and others. Nothing helped him. It was suspected by some at that time that there is an Alzheimer’s-like syndrome that occurs in Down’s patients in some cases. This remains the only physical explanation for his outbursts. Whatever perception he had of himself – perhaps an understanding that he would never grow out of his limitations – was never discussed. There was little anyone could do. He was becoming physically dangerous and decisions had to be made.

My Mother committed him to a very prestigious psychiatric hospital. This was utter desperation on her part since the main propulsion through her own adult life had been “keeping Joey at home…”. Indeed she had participated in many efforts to close the state institutions and integrate the mentally challenged into public life.

After a few weeks she brought him home. She installed a wire barrier and removed the door handles in her car so he could ride in back without incident. She hired various and sundry people to come to the house and help out.

He was sick when he left the hospital. She thought it was a cold. It got worse, and he appeared to be very ill. She took him to the ER.

This was the same day in 1992 that I had decided to try making my move to New York City permanent. I had been living with my mother in-between traveling gigs and trying to build a career. She called me in New York and told me that he had been admitted, tubed, and was on a respirator.

I returned home. My brother had a very severe case of pneumonia. His chest x-rays, to quote one physician, looked as though someone had painted them with White Out. I later went to school at that same hospital and studied to be an x-ray tech. For one of my assignments I checked out his films. The school didn’t work out, but we’ll save that for another story.

His oxygen saturation plummeted lower and lower. The doctors explained that his organs were all still working well, but that they would eventually fail. One nurse pointed to his catheter bag and showed me the urine which meant his kidneys were still functioning.

It was explained to me that the respirator was set as high as it could go. The oxygen concentration being delivered to him was high. The oxygen saturation was below the level necessary to sustain him and going lower. The pulmonologist assured us that he was not going to get better. The medical staff assured us that there was no brain activity and we needed to make a decision.

My mother decided that they should turn off the machine. My dad and his wife came. The doctor and a nurse came in the room and the doctor turned down the dial on the machine. He explained that he was turning down the supplemental oxygen and left the machine on. The machine would continue to fill my brother’s lungs with air from the room.

I sat next to him and held his hand. He was very swollen and a fungus had started attacking his eyes – likely a side-effect from the massive antibiotics they had given him to fight the pneumonia.

The monitor beeped with every beat of his heart, and I watched the line trace across the screen.

The doctor turned down the dial. My brother’s face turned immediately bright purple. The beeps began to slow down and the predictable line began to zig-zag across the monitor unpredictably.

His body arched up from the bed. The doctor explained that the muscles were in spasm from the lack of oxygen.

My father left the room.

Soon the spasm settled. The line went flat. The beeps were silenced and we made plans for his funeral.

My brother was gone.

Today on the Subway

I had to run one of those really shitty errands today. You might know the kind – where you have to deal with bored, under-paid, municipal employees and call on every last bit of patience you have left, just to avoid going ballistic on everyone in ear shot.

I held it together.

After my errand I took the A train home, which is about an hour long trip.

As the bell ding-donged and the closing doors closed, a small, bearded African-American man began to go into his sales spiel,

“The DVD man is back… Ladies and Gentlemen, today I have only the finest feature films to offer you for the extremely low price of $5…”

He began to read off a list of at least ten movies…

“These aren’t screen shots ladies and gentlemen… No bobbing heads or background voices… My films are from screeners and downloads only…”

I was a bit annoyed at the idea of someone re-selling Bit-Torrented movies… and the thought occurred to me that I’d do my own pirating, thank you for very much… But as he continued I began to admire his near *perfect* diction and delivery. Its always refreshing to hear people speak when they know how to speak… Imagine P.T. Barnum… in an African-American body on the A-Train at 6PM on a weeknight in NYC.

Just when I was admiring his grammar and delivery, he did it again in Spanish – perfectly articulated – and then in French!

I wanted to ask him if he could do it in Chinese or Korean – I think I would have bought his whole bag out of sheer amazement and fascination…

When he left I turned to my medium-difficulty Sudoku puzzles and finished one in twenty minutes flat… Just in time for my stop.

Stay tuned for more tales from the NYC Subway…

Mardi Gras

I visited New Orleans one year – long before Katrina ever thought of unleashing her fury against the aged and inferior levees of Lake Pontchartrain.

I was part of a touring musical theater production and by coincidence, it was Mardi Gras. Not being the crowd loving type, I would likely not have attended the celebration otherwise. It isn’t that Mardi Gras isn’t a significant and wonderful cultural event – just simply that the drunks and tourists partying with their associated mayhem and antics aren’t my idea of a good time.

So anyway… it was Mardi Gras and I found myself in the Quarter, on Bourbon Street taking in the festivities. I was in the middle of a crowd that completely packed the street. Like a school of fish the crowd moved forward, left, then right… once absorbed by the mass of the crowd there was no escape. You went with the flow.

There was a very attractive young woman in front of me. She was in her mid to late twenties with a lovely shape and long brown hair. Immediately behind me were a group of rowdy youths. As we were flowing down the street, one of the youths reached forward around my right side and grabbed the young womans shapely bottom and gave it a squeeze. Having never seen anything quite like that my jaw dropped in shock and then I smiled as if to say, “Holy shit! Did you see that!”.

The young woman turned around and saw my expression and thought I had done that deed! Without missing a beat she struck me, POW! – right across the face.

I often think of that. I wonder if any of them even remember.

Like Money In The Bank, Or Sowing And Reaping

Comparing life to a mortgage….

We are born with nothing. We have no clothes. We rely on our parents or guardians to provide for us. When we become adults, many of us will purchase a home. We start careers or businesses. Most will need to rely on a mortgage – and know that if we live long enough we’ll see our investment grow. Then, one day, we’ll be able to cash in on that investment for a different life somewhere else – or leave behind a nice inheritance to whom we please. We work, we invest, we end up with a profit and – we hope – time to enjoy it before we are too old or too sick.

I’m thinking that the real payments in life aren’t the ones we make to the bank. Every time we are devastated by some illness, pick ourselves after some disaster, or even suffer at the hands of our own mistakes we make a payment to ourselves. Our internal bank of wisdom and compassion grows ever larger. The more we keep going, the more we endure, the more adversity we overcome the richer we become.

The catch is that, quite unlike the home equity we can cash out and spend, by the time we have enough wisdom to really do something with it we are too old and have burned so many bridges we can never return to reap the rewards for ourselves.

The only sense I can make of my comparison is that the only consumption, or spending, of this amassed wealth is through helping others. We live our lives, we learn our “lessons”, and maybe we get a chance to tell some younger person, or some person more poor in wisdom and experience, or someone who simply wants to listen to the lessons we learned.

The only illness or infirmity that can keep us from spending this type of wealth is our own bitterness and reluctance to accept the events of our lives as the lessons they are – or perhaps the short sightedness of those who need to hear it.

Thinking of Miles

Miles Davis is quoted as having said that a note or a musical idea isn’t wrong until you play the next note. His statement was about context – it is the relationship of that note to the music that follows it that makes it wrong or right. This concept is very important to an improviser, a composer and I’d guess probably a painter or any other artist as well.

I was doing some thinking in my favorite sanctum for thought – the NYC subway. Miles’ quote came to my mind. Now I don’t know if he intended it to be interpreted in the fashion I plan to explain – but his thought about notes and context inspired me to entertain some ideas.

I work with a group of people who are going through some difficult issues. The issues are all different, but we share our struggles. We commiserate. We give advice. Occasionally we even call people out on their internal struggles and arguments. I’ve seen a lot of joy as well as pain. Mostly what I’ve seen is a lot of little boys in men’s bodies struggle to come to terms with the reality of life.

What does that have to do with Miles?

I started to see the construction of a jazz solo like the construction of a life… It is a series of choices. You might slip and play a wrong note – but sometimes that note can be a happy accident and lead you onto something you may have never found otherwise. Sometimes it is a God awful clam of a mistake and there is just no denying it. And even then, maybe you’ll find some kind of meaning in that clam that change the way you do it next time.

Someday in the future when we’ve all parted ways I’ll look back on my group of guys. I may boast of some brilliant insight I had that changed someone’s life. Or I may look back and think I was a colossal ass for thinking I could get past my own bullshit enough to be there to help someone else. Whether I’m a genius or an ass, the significance of this time in my life will be defined by what follows it.

I don’t have any proof – but I strongly suspect that the most successful people (and I mean the happy ones, the ones who’ve stood the test of time, and the ones who’s head is firmly on their shoulders and not up their bum…) are probably the ones who have made the most mistakes. It only stands to reason. Try more, fail more. Try more, win more.

Charles Mingus took Miles’ idea even further and said simply, “There are no wrong notes…”

I guess we may have to see how that turns out. But I think this is a pretty good start.

Time Machine

My son Alex asked me a question the other day, “What super power would you like to have?”… It is an interesting question…

My first thought was that it’d be pretty cool if I could fly…

Then I thought it would be pretty cool if I could be invisible; but on second thought the idea seemed just a little creepy…

Then we decided that having a time machine and being able to move through time would be the most interesting of all.

Immediately I thought of Einstein, who’s Special Theory of Relativity predicts the ability to move through time. I also though of the huge paradox often mentioned in regard to time travel. The paradox being, if people from the future are able to travel back in time then why haven’t we seen or met any of them?

I thought of an answer to that paradox, but it is a little depressing. The answer is that we aren’t meeting up with our descendants traveling back in time because they don’t exist. Maybe we just don’t survive long enough to develop that technology.

Maybe some Christian President will give Jesus the keys to the country so the Rapture can come. Then all the good boys and girls will go to heaven. Then fire will rain down from heaven on all the scientists and humanists and they’ll be cast down into a great fiery hell.

Or maybe it will just be a great big rock from outer space…

Passing Judgment In The Subway

I write a lot about the subway. I spend a lot of time there. It can be a depressing place. It can be a fascinating place.

