Good Neighbors and Bad Garbage Cans…

Grateful Blog: Day 59: Today I’m Grateful for my neighbors. All of ‘em. This morning my neighbor across the street, ‘Whitey’, backed up and ran over his garbage can with his Crown Victoria. Whitey’s just a shade over 80 now and his Parkinson’s, poor eyesight and sciatica/back problems are slowing him down. I ran across the street to help him because I wasn’t sure he noticed. When I moved in 14 years ago I was 30 and easily the youngest person on the block. I was surrounded by retirees who’d lived on East ‘Z’ Street (‘EZ’ Street for short) forever. Whitey’s up to 54 years now on the block by my last reckoning. But time marches on. My neighbor Rosie just moved and Inez has been gone since her heart attack for 7 years now. Ed Brown down the block got Alzheimer’s and used to come by every week to chat about this and that, gardening and tools. He’d remind me that his name was Ed Brown (which was nice but unnecessary), that he had Alzheimer’s and that he’d be by again next week. When regretfully, his wife had to move him to a care facility she had a garage sale and I bought Ed’s custom made rack of shop boxes to organize stuff in. It was only partially finished but I saw where Ed was going with it and took pride in finishing it. It’s in my garage now, having merged every spare nut, bolt and odd part in my life with Ed’s extensive collection. I hope someone does the same thing for me some day. I don’t know why, but it’d make me feel better.

Then there’s Richard. Richard was voted citywide ‘Vancouver’s Best Neighbor’ the year he died. When I moved in he came over to say ‘What are you going to do with those dumb trees the so and so planted’? They WERE dumb. Completely the wrong place for those kind of trees and the health of both the trees (and the sidewalk) as well. But I’d been living there oh maybe a week and mumbled something like ‘I’ll cut them down, eventually…’ I came home that same day to find them in a neat pile, cut down, chopped up, and the stumps and roots dug up. That was Richard. Once during the great ice storm of 2003 I had to put snowshoes on be able to walk (without killing myself) 2 houses down to get Richard off his ladder where he was knocking humongous icicles off with a baseball bat. I got him off the ladder just in time to see the very top branch of Whitey’s Norwegian Pine give way under the weight of 10 inches of snow and 3 inches of ice and summarily take down every branch on its way to the ground. The WHOLE tree, all 50 feet tall of it, suddenly had nothing but 2 limbs on it and Richard turned to me and said “I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like a totem pole. Aren’t you glad you came out to see it?’ I was dumbfounded. I also remember the time I was enlisted to go over and encourage him to get off his roof because he was up there with the garden hose, bent over, with a  hard hat on (God Bless Him), hosing the roof down to get the moss off. He was 77 at the time. And THAT was Richard, in a nutshell. 

But back to Whitey. Whitey was a union ironworker for 20 years like my Dad. He worked on building the Dalles Dam and before that he logged the big Ponderosa Pine woods up near Klickitat, Washington. He told me about the summer they first got chain saws instead of hand saws and made a ‘TON of money before the bosses caught on’. He also told me he bought 7,000 shares of Starbucks in 1990 when it went public. It split twice so at last count he had 28,000 shares. It closed today at $48.91. If you do the math that’s roughly 1.37 MILLION in Starbucks stock alone. Whitey can afford any number of Crown Vic’s and probably a couple extra garbage cans. 

But the thing is, Whitey’s getting up there and you can’t buy the years back no matter how much you have to spend. I think like Richard and Inez and Ed, Whitey’s had a good life and he’s lived it by his terms. But I get worried now and again because they’re disappearing before my eyes and I know they have things to teach me. I know that not so far off, I’m gonna be one of the ‘old timers’ on the block and somehow it’ll be my job to lead by example like my neighbors always have: To put the flag out for Memorial Day and July 4th and Veteran’s day. To offer a neighbor your mower when it looks like theirs might be broken. To be ready to jump a car when someone’s battery dies, or just to commiserate when a good neighbor moves or moves on. 