The train was not full today. I left for work quite a bit later than usual and missed all the rush. I sat down in my favorite seat on the end near the door. A man got on the train and began to panhandle for change.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen… My name is John… I am homeless… Can you spare some change so I can get something to eat…?”

This is a daily event. There is always someone who gets on the train asking for money. As a rule, I do not give out money in the subway. I just don’t. I don’t often have money readily accessible and getting one’s wallet out in public in New York City is one of those things you try not to do.

John was nicely dressed in comparison to some of the other panhandlers. He was young and wearing clean clothes.

When John got to the other end of the train, he said,

“Thank you, God bless, have a nice day…”

This is typical – but I always thought it was at least somewhat polite.

At this point, a middle-aged man sitting at the other end of the car spoke to John,

“Are those ROCKPORTS you are wearing on your feet…?”

John replied, “Rock WHAT…?”

Man, “Those are $200 shoes… and you are here begging in the subway… why are you begging…”

John, “WHAT? $200? Hell no! If that’s true, I’ll sell them to you for $100 right now!”

Then there was more conversation back and forth… the self-righteous comments from the man; and John’s replies… it was pretty clear John was a bit off balance…

As I listened to this unfold, the anger in me began to grow, and grow, and grow…

Finally I walked over to them. I spoke to the man –

“What gives you the right to pass a judgment on him? What do you know?”

The man laughed uncomfortably and mumbled something about begging and handouts…

I said, “Would you like me to pass a judgment against you…? Well… I think you are an ASSHOLE”

At this point I pulled out my wallet, gave John $20 and returned to my seat.

You could have heard a pin drop.

John got off the train and as we pulled into the next stop, a man across from me said, “I really respect that…”

He and another man across from him were talking about it – and there was a LOT of love coming my way this morning on the subway… People were smiling at me and nodding their heads in approval.

I just felt shaken. I still feel shaken – out of breath and a little sick to my stomach.

I’m not sure I believe in Karma or rewards anymore. That wasn’t why I did it. I fully expected nobody would say a thing to me. I did it because I was angry. I did it because somebody needed to say SOMETHING.

Nobody has a right to sit in judgment. Nobody knew what John’s situation was. Maybe he’s an addict, maybe not. Maybe he is schizophrenic and lives on a substinance income from the government. Maybe this is just his way of getting a little extra coin – for whatever he needs it for. Maybe he can’t work. Maybe he really is homeless.

If you don’t want to give people money in the subway, don’t. That is a perfectly acceptable choice. In fact, the MTA asks that you do not.

Just don’t make judgments against people. You don’t have the right.

A Forgotton Poem – To Those Who Would Judge

I wrote this back in the Spring of this year. It is an expression of some deeply personal conflicts, and a plea to those prone to rush to judgment.
————————————————————-

When does it all stop –
Embracing this foul hatred –
From so far away?

Arrogance or pride?
What makes it so plain for you –
That which puzzles me?

Would you stone them all –
Adulterers, perverts, queers?
Can YOU cast the first?

Suffering the same
You and I are no different
We can both feel pain

We both have a heart
With truth it only opens
With hate it slams shut

Water, carbon, more –
We are made from the same dust,
Brother and sister

Variable Change: The Monty Hall Question and the Movie 21

My wife Kristin and I recently enjoyed watching the movie, 21. In the movie, loosely based on a true story, a professor recruits his brightest math students into a card counting scheme. They win millions of dollars playing blackjack.

In one scene, the professor poses the following question to his class – the classic “Monty Hall” question: There are three doors. Behind one door is a new car. Behind the other two, goats.

He asks the bright young student (whom he is about to recruit into the blackjack group) to pick a door. The student picks door number one.

The professor then opens door number three to reveal a goat. At this point, he gives the student a choice: to stay with his original choice, or to switch to door number two.

The student chooses to switch to door number two.

The professor then poses the question of why. Many people would stay with their first choice, but why?

The  young student then explains that by switching, he has a 66% probability of choosing the car.

I couldn’t figure this out. It seemed to me that it would be a 50% chance… I mean now he has to make a choice and either it is the goat or the car…

Here is the solution – it is really quite simple, but not immediately obvious.

1. When he makes his first choice he has ONE chance in THREE of making the correct choice (although it isn’t immediately revealed to him).

2. After Monty opens the first goat door (we know Monty knows where the car is) we are left with a choice of two doors.

3. The correct choice now depends on whether we were right, or wrong with our first choice. If we were RIGHT on our first choice, switching doors will LOSE. If we were WRONG on our first choice, switching doors will WIN. Since we only had one chance in three of being RIGHT the first time, and TWO chances of being wrong, the odds are that we are WRONG and therefore switching gives us a TWO in THREE chance of being correct if we SWITCH.

Bombay Crematorium and Graveyard

In 1996 I worked as a musician aboard a cruise ship. One of our exotic ports of call was Bombay, India.

We stayed in Bombay (Mumbai) for a few days, which gave us time to get of the ship and get around. Usually, we would find a local taxi or guide who would escort us around to see all the sights.

My friend went out on the first day and made the aquaintence of a local driver who called himself Billy. Billy took us off one morning to show us around. We weren’t really interested in the typical sightseeing so much – so Billy gave us the alternate tour.

The most memorable stop on our tour was a crematory and grave yard. We walked in not knowing where we were being led – and the first thing I noticed was a feeling of great stillness. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling except as if time stopped for a bit. There were piles of firewood, a large scale, and large metal things that looked like outstretched chaise-lounges many feet up off the ground. After being asked to leave a small donation, we were told the extra large chaise-lounges held dead bodies for cremation, and the scales were to weigh the body to determine how much firewood was required to burn it. There were birds I recognized to be some kind of vulture or buzzard perched on the walls of the open air facility.

We spent a while taking all of this in until Billy motioned we should follow him. We walked out of the crematory area through an opening into a very lush and old looking cemetary. Billy explained this was where Muslim people were buried becuase their religion does not allow cremation.

Billy took a drink from a bucket of water set on a table nearby, and looked at us with a smirk, inquiring if we’d like some too. He knew we wouldn’t drink out of that bucket, so it was all a big joke for him and we laughed.

Next we went around a corner and sat down on a bench where the caretaker’s shed must have been. Several very polite Indian gentlemen came out and sat down with us. One of them pulled out a chillum, which is a cone shaped pipe used to smoke hashish. Another produced a strip of gauze. Billy borrowed a cigarette from my friend and took it apart, cupping the tobaco in his hand. He then broke off a chunk of hashish from a much larger piece, and using his hands as a blender mixed it all together with the tobacco. This went into the pipe, the gauze was placed over the other end and each person had a drag, each moving the gauze down a few inches before they passed it on. The effect was rather instantaneous and quite profound.

So there we were, sitting with a bunch of Indian guys, in Bombay, at a crematorium, in the graveyard, smoking hash. There wasn’t anything negative about it. It was a cultural experience to be quite honest. These guys definitely had a different outlook on life, death, work, and most everything else we thought we knew so much about.

After parting company with our new friends, we went to an Indian restaurant. In India. Where I had Indian food for the very first time. Stoned.

I’ve been sober for over five years now, motivated by a variety of reasons. But let me tell you… smoking never got any better than that.

Stardust

Religion is dangerous topic. For me, I like the book of Genesis and I like science. We are all comprised of the same atoms that existed at the beginning of time. We are made of stardust. In this sense quite literally we are a chip off the same block. Whatever was before the Big Bang, whatever existed prior to that primordial soup – whatever made that – wherever the energy that makes light and mass and space and time – that is God to me. I’m part of that. You are part of that. Even Hitler was part of that. Mother Theresa was part of that. We all came from the same place. So forgiveness for me is simply remembering that. My personal suffering doesn’t mean anything. Coming to fully understand the fellowship I share with All the Is – does.

On the Verge of Something

potential to spare
no catalyst to be found
where am i going

safe on the sidelines
much too afraid to jump in
comfort is a myth

lottery ticket
waiting for the phone to ring
salvation is late

your ride isn’t mine
why do i rent your journey
i’ve one of my own

who the hell are you
that i should try to fit in
true to your standard

I am thinking big
I’ve gathered some grand ideas
Bits of light shine through

Then back to the now
Shiftless, angry, and strung out
Blaming all but me

I’m just a coward
with a dream and a few skills
scared shitless to try

Losing a Friend

When can you say this —
that someone is a true friend?
—a day, or a year?

It doesn’t matter
One day or a whole lifetime
When the vibe is right

I hadn’t seen you –
seemed forever and a day.
Then I heard you were gone.

Just another day
in paradise you told me
A place you could be

Free from the sheriff
And those who might seek to harm
Boy against nature

From the day we met
No judgments made between us
You came as you were

Here in this moment
mistakes past, future unknown
See me as I am

You asked nothing that
I accept you as you are
we are both good souls

Dear friends like you
Who just see me as I am
Are precious and rare

— For my friend Ron “Ronda Riviera” Wright
ronw

Gaining Wisdom

As in a city,
lost, walking round in circles –
pacing the same streets.

My true place to be
lay on the next block over.
But I never knew.

I chose to wander
too proud to ask directions
most could have given.

Living in the now
is useless, if not mindful
of the guide inside. (who knows when to ask)

In my early years,
my course was never steady –
to and fro like wind.

Sudden adulthood –
Youth wasted, indecision –
The game now for keeps.

Mistakes everywhere,
bankruptcy ensued, all kinds.
I slashed and I burned.

Illness, poor choices.
The fruit? A cataclysm.
Near death, I lay grim.

Like some mythic man,
I refused to die prostrate.
My mission was clear.

It seems that wisdom
is a sliver of pale light –
Waxing and waning

Be still, be mindful.
The light becomes a beacon –
forget; it grows dim

Age, pain, survival,
can teach important lessons –
If one can let go.

Let go of yourself.
Live for the rest of the world
Find the empathy.

 Park Avenue South, Charles Socci 2003

When Life Just Isn’t Fair

We’ve had our share of trials lately. The latest one, just today, my wife lost her job.

It seems the company lost a big fat client, or what they thought was a big fat client, and slashed twelve percent of the their staff.

This is in addition to her being in a bus accident recently (while traveling between clients).

In addition to all of this, our family was recently struck with a tragedy I can not fully mention. Suffice to say, it was a big one.

In the midst of all of this I’ve found myself bitter and angry. Life must go on, and we are going on. We put on our happy faces and try to dull the razor’s edge of our anger for the day. Mostly we’ve been successful but for a few unfortunate instances before we got control—if you can call it control.

It comes out of us in other ways. I can’t sleep for shit without drugs. I have chronic aches and pains. Kristin has been hanging on pretty well and her job has been a real island of sanity and purpose. Now that’s gone and she’ll have to find another.

I had a teacher in kindergarten of all places who said to me something I never forgot,

“Life isn’t fair.”

Boy, she had that one right.

We keep on moving—looking forward to brighter days.

Photographing the Staff

Have you ever volunteered yourself for something?

I had the opportunity when the topic of photographing the staff for our company intranet  came up. I volunteered to shoot portraits of as many as 300 people at our New York office.

I spent three days last week hopping between my desk and a small portrait studio I created out of three feet of wall space, a high stool, and a stand mounted strobe with a large diffuser umbrella on it.

People came in and I took their picture.

I’m in charge of things like network infrastructure, and servers, and so on… so I don’t interact much with people at the company. In fact, I’m not a big people person in the sense of small talk, or making aquaintances. I shy away from parties.

I do love photography, so this opportunity seemed like a great chance to exercise some photography skills and some people skills – and also get outside my self in a new way.

Each person was unique. Some were easy – photogenic, attractive, poised. Others were very nervous or self conscious. Some weren’t sure they want their photograph taken at all.

I was able to make that small talk. I made people relax. I was able make almost every single person lose that rigidity in front of the camera; and the result really showed it. Most people seemed very surprised when I showed them the digital preview on my camera. They’d never seen a flattering photo of themselves! I’m really proud of the results.

I don’t really feel it would be ethical to post them – but perhaps after the dust settles I’ll ask a few people if they wouldn’t mind me posting their portraits online.

It was an exhausting, but wonderful experience.

Numbers

I’ve been thinking a lot about numbers lately…

(distances and speeds change depending on various condidtions. These are averages.)

Speed of Light = 186,282 miles a second

Speed of Sound = about .2 miles per second

Distance to the Sun = 93 million miles

One way trip for a bit of sunlight to the planet Earth = 8 minutes, 20 seconds

Sound can’t travel in space, but if it could it would take 13.8 YEARS to go that distance in an Earth-like environment

Distance to the moon = 239,000 miles

One way trip for a bit of moonlight to twinkle in your eye = a little bit over 1 and 1/4 seconds.

If sound could travel from the moon it would take about 13 DAYS to travel the same distance in a Earth-like environment.

Time it takes two computers on the Internet to say ‘hello’ – (tcp/ip, speed of light minus latencies caused by physical hardware):

New York to London – about .08 seconds

New York to California – about .08 seconds

New York to Hong Kong – about .240seconds

Speed of nerve impulses in your body:

The speed of nerve impulses is highly variable – between 2 feet to 400 feet per second. Note that electrical signals on a piece of wire travel at near light speed, or 982 MILLION feet per second.

Happy New Year

Good grief Charlie Brown… the holidays are finally over. Thank God. Here we are at the top of another year.

This last one was not so bad. Kristin and I closed on our new pad, moving into a spacious two bedroom from our ultra cramped studio. I still find myself sometimes pacing from one end to the other, still in disbelief that we have this much room now.

We finally got to take our family vacation in August—out to Wisconsin to see Kristin’s parents and spend time with family. It was a great time. Critical issues and scheduling threatened; but it all worked out—and in the words of somebody, somewhere, a long time ago; a great time was had by all.

Work changed radically for both of us. Kristin left an increasingly miserable job behind for a new job she is really happy with, working with other happy people, learning new things and getting a chance to spread her wings a bit more.

Things where I work changed radically this past year. It began with the departure of our old CTO, and the entrance of a new CTO. Soon afterward a steam pipe exploded in the street outside our building. Then, we lost cooling in our data room necessitating the shut down of all our servers. There was no access to the  building for nearly two weeks, as many shattered windows spew glass, mud, and unknown substances into the exterior offices. With a new CTO and my boss on vacation, I really had a lot on my plate putting contingency options and plans in place, utilizing off-site tape and the services of a data center in New Jersey. My boss was on vacation at the time; but tensions between him and the new CTO had been mounting prior to all of this. To make a long story short, I have a new boss and a new CTO. I’m very happy at my job. I truly like everyone I work with. I enjoy what I do. This, is a true blessing.

My son entered high school (the same one I graduated from), and my daughter entered junior high. It was a year of change to be sure. Norma is consistently on the high honor role, and Alex has gained a great deal of confidence in himself and has established a sound start down the winding road and over jagged peaks of adolescence. I’m so wonderfully proud of both my children.

Personally, winter is a rough time of year for me. Having fought the great demons of depression and mood volatility since my own adolescence, winter and the holidays always bring a special challenge. I’ve learned to ignore them by and large—but this to the dismay of those near and dear who enjoy being, ‘in the spirit’. I’m not sure exactly what it is—the dark days, the cold, the expectations… but it can be a challenging time to keep my head above water. I’m older. I’m more mature. I’ve learned the meaning of the phrase, ‘get over yourself’. But, there are those times when black turns white, up turns down, and everything is inside out. This darkness begets more darkness and it tumbles; accelerating out of control. Fortunately I’ve been spared the full onslaught so far and I’m holding on. Life is good—and everything is going to be all right.

Not With the Band

There was a physical therapist I met a few years ago when I was in the hospital. She was a very nice older middle-aged woman and we got along well from the start.

We got talking about our lives and it turned out she had been a dancer many years before. While she loved dancing, there were other things she wanted and wasn’t finding in her life. The lifestyle didn’t suit her and she moved into her current line of work helping folks like me learn to move our own bodies in better ways.

The thing I remember best about our brief acquaintance was a conversation that started out with a question I get asked frequently. It is an innocent question—but one filled with deeply rooted emotion for me.

The simple question was if I go out to ‘hear jazz’ anymore. My response, as always, was that I don’t play much saxophone these days, that I favor the piano, and that no – not really – I don’t go out to hear music much.

People’s’ response to my answer is usually one of surprise—or maybe a little embarrassment when they realize that I left a music career behind in a tactical decision—and perhaps that seemingly insignificant small talk of an ice breaker is just the opposite; and leaves me feeling defensive, nostalgic, and even a bit regretful all at the same time.

My friend the therapist surprised me. I went through my usual mental contortions of saying ‘no’ and trying to make this answer sound reasonable in such a way that most people would take my answer at face value and forget it. To my shock; she said something a kin to feeling the same way as I—having been a performer and left it behind, how difficult it was to go and see other people perform.

This might seem shallow at first – but imagine a relationship with something (or someone) that is so deep that your every breath is taken for it. All your dreams revolve around it. Everything you are, every friend you have, everywhere you’ve been, every victory and defeat – all involve this relationship. One day the relationship ends. You change. Your perceptions change. Your needs change. For one of a million reasons you just have to leave.

I sometimes look back on those years with a heavy heart – and though I know why I made the decisions I made – I don’t need to relive my twenties on a regular basis. In fact, it is painful to do so.

I still derive great pleasure from music. I bought a piano. I play it often. I’m constantly trying to work out new things to play. My listening tastes have expanded into new areas. The music is still in me. There is still a saxophone inside my head that gets played – so much so that on the rare occasions I do pick the instrument up, it is all still under my fingers. But this is all very private for me now.

There was a deep sense of belonging to something back then. This need to belong went way back to my earliest roots as a player in my teens. Maybe it is that camaraderie and the being ‘one of us-ness’ I miss. Maybe I feel like an outsider,  just a patron, on the other side of the curtain with no back stage pass.  It isn’t ‘us’ anymore and I cant say ‘I’m with the band’

Again For the First Time

There is a concept, or maybe it is better described as a muse, The idea simply involves seeing familiar things in the fresh light of new discovery.

I’ve discovered it isn’t a new idea; rediscovering old things. There are even books with titles like Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time, Scientific American articles with titles like, Element 118 Discovered Again–For The First Time.

The first time I began pondering this oxymoron enigma of “Again For The First Time” was back in my teens. I was reading about people’s self reported experiences while under the influence of different recreational drugs.

One young male in his twenties reported smoking marijuana and then going outside after a snow storm. His description of the experience was filled with a sense of wonderment. His very words were that it was, “…like seeing snow for the first time”.

This idea of re-discovery, cultivating the skill of finding new ways to see, hear, touch – is a powerful contrivance. In it lies the power to create, inspire, and find new power to live our lives. It is the fundamental essence of childhood play–one we too often tragically lose as we age.

It seems to me there is a fundamental human need to find new things or rediscover old ones. We become psychically ill when we stop having the sense of discovery and life falls into a lifeless pattern of predictability.

A Most Magical Night

Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project TeamWe make our way up to my Mother’s house in New England most Friday nights. It can be a moderately arduous trip after a long work week when we might rather sit back at home and take in a movie, sleep, or just enjoy each other’s company.

None the less, we go. My Mother is 82 and lives alone. My kids live nearby with their Mother and Step Father. We stay connected.

Kristin usually drives. As we make our way north and farther away from urban skies, I often look up and check on the sky. There are few stars visible in Manhattan.