I didn’t know what to do this morning. I just ran across the street, asked Whitey how he was doing. He said ‘Shit, not so good obviously’ and we both laughed. I then remembered the time I backed out of my driveway, right smack into my wife’s car, also in the driveway, right behind mine. I crushed the front end. Not only that, she was IN it at the time. I thought she’d already backed up but no dice. So I told him that and we both laughed and for a second or two we were just two old neighbors telling stories about stupid things we’d done to make the other feel better about something equally stupid. 

Good neighbors are more than that of course and that whole bit about ‘Good fences make good neighbors’? That’s B.S. Good fences just make bad neighbors more tolerable. Good neighbors are the one’s who know your name and take the time to get to know you. They notice when you’re on vacation, offer to grab your newspaper or mail, and offer their lawnmower when you need one or some homegrown tomatoes even when you don’t. There are a hundred other things of course, but mostly good neighbor’s worry a little about each other, especially when things aren’t going so well. So I’m worried about my neighbor Whitey these days. I hope he’s gonna stick around a while, there’s a whole mess of cans to run into every Tuesday morning and I’m game if he is…

Parenting, Playboy and a Trip to the Grocery Store…

Grateful Blog: Day 58: I was still sick today, stuck inside listening to the radio and there was a raging debate on the school shooting inOhioand just what drives kids to do that sort of thing. I don’t know. It’s really saddening. And I have nothing to offer because it’s baffling to me and frankly I never had kids so I feel like I’m grossly under qualified to comment. But occasionally I do wade a toe into the parenting side of things when I’m given the opportunity. But the results are highly mixed.

To wit: When our nieces and nephews were younger, I used to dig when my wife and I would take them roller skating once every grand so often. That was cool. They loved it, we loved it. It felt like as much of a night out for us as it probably did their parents (until we brought them got back from spinning in circles for 3 hours, loaded up on ice cream). Of course then there was that ‘incident’ where my nephew was inAlaskafor over a year, in some remote town. He was all of 21 and of course perfectly corruptible. I don’t know what it says about me but I can admit it now. I sent him a year’s subscription to Playboy for Christmas. He seemed to appreciate it so I seemed to be worth my $15. Given how remote the town was I think the postage alone was twice that. It was probably inappropriate or just plain perfect or maybe both. His Mom and Dad thought it was funny anyways and potentially useful if it kept him from fraternizing too much with the locals gal. But I know, it’s a slippery slope…

Anyways, I tell those anecdotes only to point out that I’m not ENTIRELY curmudgeonly although I certainly aspire to such lofty heights. So recently I was in the grocery store and there was this kid, oh maybe 7 or 8, who was walking down the aisle, arms spread wide, probably playing some sort of bird or fighter jet in his mind. He was ducking, dodging, buzzing and swerving and ultimately took out a few signs. Just plum knocked ‘em right over. He looked back briefly at them, then towards his Mom (who never saw), then back at the signs, and kept going. This wasn’tCarthagein flames or carrying a loaded Glock to his elementary school, it was just a couple of DUMB grocery store signs. Dumb signs that needed to be picked up by someone I might add.

I happen to see the kid on the next aisle down, where his Mom stopped to eyeball something on the shelf. He was still careening over, under and through a new jungle of ‘2 for $5.00’ and ‘Buy ONE get ONE FREE’ signs. I passed by him and while his Mom wasn’t watching I said to him in this real conspiratorial tone: ‘Hey Kid!’ and he looks up at me wide eyed and I said ‘You knocked those signs over!’ and of course he gives me his best ‘What me?’ look. Then I said real authoritative-like ‘Look, you knocked over the signs, I saw you do it. So I tell you what: Go do the RIGHT thing. Put the sign’s back up. I’ll wait here with your Mom till you get back’.