When we arrive at my Mother’s, it is typically quite late. She also bathes the entire yard in flood lights. None the less, I have to spend at least a few minutes looking skyward if it isn’t completely cloudy. I sheild my eyes from the lights as I make out whatever familiar constellations or planets I can.

I’ve been captivated by the night sky since I was a little boy. I can remember looking up at night and seeing a full blanket of starts filling the night sky from horizon to horizon—the faint colorful ribbon of the Milky Way stretching above.

My Mother lives not far from that place where I grew up—but sadly much of that dark sky is gone. Light pollution from urban areas to the north and west, and to some extent the east, have made dark skies like the ones I remember just a memory. But on a good night, you can get some wonderful views over head down to about thirty degrees, and down as far as the tree tops will let you in the south-east to south-west.

This past Friday, the sky was nothing short of magnificent. I stepped out of the car and was dumbfounded. I can’t express the feeling I have when I look up at the sky and have such a breath-taking view.

There was no moon, it had set hours previously. There were no clouds in the sky. Thousands of stars were visible in nearly all but the most light-polluted directions.

I told my wife that no self-respecting sky-gazer could let such a night go by without some viewing. So I went to the garage and dragged out my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and set it up in the drive way.

I’ve been an astronomy buff for a while. I don’t have much opportunity living in the City—so a night like the past Friday was particularly exciting. I first pointed my telescope at the Orion Nebula. This is perhaps the easiest object to find in the sky and one of the most impressive. The first time I ever saw it was through a cheap department store telescope and it was still amazing. All you really need are a good set of binoculars. Binouculars are a much overlooked astronomical accessory and every beginning astronomer should start looking at the sky with binoculars.

So I pointed my Telrad sight at the second ‘star’ down in Orion’s sword. As I focused, the most beautiful and stunning sight filled my eye piece. I’ve looked at the nebula in Orion dozens of times. But Friday, has to be the most stunning I’ve ever seen it.

My eyepiece was filled with the green glow that all deep sky objects have when viewed through the telescope. (the colors only come with long photographic exposures or artificial processing). The wispy green ends of the nebula stretched out like lime-flavored cotton candy. Hot bright stars shined fiercely in the middle, like precious, un-reachable diamonds. All of this display contrasted against a black velvet sky. It was the first time any object other than perhaps the moon has been too big to encompass in my widest eye-piece. The wispy green web-like strands seemed to flow out forever.

I began to notice an ever loudening chourus of coyotes in the background. First one would howl, than another would answer. Then another would answer, than even more. At one point, it was so loud I was sure our two small dogs were going to start barking in the house. It was an eery haunting sonic backdrop to my stellar voyage.

Next I pointed my telescope up to Mars, which was particularly bright and orange. There was a lot of shimmering going on and I had trouble focusing my all-manual telescope. The sky wasn’t so still, but Mars was a beautiful orange disk with just a hint of polar cap as usual.

I next turned my telescope over toward Andromeda. Andromeda is a tough one for me strangely. Andromeda is one of the brightest deep sky objects in the Northern Hemisphere, and one of the largest. It is also the largest and brightest galaxy visible from the Earth. None the less, it gives me a lot of trouble.

I don’t use a computer controlled telescope. It might save me a lot of time, but I enjoy the challenge of mapping things out, holding up my thumb and pinky to map out ten degrees—finding a nebula or galaxy that I know lies within a few degrees of a given star, or halfway between one star another…

Andromeda is ‘easy’ because Cassiopeia, the constellation points right to it… more or less. The Andromeda galaxy hangs off one arm of the Andromeda constellation.

The tough part is that Andromeda is usually in a not so great part of the sky for me. It is either too low, or completely drowned out in artificial backwash from man-made light reflecting off the sky.

I still managed to find it on Friday. It was in the west-southwest up just high enough that I could catch it. There was still some artificial twilight to contend with, but I got to look at it. It’s 2.5 million year old light was bouncing off my retina.

I went inside and put my gear away after many hours. The next day was a struggle due to the lack of sleep – but it was so wonderful. A most magical night.

–Orion Nebula photo courtesy of: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

Silly Little Things That Mean A Lot

I’ve been shouldering some depression the past few weeks. I’m prone to it and have been a long time. It is no stranger. Shorter days, impending holiday negotiations with family, and factor X all come into play. Eventually I get through it—but it takes it’s toll.

Last night my Mother-in-law Karen out in Milwaukee sent me the following email. She’ll often send things like this and I always enjoy them. Sometimes they are silly and funny. But this one just knocked me off my feet last night. I had just gotten out of meeting with my support group and discussing this depression and how to deal with it.

There were various answers. It is hard when you are NOT depressed to really give much in the way of answers to someone who IS depressed. To the depressed person it usually all just comes out sounding like, “Well, you know it could be worse…” or, “Why can’t you just be grateful for all you have…?” And while these are certainly valid sentiments, they aren’t too much help. Reassurance, confirmation, validation, an open ear from people who care about you – those things help.

I had just left last night and was making my way to catch the bus that comes up to my neighborhood and this email came through on my Blackberry. It was just one of those synchronous moments. The perfect home run hit where the ball meets the bat in just the right spot that knocks that thing out of the park.

It isn’t really the email itself necessarily, which is kind of fun and clever. It was the timing of when and how it hit me.

So I share it here and maybe it will move you too.

The Beauty of Math

1 x 8 + 1 = 9
12 x 8 + 2 = 98
123 x 8 + 3 = 987
1234 x 8 + 4 = 9876
12345 x 8 + 5 = 98765
123456 x 8 + 6 = 987654
1234567 x 8 + 7 = 9876543
12345678 x 8 + 8 = 98765432
123456789 x 8 + 9 = 987654321

1 x 9 + 2 = 11
12 x 9 + 3 =111
123 x 9 + 4 =1111
1234 x 9 + 5 = 11111
12345 x 9 + 6 = 111111
123456 x 9 + 7 = 1111111
1234567 x 9 + 8 = 11111111
12345678 x 9 + 9 = 111111111
123456789 x 9 +10 = 1111111111

9 x 9 + 7 = 88
98 x 9 + 6 = 888
987 x 9 + 5 = 8888
9876 x 9 + 4 = 88888
98765 x 9 + 3 = 888888
987654 x 9 + 2 = 8888888
9876543 x 9 + 1 = 88888888
98765432 x 9 + 0 = 888888888

Brilliant, isn’t it?

And look at this symmetry:

1 x 1 = 1
11 x 11 = 121
111 x 111 = 12321
1111 x 1111 = 1234321
11111 x 11111 = 123454321
111111 x 111111 = 12345654321
1111111 x 1111111 = 1234567654321
11111111 x 11111111 = 123456787654321
111111111 x 111111111= 12345678987654321

Now, take a look at this… 101%

From a strictly mathematical viewpoint:

What Equals 100%? What does it mean to give MORE than 100%?

Ever wonder about those people who say they are giving more than 100%?

We have all been in situations where someone wants you to GIVE OVER 100%.

How about ACHIEVING 101%?

What equals 100% in life?

Here’s a little mathematical formula that might help answer these questions:

If: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Is represented as:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26.

Then: H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K
8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11 = 98%

And:

K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E
11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5 = 96%

But:

A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E
1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5 = 100%

THEN, look how far the love of God will take you:

L-O-V-E-O-F-G-O-D
12+15+22+5+15+6+7+15+4 = 101%

Therefore, one can conclude with mathematical certainty that:

While Hard Work and Knowledge will get you close, and Attitude will get you there, It’s the Love of God that will put you over the top!

A New Kind of Content Filter

I have quite an awful habit. It is email. The thing is that I’ve developed this email ‘voice’ that isn’t entirely pleasant. It isn’t awful ALL of the time… It tends to be worse in the morning—and look out if I’m actually upset about something. But, you see this voice really isn’t me. I suspect my friends know that. My wife certainly knows it and I’d guess that the people I work closest to every day know it too.

Email is such a tricky thing. There are no facial expressions, no body language, no eye contact… None of the OTHER frequencies we transmit on get picked up in an email. It is pretty much just black and white on the page.

I’ve understood all of this for quite some time. But I just can’t seem to get a handle on it. Maybe I’m just too damn impulsive. Maybe I’m just a fool. Whatever it is I can’t seem to reign in that urge to hit the send button – usually after cc’ing everyone from you to God.

Despite my bad habits I do tend to be a clever guy from time to time. I believe I may have come onto a rather brilliant idea today and I’d like to share it with you.

You know how we filter incoming email for junk and spam? Well what if we had an OUTbound mail filter?

It would be a little bit similar to those “are you sure you want to close without saving this file” prompts, or that particularly annoying Microsoft Office thing that says “It looks like you are writing a letter…” – except that it would detect things like the over usage of the CAPS KEY, profanity, or derisive language. In fact we could even program our deepest secrets, our biggest resentments, and add special filters for people we like, or hate, the most.

Upon detecting a potentially damaging email, say one that might get us fired or just make us look like a plain old jerk, the program would pop up a special warning message or prevent us from sending the email altogether.

This is a piece of software that would change my life.

As I rode the A Train home this evening, I imagined what some of these warning prompts might look like.

Say, that sentence in the fifteenth paragraph really makes you sound like an arrogant ass. Click here to cancel.

You’ve neglected to enter your age in the default settings, but it is suggested you avoid such excessive use of capital letters if you are over the age of twelve.

Do you talk like that to your mother?

This is really sweet, but are you quite sure he/she is ready for the ‘L’ word? How about some nice X’s and O’s instead?

It appears from the copious spelling and grammar mistakes in your email that you may be drinking again. Why not sleep it off, or click here for help with that problem. We can forget this ever happened.

The filter has detected that you are attempting to forward a gag email to 53 of your closest friends, all addressed in plain view on the cc line. Is it really that funny? Click here to quit.

Aunt Trudy in Sheboygan has dial-up. May I remove this 20MB bitmap of your cat?

Images stolen, Photoshop by me.

Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect? MY ASS…

Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect…

That’s the motto of the New York City Police Department—painted on the side of every squad car.

Well I’ve got a different story to tell tonight about one of New York City’s most un-civil servants.

I often leave work after seven which means I have to cross 42nd street at Lexington Avenue to get to the subway. They close my building’s entrance to the subway early, so I have to go outside.

Tonight I stood at the corner waiting for the lights to change so I could cross 42nd Street and get on my train home.

There were at least a dozen or more other souls with me, waiting for the light to change. There were some German tourists, a few tired businessmen, a pair of pretty girls and some kids out on the town.

The light changed and I made a dash for the cross walk. Several people strode out in front of me.

Our pack was halfway across the street when suddenly the handful of fast walking citizens in front of me came to an abrupt halt as a New York City Police Department squad car came to a squealing halt right in the middle of the crosswalk.

He’d’ been trying to beat the light and failed.

The stunned passersby got themselves back together and continued around the police car as if nothing had happened. The car couldn’t go anywhere yet as there were those dozen other souls still crossing the street (and so many more witnesses).

I came eye to eye with the cop driver, a young man of Asian decent in his 20’s. It was an odd perspective having been on his end of this particular visual angle just a few too many times.

I asked “Where’s the LIGHTS, where’s the SIREN?” He used neither his headlights, strobe lights, horn, nor siren

He looked at me with great disdain and inquired, “why, you too STUPID to look?”

All I could think of were the years of shitty pay and misery he would have wasted had he actually hit someone.

I didn’t get his car number, don’t suppose I’d  bother even if I could.

You see a very similar thing happened to my wife and me just a few years ago. She was nearly hit by an NYPD squad car racing down the street (no lights, no siren). A voice sounded over the loud speaker “Ya fuckin’ retard”

We got the number that time and followed up on a complaint.

Of course the answer was there was no wrong doing found. So yeah, Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect… MY ASS.

Now to all those cops out there who really do give a damn about serving and protecting with true professionalism and respect, I say Thank You – and where the f*#k were you tonight?

Just for laughs, here are a few links:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/19/nyregion/19hit.html

http://youtube.com/watch?v=LfFfUxBDMDY

http://youtube.com/watch?v=7FPokZXLoI4
 

My Rhythm Is Good

Tito PuenteOn the worst of days I will find a moment and live there—in a precious place unto itself neither present nor past.

I had a moment today on the fourth beat of the 28th bar of Tito Puente’s’ Oye Como Va.

So far I’m going on many words to express the singular special-ness of this one beat.

It is no secret I like music, all kinds, and I spent the day at my desk listening to a mixture of Bach, Bird, Mozart and Bill Frisell. On my way home, to Washington Heights, I hungered for el sabor latino.

I recently downloaded the Anglo-Saxon Salsa for Dummies collection from iTunes – everything from cheesy 90’s’ synth pop dance numbers, to classic clave (clah-vay) tappin’ – drop everything else – this is the best time I ever had being human – and when can I book my next flight to San Juan, kind of music.

I queued up my salsa playlist and first up was Mr. Puente and crew from the Mambo Birdlandalbum. Everyone has heard Oye ComoVa a hundred times or more. Santana covered it. Its in the drug store, market, elevator, la bodega, everywhere. Its a simple cha-cha really, and the words roughly translate to “Listen to my rhythm girl, it is good for partying”

The moment for me lies in the last bar of that 28 bar intro. There’s a pause, a guttural “HOO!”, and then the fattest horn hit ever, “BAP!”

You feel that horn hit coming, you know it is inevitable but somehow it’s different when it arrives. It lands heavy on the beat like a fat man sitting down to eat lunch.

After the intro’s repetitive on the beat/off the beat riff, the click-click cha-cha squarely on the beat, and the riffing flute: those horns squash that last beat of the intro soundly in place.

I can live in a moment like that. My rhythm is ready for a party.

HOO!

Bitter Pills To Swallow

Tiny bitter pills
Another one to swallow
Another day gone

Mama didnt say
But there are bones in this fish
Chew it carefully

The air is foul here
Yet one must breath to survive
Plug your nose and laugh

Once my wine was pure
Now its filled with sediment
I filter the grit

No more golden haze
My light lacks natural color
Blue skies a memory

And so I move on
I filter, endure and laugh
What else can i do?

Nothing New Under The Sun

I was watching a movie this evening and heard the phrase, “There is Nothing New Under the Sun”.

It is one of those things that has stayed with me, in my mind, the way certain memories sometimes do. I’m not sure why this particular bit of language has held so much meaning for me, nor why I have reserved this particular set of neurons and such to store it.

Perhaps it has something to do with artistic time squandered in the blind pursuit of something new.

A very fine pianist I once worked with used the phrase often when giving his opinion on learning to improvise music – a reminder not to get so caught up in trying to be original that you forget everything else. Don’t worry about it. There is nothing new under the sun.

A friend once told me that this phrase is from the Holy Bible – the Old Testament in fact. I’m not much for Bible verses (as I’ve already said…) but this excerpt struck me this evening, and so I share it with you.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-9

Get up and Move On

total frustration
want to go on a rampage
or melt into tears

one struggling hard
trying to do the right thing
some golden standard

a moving target
is here is gone is out of sight
a sickening doubt

a thick fog obscures
all that’s just and rational
struggling with self

and when the mist clears
the judges on the sidelines
reveal a low score

all the hurdles cleared
some fool trips you with his foot
falling your heart breaks

the only answer
is one you know very well
get up and move on

The Bumper Sticker Said, “If you aren’t pissed off; you aren’t paying attention.”

like a radio
that tunes the strongest station
the loudest one wins

ideas that aren’t your’s
want for a path to follow
too frightened to search

accepting it all
believing without question
never asking why

reject all of it
do not accept what they say
they hide all that’s true

searching for the truth
its not the easiest way
but comfort will come

all is in plain view
one must simply look at it
squarely without fear

Lost In His Work

dazed and so confused
scrambling to meet the deadline
far too little sleep

push yourself harder
the world might end if you don’t
as if that were true

ever longer days
I can barely even think
is today sunday?

the madness creeps in
never knowing when to stop
how much is enough

I’ve left the planet
I orbit some other mass
far out of your range

there are deep caverns
they remain absent of light
places you can’t go

a thousand feet down
you pump the oxygen down
so that I can breath

back to outer space
solar batteries are low
its time to come home

hello ground control
are we go for re-entry?
plot my safe return

Thinking About Music and The Ghosts of Past, Present and Future

Charles Socci with New England Jazz EnsembleI’ve been thinking about music a lot lately—playing music. If you’ve seen my main site, www.socci.com then you probably know I started out my adult life as a musician. Indeed from the time I was eleven or twelve years old it became my life’s main mission.

Somewhere along the way I got lost. I lost faith. I became bitter and discouraged. I gave up. I even considered it a victory.

I’ve told the story of my musical education and history here. I won’t bore you with that.

Music became everything to me while I was still in high school. All of my friends, everything I did centered around music. As soon as I could drive I was sitting-in at a dark and funky jazz club in the south end of Hartford. The owner wore a gun on his ankle, but he was a true patron of the music. I didn’t have my first real girlfriend until I was 18; and she was a music student where I went to college.

I met Jackie McLean, the legend, in my teens. He took a musical interest in me as he did many young men. Eventually I entered into his African-American Music department and earned a Bachelor of Music degree with a major in Jazz Studies.Tony Scherr

This college period is something i continue to try and understand today. I had two options for higher education: one was to follow my friend Tony Scherr down to North Texas State where he was quickly rising to the top and getting recognized for the amazing talent he is. My other option was to continue following Jackie and attend his program at the Hartt School of Music.Jackie McLean

I chose to stay with Jackie which may not have been the best decision for me at that time—although these things are had to tell—and hind sight being what it is, who really knows. I had already around two years of private Saturday lessons with Papa Jackie. Saxophonist-ic-ly speaking I had already received about as much as I was going to receive from him in that period of time. Jackie’s style of teaching the instrument and the language were mostly about mimicry—I remember his wife Dollie’s comment one day when she heard me practicing that all Jackie’s students sound just like him. Most players start out ‘aping’ or mimicking somebody. But Jackie’s influence was just so strong… And there wasn’t anybody else around to counter it. I eventually switched from alto to tenor. The lessons were also about playing together, learning tunes, and being exposed to recordings of saxophonists I might never have been exposed to—Earl Bostic, Don Byas, early Dexter Gordon. He showed me and demonstrated the nuances of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. He taught me to navigate Giant Steps. But I think after those two years I had gotten most of what Jackie was going to give me.

I decided to enter the Hartt School for a variety of reasons. It would have seemed like a betrayal on some level to leave Jackie, I felt a strong responsibility to stay near my Mother and my Brother (who was extremely disabled) and I was probably just plain afraid of going away and actually standing on my own two feet so far from home.

North Texas State was a world famous school for musicians at that time. Jackie’s comment about it was, “well what are you going to do…. look at cows?”. But the truth of it was that instead of a few saxophone players, all vying for Jackie’s attention and all trying to out best the other at impressing him, there were dozens or maybe even over a hundred saxophone players. What I needed was the experience of finding myself, my own voice, and then rising to the top of that group of other players. I needed that kind of challenge. I already had all the Jackie McLean I needed to absorb, or could absorb. Where the experience at Hartt was all focused on replicating the small jazz ensemble classics like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; North Texas had a full spectrum of music. There was an emphasis on commercial viability for a musician… Were you ready to go out and join the real world and make a living playing music; or were you going to go out into the world with limited skills, no doubles, and little exposure to the vast pallet of musical genres – or worse yet maybe an attitude that the music you had learned in school was the only ‘real’ music, or hip music, and everything else was square. There was a whole community of musicians of various styles and skill levels who played together frequently at North Texas. It isn’t always the school, or who teaches at the school. Its about your peers and the overall philosophy.