So I don’t really know tonight about the how or the why of school shootings. I know it deeply saddens me and I know it took a long time to get here and it’ll take a longer time to fix it. I don’t think it has anything to do with roller skating or Playboy or grocery store signs or me becoming curmudgeonlier as I get older. I just know I’m Grateful that more kids weren’t hurt in Ohio today, that Playboy doesn’t automatically renew my nephew’s  subscription on my credit card (anymore) and I’m Grateful that kid put the sign’s back up. Cause frankly, if he’d have called my bluff, I had nothing…

American Songwriter Magazine…Lost and Found…

Grateful Blog: Day 57: I’m sicker today than I was yesterday or Friday. Damn flu of some sort…It was a crazy week, starting with the amazing CD release show last Saturday night to the hospital tests on Tuesday to the flu and then today…

Today I found out today by complete accident that my song ‘Lost and Found’ (on ‘Ash and Bone’) was given an ‘Honorable Mention’ in this months song lyrics contest in American Songwriter Magazine.

http://www.americansongwriter.com/lyric-contest/current-winners/

It’s a BIG magazine and from what I understand it’s fairly stiff competition. Naturally I’m tickled. It was a total surprise when I stumbled on it. It made the whole surreal week seem more surreal. So today I’m Grateful for that, but mostly I’m Grateful that the guy I wrote about in that song seems more ‘Found’ than ‘Lost’ these days…

For the Love of Trains…

Grateful Blog: Day 56: Still feeling the latent effects of the flu today but I managed to get out for a few hours. I had to. There was a train show in town. Basically a show devoted to model train fans and train lovers of all ages. There’s ever imaginable train related thing from toy trains to giant computerized running layouts to memorabilia and artwork. And there’s kids there of every age, some little one’s wanting in a long line to ride on Thomas the Train and others in their 80’s, still looking for that next great ride in life, be it getting on an actual train or building it in miniature.

When I was a kid my Dad had this seriously cool Lionel train layout in our basement. All three of us boys loved going down there after finishing out homework and turning off all the lights and running the trains’ full speed in every direction they could go. Inevitably things went off the tracks and crashed but that was half the fun. Little did we know that were inadvertently damaging what would today be valuable antiques. Somewhere in the early 1980’s, during some particularly hard economic times, Dad sold most of the trains to pay a few months of the mortgage. Looking back I wish he didn’t have to but I respect his decision more than ever because I know what they meant to him.

Still, Dad saved what he’d bought specifically for us boys, boxed them up, and kept it for us. 30 years went by before I took mine out its musty old box and set up a little Lionel layout in my den. It’s up above my head and just below the ceiling and now and again, I run it for a few hours and that whirring/clacking sound and oily/ozone smell brings me right back to being a kid in the basement again. I even got inspired by it one morning seeing a particular boxcar and wrote a song called ‘Take the Central Georgia Home’, a Civil War era train song that’s on my new CD release ‘Ash and Bone’ (That’s Shameless plug #87 if you’re counting…).

But the thing about toy trains is that it’s never bean a means to an end. There’s a bunch of guys who serious collect this vintage or that style and they talk in their very own language in hushed tones like ‘That’s a number ‘6464’ boxcar in the rare Amour yellow and navy color scheme but the condition is iffy because the trucks have been modified with mid-60’s, I’d say 1964 by the looks of it, knuckle couples and the original box is gone too.’ Whoa…While I ‘get’ where they’re coming from it’s never been like that for me. It’s always been an hour or two escape from life’s drudgeries and a love affair with those big, rumbling machines. And there’s something unique about their siren song whistle that calls you to wonder where they’re headed—and wanting to be on them to see what’s around the next bend.