I realized the need for doubles while I was at Hartt and I began incorporating them into my bag of tricks, finding instruction when and where I could. To mention hind sight once again, I suppose if I knew then what I know now I might have been able to get a whole lot more out of the place professionally.One thing that stands out strongly from my days at Hartt are Jackie’s History of African-American music classes. These classes were filled not only with learning about the African origins and obscure pioneers of modern American music; but also became a mouthpiece for the expression of Jackie’s political and social opinions. His first hand stories of the jazz legends were also fascinating and could only truly be delivered with his inimitable charismatic style. These things—like his playing—formed an indelible impression on me.

I hung out with the A-list Hartt jazz guys for most of the time. Then I started to develop something of an attitude in the way of having my own feelings about certain things that didn’t quite fit the A-list Students of Jackie McLean club. I found myself cast somewhat out. I took a few lessons with some other famous saxophonists which probably alienated me from the clique even more. Somewhere around my junior or senior year everything stalled for me. I remember dealing with a depressive episode, which I hadn’t dealt with since high school. I became very emotional and broke down one day. Jackie’s response to that was to say that in the nursing homes they take the depressed people and move them away from everyone else so they don’t bring everyone else down. He also expressed negative opinions about me taking any kind of anti-depressant medication. When I look back on Hartt, I wonder if those last two years or year and a half were really a waste. I should have moved on.

I graduated in 1988. Jackie shook my hand on stage; and that was it. I was turned out into a world I had no idea how to deal with and was also completely unprepared for.

My first real gig out of school came through one of my friends from Hartt, a fine pianist majoring in accompanying. Norwegian Cruise Line needed a saxophonist for the ship band on the MS Southward. SouthwardA small cruise ship by today’s standards, it seemed quite large to me. I never really had a contract. There was a contractor who staffed the musicians. I sent him a photo and some cassette tapes of myself playing some lounge tunes. I was hired and flew out to Los Angeles to meet up with the ship.

The Southward turned out to be a pretty tough experience. The band I joined decided to hate me from the start. Part of it was that I was simply very young and very green. I had a huge Jackie McLean sound on alto and that concept just didn’t fly in a lounge band playing The Days of Wine and Roses. I hadn’t really developed my tenor playing yet and it just sounded rough. My doubles on flute and clarinet were a little weak. Part of it might have been some jealousy—they bet each other money on who could pick up a certain ‘babe’ in the disco one night. I won. The trumpet player was a vicious alcoholic and used to beat on my door in the middle of the night on his way back from the crew bar and tell me how badly I sucked. It was rough—really rough.

I stuck it out. I never even really thought about going home. They tried to get me fired. The contractor came on the ship and stood next to me all night as I played the gig. After the gig he said he didn’t know what the big deal was. He said I was a little green but other than that I was doing fine. I did learn a few things from the band leader/pianist who was from New York and half Cuban half Columbian. He taught me how to do a proper head butt if I ever got into a bar fight… I never have gotten into an actual bar fight (witnessed more than few…); but i continue to remember the maneuver just in case a smile, psychology and reason aren’t enough to overcome the situation.

Soon, those guys went home which was a huge relief. The band was replaced (and I stayed) by a super gentle band leader/bassist named Sam Goldenhar from Houston who was also a North Texas State guy, Manny, a pianist from the Philippines, Las Vegas Larry on trumpet , and my friend Jim from Hartt. We all got along super well and the music was good as ship lounge bands go. I was glad I stuck it out. I went home in December and was promptly dumped by my girlfriend. It turned out we’d both been unfaithful during my four month absence. She didn’t want to reconcile. I was suddenly stuck in Connecticut; in December; alone with no idea what was going to happen for me next. (note: I’ve since learned there are two kinds of people, those who wait for things to happen and those who enable them to happen – being the second is a huge advantage in the music business).

Fate is funny thing. Two weeks later, Tom Murray – another Hartt saxophone player – called me to see if I was interested in doing a ‘bus and truck’.

“What’s a bus and truck”

“That’s where they take a show on the road and you ride the bus and everything else goes in the truck”

It turned out to be a non-union tour of the Broadway show 42nd Street. I auditioned and took the gig. This gig was probably the greatest opportunity I had to really start trying to get some kind of controllable sound together. A big sound would be great for playing with Elvin Jones, but not so much in an orchestra pit. It helped me get my clarinet going pretty well also. I was out with that show for about four months. Charles Socci 1989We went to Israel which was an educational experience. Hanging out with the cast and crew was the most significant exposure to gay culture I’d ever had and also an educational experience.

Through 42nd Street I became affiliated with a summer stock theater in Long Island and spent two summers playing shows there. Again, this was great training in terms of discipline and the doubles. I was pretty sure I’d have an entree into some kind of music scene in New York now and I used the money my Grandmother left me to buy a studio apartment in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NYC.

This was followed by a national tour of Dream Girls. It was pretty low budget all the way. The bus leaked. There were petty rows among the cast; but we did over one hundred performances all over the country. I can now say I’ve been to all 50 states except Utah and Nevada.

After Dream Girls and another summer of summer stock I started really questioning what my musical career was all about. I will say this though, in terms of keeping your chops together, playing a show like this 8 times a week or more and having to play it EXACTLY the same way every night is incredible discipline. Boring. Soulless. But, great discipline.

The first thing that drew me in to music and jazz specifically was the language. The language I couldn’t speak with words. Telling the world what I was feeling in my heart. Expressing and creating. Those things always felt so good to me. I could always escape in the music and say exactly what I was feeling even if I couldn’t put it in words. Musical theater just wasn’t making that happen for me…I moved back home with my Mother and dated a local girl. I worked in an office for a while. I played with a local party band on the weekends. I scrounged up some cash and made my first CD, which I did nothing to promote or distribute. I drank wine and smoked pot and played around with a tape recorder and my instruments at night. My brother died. I taught private students at home and through various music schools during the day. I got my chauffeur’s license and drove limousine and taxi part time. I broke up with the local girl and met another local girl who soon became pregnant and gave birth to my son Alex. Three years later my daughter was born.

Charles Socci and Mike Jones with SharkpoolI found other bands to play with. Some were better than others. I was starting to get work with some of the better wedding bands around. I played in bar bands and drank a lot. I played in Puerto Rican Salsa and Merengue bands (great for building chops). I made another CD, for an actual label with actual distribution but I never promoted it. Most of the stuff I was doing was leaving me empty inside. Little of it had to do with that internal soul language. I got bitter. I resented the bubble headed brides. I resented the bubble heads period—the yahoos. I was working so much between the limo, and the teaching, and the gigs and I had nothing. I made $18,000 that year – with no benefits. NobodyCharles Socci forced me or put me down; but I felt like a real man would be taking care of business; not living with his Mother and being a dead beat Dad. Marriage plans with their Mother never worked out. I had a quick fling with a 20 year old chick I met in one of the bands. I began getting really bitter. A trumpet player friend of mine had enrolled in technical school and was loving it. I’ve always been technical. I had a computer long before most people. I began thinking I should exploit that technical interest because the music thing had become bullshit as far as I was concerned. So I did just that, graduated at the top of my class and had a job before I even finished. $37,500 and full benefits. Man, I thought I won the lottery.Charles SocciSo I became a professional computer guy. I stopped taking a lot of the gigs. They stopped calling. My horn went into it’s case in the corner and has mostly stayed there.

I think about this and it is just weird. It seems like a waste. The music was me and I was it. There could be no Charles Socci without it. That all changed.

Time has flown by. I moved into that New York studio when things with the BABY MOMMA finally died for good. I got another computer job and did really well with that but never returned to the music.

I was afraid in those years I hung out at my Mother’s in Connecticut. Those were the years I should have been in NY trying to get around and play. I did a little bit but the whole thing terrified me—like sick to my stomach, walls closing in, have to get out of here NOW terrified. So I just couldn’t do it… try and hang on the scene. Hang on the periphery of the scene. Begging the question, ‘What Scene?’ – there is so much going on in NY. There is so much talent. New talent continually comes in. The thing was I felt like the only thing I was really good at was bebop saxophone a la Hartt and a la Jackie McLean. I was really mixed up as to who I was as a musician. I didn’t know. When I say maybe Hartt was a mistake for me, that is what I mean.

Today, my horns sit in the corner but my keyboard stays on. I married and share a two bedroom apartment with the sweetest and most wonderful woman in the world.Charles Socci Kristin Socci I haven’t had a drink or used any drugs in four years (7/18/03). I’m constantly playing piano. I love to play free form improvisations that wander in and out of different keys and tonalities. There was a time when I was playing saxophone this way and making private recordings of myself. It was very freeing. At the moment I’d almost pay for the opportunity just to play with some crappy band at a wedding. Even the soulless musical prostitution that it is—I just miss having the horn in my hands and communing with the band.

My intuition tells me that opportunity will arise again. I’m just not sure exactly when. So guess i better get out those horns and start putting them in my mouth.

Please bring this piano to meOh – and by the way – I’m definitely lusting for the touch and growl of a fine piano. This 7′ Baldwin will do nicely. If you feel charitable, won’t you buy it for me? I hereby send this wish out to the Cosmos for one grand piano. (my wife only agreed to a full sized upright, and I guess I’d settle… but I’ll give up my comfy chair if i can have the grand… Pretty please?)

A Poem For My Wife

I often wonder
why it was I you chose dear
or was the choice mine?

does it yet matter?
we are now the best of friends
the way it should be

romance novels tell
of slender heroes wooing
no, they are not I

balding and chubby
proudly farting in my chair
you bring me dinner

off to the bedroom
for a special little game
familiar partners

what time is our show?
we really shouldn’t miss it
where is that ice cream?

where you are is home
my Venus and Nightingale
you are a blessing

those dark nights are gone
you brought the lamp of loving
and gave me new life

The Song of A Life

My wife sent this to me while we were still in the process of dating. It is truly special to me.

It speaks of the importance of remembering who we really are when we face adversity.

It is easy for us to forget who we are sometimes. If only we could all live in families or communities that could support us this way.

Please share this with anyone you know who might find some light or some hope in it. The author is unknown.

The Song of A Life

When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she
goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray
and meditate until they hear the song of the child.

They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses
its unique flavor and purpose.

When the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they
return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else.

When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s
song to him or her. Later, when the child enters education, the village
gathers and chants the child’s song.

When the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the
people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person
hears his or her song.

Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family
and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth,
and they sing the person to the next life.

In the African tribe, there is one other occasion upon which the
villagers sing to the child.

If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or
aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the
village and the people in the community form a circle around them.
Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not
punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you
recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that
would hurt another.

A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when
you have forgotten it.

Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or
dark images you hold about yourself.

They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness
when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your
purpose when you are confused.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song
to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when
you are in tune with yourself and when you are not.

When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and
when you feel awful, it doesn’t.

– Author Unknown

Information Technology – Under Water

I’ve yet to write anything here concerning the thing that consumes most of my time, IT. I can’t think of much that is more dry or uninteresting to talk about than IT, so I don’t.

I love the challenge of it, all the little puzzles and the problem solving; it engages a huge part of my mind. I learn new things every day and it earns me a living—but IT as the stuff of inspiration or conversation—not so much. My boss has to drag me to IT expos, even though they give away free stuff like foam dice, keyring flashlights, and steak dinners…  None the less, I guess it is about time for some kind of piece about the thing I spend so much of my life doing… So here goes.

Several years ago I was working as IT Director, Chief Cook, and Bottle Washer for a very vigorously growing company in downtown Manhattan.

I was very happy at this job for the most part and my boss was more than good to me. Change then came in the form of business strategies and management structure. My Mother and Father both became ill. Life changed and it was clear my own time for change had arrived.

I have to say that while I lack the nice office and view; and a good percentage of the salary; I feel better about things now—working for an organization that functions not for profit but to make human lives better in areas of war, terror, and natural disaster. Despite my personal pay check I know the company I’m supporting has a much deeper purpose and I feel very good about that.

With all that said I wanted to tell an IT horror tale from my days at that other company.

I was sitting in my office, next door to the server room, gazing out the window at the Chrysler Building and across the East River to Queens; when in walks Eddie the maintenance man. Eddie was looking quite concerned and strode right into my office and began checking all the pipes under the window and above the drop ceiling.

“May I help you?” I asked…

“Oh, I’m just trying to see if I can find a small leak… You haven’t seen anything have you?”

“No, I’m afraid I haven’t – can I give you a hand with that file cabinet over there?”

“No, I’ve got it, thanks…”

“Well, ok then.. I’m going to go to the men’s room and leave you here at it Eddie, ok?”

“Yeah, no problem…”

So, I leave and go to the men’s room and take a seat upon the john. I call the third stall from the right “the library” because someone always leaves at least one newspaper in there. Usually its the Wall Street Journal, but occasionally you’ll find the Post (much more appropriate for the surroundings) or even a Vanity Fair if you’re lucky.

I stayed a leisurely fifteen minutes or so before leaving the men’s room to walk back to my office. As I turned the corner, I saw all the girls from accounting standing at the elevator. We all seemed surprised to see each other.

Someone asked me what did I think of it all?

“What do I think of what…?”

“You know, the FLOOD.”

“The WHAT, oh I know – you guys are pulling my leg aren’t you?”

“No, really… You mean you haven’t seen it?”

“No, I was reading…”

At this point they all kind of looked at each other like ‘Oh Shit’ and I hurriedly made my way back to my office and the server room.

As I rounded the corner I beheld a sight I shall not forget for the rest of my life. Hundreds of gallons of water were pouring a deluge directly over one of four server racks. The water was pounding the top of the rack and cascading down the sides. There was already four inches of water on the floor.

Our developer and two man IT team stared on in shock and wondered what to do about the ELECTRICITY, seeing as the power supply to the servers was fed with around 400 Volts. Sparks and smoke were flying…

I decided that something had to be done so I put out my elbow and ran as fast and hard as I could run through the water toward the master power switch, which I successfully hit (with my elbow) into the off position. The only remaining power issue would be the existing batteries and breakers in the power supply which were still live to the breakout panel feeding the servers. We later manually pulled out batteries and switched off breakers on the back of the power supply itself. We had no documentation on it and none of us had been around when it was installed. We did the best we could with it and got APC on the phone promptly thereafter to do a completely safe shutdown.

The fire department came, axes ready but there wasn’t much for them to do at that point.

The Vice President of Global Operations came downstairs and asked me what was our plan. I more or less told him I didn’t know. We both stood and surveyed the destruction for a while as it slowly sunk in that about 95% of our IT infrastructure and data had been completely wiped out.

We began pouring water out of servers and taking them apart to dry, with hope that something might power on and give us enough time to recover something. Of course we had data on tape stored off site, but that was two weeks old and required retrieval. Also, our tape drives and library were part of the wreckage – so at that particular moment tape wasn’t going to do us much good.

I was able to get one domain controller operating and seize the master active directory roles onto this server. I was then able to get one mail server and data store on line. So before the night was out I was able to restore email which was a pretty big accomplishment.

We didn’t have much hardware that wasn’t ruined. Most of our older hardware was less damaged – the cases were bigger, the internal components spread out more, and the fans were not placed directly next to dense circuit boards. The newer servers were all one or two rack space jobs and the internal electronics were really densely packed. The fans were set in such a way that they just sprayed water all over everything. None of those new servers survived, but some of the drives did.

It became clear I was going to need some working servers to try and bring everything back on line. Of course this was a Friday night, and we were now in the middle of a snow storm as well. I was able to get an entry level Compaq server and a high end Sony Vaio workstation from a local IT dealer. This was the best I could do. The store was about two avenues over and 8 blocks up. I went over and purchased the two machines with my Amex. I also purchased power strips, extension cords and anything else I could think of. Somebody else went to a department store and picked up some hair dryers and towels. The hair dryers brought my cell phone back to life.

We placed all of this equipment (server, workstation, cords, miscellaneous hardware) onto a cart and two guys from the store and I wheeled it back in the snow.

Over the next 36 hours (I worked 36 hours straight) I was able to bring all of the data back on line in a temporary fashion using the purchased server and workstation, plus some of the other equipment that was still partially running. Over the coming weeks and months we turned the experience into a positive one by replacing all our old hardware with brand new hardware using the insurance money.

I received a very generous bonus which I promptly turned around and used to buy my first digital SLR.

It was quite an experience and I really hope I never have to go through anything quite like that again!

Meeting With the Dawn

mornings come and go
some seem better than others
one must move forward

vexing me harshly
must I yield to it’s urging?
giving up the night

my youth found the light
welcoming it—arms open
saved from the unknown

a life poorly spent
now the light brings back those things
disappointing me

I surely must rise
again conquering darkness
a new day to change

its not just me now
linked and sworn to many more
depending on me

tangled web woven
it now must be unraveled
this is my life’s course

meeting with the dawn
feeling cross and crestfallen
I have no courage

Racing thoughts torture
there is no more choice for sleep
rise, you unwilling

Another Drowning Story

I grew up in a small rural area of Connecticut far from the New York suburban bedroom towns of Fairfield County. For the most part it was the sticks.My childhood summers were spent outside; and my constant companions were three sisters who lived down the block.One hot summer afternoon we decided to head over to Jones’ Pond in Irvington* to go swimming. It was a popular local spot for kids looking to cool off. There were no cabanas or chaise lounges to attract the adults. Just the water.

Most small towns have one of ‘those‘ families I think. Families that have become notorious and even legendary for one reason or another—kidnapping and cooking small children for dinner, domestic violence, criminality, or what have you…

Irvington’s local family (I’m changing their name lest they read this) was the Hardgraves.

We went up to Jones’ Pond which wasn’t far from the Hardgrave compound. We were enjoying playing in the water and didn’t even notice the presence of Bobbi-Jo, then perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, and her friend’s presence nearby. I must have been six or seven.

I’m in the water and the next thing I know Bobbi-Jo is on top of me holding my head under the water.

She eventually let me up for air and followed with several more good dunkings before finally letting me go, laughing the whole time. We all went home, shaken.

Many years later (like fifteen or twenty) I found myself in the Irvington Tavern. The Irvington Tavern is kind of a rough around the edges type of place. Filled with regulars, it is home to a pool table, a juke box, and many shrines to Harley Davidson and Miller Beer. I’m not sure exactly what I was doing there, but my girlfriend’s older sister had tended bar there for years so I felt pretty safe.

I was minding my own business when a guy came up to me and said, “My name is Beaver Hardgrave and I bet I could kick your ass…”.

I looked him square in the eye and said, “Well, you probably could… but what if I buy you a beer instead?”.

He thought that was funny and obliged the offer and pulled up a stool next to me.

I said, “Hardgrave… do you mean like Bobbi-JOE Hardgrave…?”

“You mean the DYKE?”

“I didn’t know she was a lesbian… but are you related?”

“Yeah… she’s my sister…”

Small world.

(*some names and places changed to protect the innocent…)

Drowning

Many years ago, before my parents divorced, we used to make frequent car trips to Detroit from our home in Connecticut. The nature of these trips was to take my brother Joey, who had Down’s Syndrome (Trisomy 21), to see one Henry Turkel, M.D. who was treating Down’s children with a regimen of massive nutritional supplementation. Dr. Turkel was not allowed by FDA regulation to ship his preparations so the patients came to him. (there is quite a bit of literature online regarding Turkel, some hailing him a genius and some a quack).

Our trips would begin in a green Chevrolet station wagon. My father would build up a nest of sorts in the “way back” with suit cases on the bottom and various layers of quilts and blankets on top. I’d spend most of the trip back there. I was about five years old.

We’d always stop overnight at a hotel. On this one particular trip we stayed at a Holiday Inn I think; I don’t know where. Of course we kids had to use the pool. Joey needed a tremendous amount of attention. He was very fidgety and very busy and someone really needed to dedicate 100% of their attention to him during every waking moment. He was severely retarded.

We went to the pool. It was an outdoor pool and fairly crowded. My Mother stuck close by Joey in the shallow end of the pool. There was a lifeguard on duty. My father was sunning himself on a chaise beside the pool. The deep end of the pool was filled with perhaps four or five Japanese men enjoying the water.

I was roaming around the shallow end of the pool alone. I was five. Suddenly, the bottom fell out from under me and I began sliding down the decent that becomes the deep end of the pool. I remember my first moment of panic realizing I couldn’t touch the bottom. I remember looking down and seeing the bottom through the blue green light, and looking up at the surface, shimmering in the sunlight. I went under. I don’t know how long I was under. It seemed like a long time and when I look back I remember it in slow motion play back.

Nobody came to my aid. My Mother was busy. My Father wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know what the lifeguard was doing—probably not his job since I was the only unattended small child in that pool.

Eventually I felt several hands hoist me up out of the water. It was the Japanese men who realized I was in trouble and rescued me. At that point all the attention shifted to me and my parents took me back to our room where I coughed up water for what seemed like hours.

Later, I saw the Japanese men in the hotel elevator. One of them gave me a small gift. I don’t know what it is. Can you help me identify it?

The photo is of that small gift. I included the penny for scale. The cord used to be a very vivid purple but has since faded quite a bit.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness. Writing. Listening to Keith Jarett. Driving down I-95 from my Mother’s house. We were up for the day. She told my wife I’m like a ghost. Like a ghost since those things I had to go through long ago. I don’t feel like a ghost. I feel like a dead plant come back to life. Green buds peering out with hope into the light. That’s how I feel today. In my 40’s things look and feel so different than they once did. If I knew then what I know now what would I change? This is supposed to be stream of consciousness. I am thinking to much. We are driving. It is late. Will I go up to the dog run with Kristin tomorrow? Will I push myself to leave the house? I enjoy my house. I enjoy my Sundays. Time alone at peace. Quiet. Time to enjoy my home. I love Sunday.

My son is becoming a young man. I wonder what he thinks of me sometimes. It is hard to entertain a thirteen year old. Up for an afternoon once a week we drive to Lily’s in rural Connecticut and spend the day. The smell of dog pee makes my nose burn. Alex has a new guitar. His step Dad bought him an amp and new guitar as a bonus. I wonder why. It seems unusual. It has distortion, see? Now I can REALLY play Smoke on the Water, check it out… Later he seems so bored. Painfully bored. What are we going to do, Dad? I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. He wants to do something just the two of us. That sounds nice but I can’t think of anything to do and I feel bad for that. Eventually I go to the piano and tell him to get his guitar. I ask him what key does he know how to play a blues in. He doesn’t know. But he plays some of those rock songs. He’s taking lessons but all he seems to learn are 70’s and 80’s rhythm guitar parts. I’ve heard him play blues. At least a little. I mean how can you not on a guitar? Its made for the fucking blues. Anyway, I say well play that blues you know that I heard you play and he starts that little riff off the bottom two strings that is the first blues thing you learn on a guitar. I say that’s E. We’re going to play blues in E and I play the piano. The guitar is not in tune so I make him tune up with the piano. Then we start. I just keep playing 12 bars after 12 bars and he mostly gets it except sometimes he goes to the four chord too soon or misses the five all together. So I stop. It can go like this. There are three chords. E is the one chord, here. You can play either four full bars of the one chord, or one bar of the one chord and one bar of the four chord followed by two bars of the one chord. Let’s just stay on the one chord for four bars. Then we play two bars of the four chord, see? And I sing and play it. Then it is two more bars of the one chord. Five chord, one bar, four chord one bar, and one chord one bar, five chord last bar to bring it back to the top. That is it. 12 bar blues. I play rhythm piano and a base line while he tries it out. I play some pentatonic bluesy lines. He tries to keep up but he can’t really play all the chords. At least we tried. What is that teacher teaching him anyway? I don’t play guitar. I worked in a guitar-centric music store once. I fooled with them a little. I showed him the blues scale and he picked it up really fast. I hope he will practice that. We’ll have more to do next time if he does. I said I love you when we dropped him off on our way back to the City. I told him to practice. I often feel guilty, especially after I drop him off. He craves attention and my time; but it is never enough to sit still. He asks me about junior high and what it was like for me. This is something I want to share. I want to share everything with him. I want to give him everything I know, all the failures and successes. All the mistakes. I want him to know and I want to share it. If I can give him this it will have made sense. He won’t have to do the same stupid things. I can be there to guide him like the person I always wanted but was never there. He asks me and I start to tell my tales. He gets bored or maybe just distracted and starts to talk about something else. Its ok. He’s thirteen. But sometimes I just have to get pissed and tell him how I’m trying to answer him and tell him about something and he isn’t listening. I’ve already been through it. There’s nothing you can tell me about being thirteen at John Winthrop Junior High that I don’t already know. But even if there is, I’m listening. Listen to me. Let me share. I’ve already been where you are and where you are going.

photo of me and my dad Rye Playland, NY1974 or 75

photo of me and my son Queens, NY 2003

I Love a Piano

Willie I’m not sure exactly where my passion for stride piano started. I started my musical career with piano lessons when I was very young – but it never went anywhere as I just didn’t have that much interest. Dumb kid. When I finally did start paying attention and getting interested in music it was all about the saxophone.

The piano has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I grew up with a baby grand piano in the house. I guess you could say its really a part of me even if I was too ignorant to understand this privilege early on.

When my ambitions as a professional saxophonist kind of petered out in my thirties I began returning to the piano as an outlet for my musical inclinations.

If you don’t know what stride piano is; in short it is a style of piano playing that descended from ragtime but is far less rigid and much more open to the artist’s skill and interpretation. Listen to this excerpt of Thomas “Fats” Waller playing “Carolina Shout”. Get the original recording here.

One thing that always frustrated me with the saxophone was that it doesn’t easily fit into the idiom of solo instrument. I mean with the possible exception of some great artists like Sonny Rollins; it is pretty difficult to hold an audience’s interest (or even my own interest) playing solo saxophone.

Stride piano brings an entire orchestra to the keyboard. From the low register bass through the harmony and counterpoint in the middle to the melody itself. – and rhythm. Stride got it’s name because it employs the use of a very mobile left hand that constantly strides between the bass notes, chords and counterpoint of the tune. In fact, stride pianists often criticize a lot of ‘modern’ jazz pianists as being ‘right-handed’ players. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith used to heckle young players with a quip like, “What’s the matter with your left hand there…? Are you crippled?” When that left hand and right get together and the pulse is right it is pure magic.

I think my fascination comes from this ‘one man band’ aspect of stride. I can spend hours by myself at the keyboard working on a ‘complete’ piece of music – in my ‘own’ style. With the saxophone my practicing was always geared toward what I would play with the band at the next opportunity. My focus is much more toward pleasing myself and playing for friends or family now. I think if I can play Carolina Shout by the time I die I will have lived a full musical life.

I recently watched a terrific documentary on the pianist Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. He was a fascinating character and absolute piano master. Unfortunately there aren’t many recordings of him available.

Jackie McLean used to talk about Willie “The Lion” Smith in his jazz history classes all the time. Smith was one of the great influences on Thelonius Monk. Monk was a stride pianist or “tickler” before he came to prominence as one of the architects of modern jazz. Smith’s influence on people like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Monk among others can’t be underestimated. Listen to Monk’s Solo Recordings. (I found his solo recordings to be a great entree into his genius)

My favorite pianist has to be Thomas “Fats” Waller. Waller isn’t someone I really got interested in until just a few years ago. Like Louis Armstrong, Fats was subject to the style dictated for Black entertainers to mug for the camera. This kind of turned me off to Sachmo and Fats for a long time. All I could see was that image which seemed so denigrating to the music and to people of color in general. I knew Fats had written “Ain’t Misbehavin” but in my mind he was just some entertainer and not among my musical heroes like Charlie Parker, Miles, or Coltrane.

Sometimes I get into these ‘intellectual’ moods where I’ll buy a book or a recording just because I think any self-respecting scholar would have it… or because I read somewhere that it was important. “Fats Waller Greatest Hits” was one of those purchases. I think it sat around my place for a year before I finally took a hard listen one day. The cover art sucks; but the music is great! When I got to the solo piano renditions of “Carolina Shout”, “Handful of Keys”, and “Smashing Thirds” I was completely blown away. It was one of those rare and beautiful moments in life where you discover something wonderful for the first time. The Smith documentary features an audio visual mix of James P. Johnson, Wille The Lion, and Waller playing “Carolina Shout” which is fascinating.

James P. Johnson is another major figure and he, Fats, and Smith were fans of each other. Johnson was the elder of the three and significant early influence on Waller.

Pianist Art Tatum is in a class by himself. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said that when he’d gotten comfortable with himself as a jazz pianist he’d listen to Tatum and have to reevaluate… Tatum’s style is very much about incredible technical virtuosity in addition to the use of stride. He was an early admirer of Fats Waller.

My musical passion has returned in the form of this style of piano playing. For now, my digital keyboard and headphones will have to do. Its a really good digital keyboard with a very nice action… My mother still has the out of tune baby grand, so I play when I visit. One day I’ll have my own grand piano sitting proudly in our new living room.

My next goal is to find the right piano teacher who can help me with the basic piano chops I so desperately need to work on, and pick up on what I’ve already been able to develop and take it to the next level.

All things is due time.

Photo of Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller stolen from New Jersey Public Television’s Willie “The Lion” Smith page.