That’s the romance of trains, big, small and miniature. I rarely buy much at the shows/swap meets but I always meet the most interesting people, usually about Dad’s age, who have a lifetime of stories to tell. So today I’m Grateful for the love of trains, model, real or otherwise, that Dad passed down, father to son. And I’m also Grateful for the men and women who still find something incredibly romantic about them. Before I left he show I ran into Michael fromCalifornia, a guy I’d seen and talked to several times before at past shows. He said, ‘Hey, how’s that CD coming???’ Of course, I’d left them I the car, about 12 blocks back, but he gave me a new $25 caboose I’d had my eye on and said ‘Send me a CD, we’ll call it even.’ You know sometimes the money just doesn’t matter, and that’s just another reason why some of us love trains…

A Hug a Day keeps the…

Grateful Blog: Day 55: I went to bed sick. I woke up sicker. It shouldn’t surprise me; it’s that time of year you know. And besides, I was in the hospital on Tuesday, surrounded my germs and God knows what else. The thing is I ALWAYS seem to get sick when stress is the worst (who doesn’t?) and usually that means for me, right before an important show. Of course last Saturday night was the release of my new CD, ‘Ash and Bone’. I pretty much resigned myself to my fate of getting sick before hand but then something unusual happened: I didn’t. I felt great. The show was fantastic. Of course it’s still that time of year and there were a number of people there that night who were sick and still in avoidance mode, I tried not to catch it from them. It retrospect it was probably inevitable. But also in hindsight, I regret not hugging them more. They’re the dearest sort of friends and it’s only a cold and you only have your first CD release once. So I’m Grateful today not for the cold, but that it waited a week to let me sing my heart out last Saturday night…

 

Spring and the Red-Winged Blackbird…

Grateful Blog: Day 54: There are little signs of Spring all around. The snowdrops blooming, the air warming, and a this sense that the darkness of Winter is lifting. It’s still gray, gray, gray and rainy, rainy, rainy but…but it SEEMS brighter somehow.

For me though there are several distinct signs of Spring that I look forward to. One is the first bloom on a Camellia bush. It should be any day now. Another is what I heard the morning: The song of a Red-Winged Blackbird. Like all music, I can’t explain why it’s my favorite. It just is. There’s something in its throaty delivery, that ‘conk-la-ree!’ that ‘one second song starts with an abrupt note that turns into a musical trill.’ It reminds at once of hollowed out snags and brushy woodland margins as well as desert marshes. And it gets to me, the way Bob Dylan’s music get to me. Bob’s always been a bit of blackbird himself, come to think of it.

And it reminds of Spring. Spring when I was younger, and would get the call from the National Park Service to come back for another season. Spring when I would pack the car and drive across the West to get to the Utah desert and pull over to stop a minute, take in some amazing view, and inevitably hear the Red-Winged Blackbird singing those rolling, cackling notes, punctuating the suddenly warm air with promise of days ahead. Yeah. Spring and the Red-Winged Blackbird. The 2 go hand in hand, wing to wing, and that’s left to do is pack the car and go…

Red Rubber Soul…

Grateful Blog: Day 53: Today was one of those crazy near-Spring days. The wind blew all night and all through the morning and the rain was followed by sun, rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun, rain…This morning I went to work, trusty old straw Stetson on my hat—keep the rain off you know, and the first thing that happened when I got to my first job and out of my car was the wind blew it right off my head. Right into a black, gritty curbside puddle. Uh huh. I figured not the best omen to start the day but it was probably nothing. Then, driving around to take a picture I put the power window down and it started going up/down/ up/down/ up/down/ up/down pretty much all by itself till it stopped…DOWN. I drove around all day like that. It’s a power window and I tried every trick I could think of, but at 163,000 miles and moving it up/down/ up/down/ up/down/ up/down 50 times a day for 9 years was apparently its limit. Of course I had to take the freeway several times and the wind blew the rain in and I got pretty wet. You know, to match my hat.

Late afternoon and off to my guy at Nissan named Toby who fixes these things and after tearing into it a bit says ‘Well the motor is dead. It’s a cool $600’. And given the 50 times a day I use it to take pictures out my windows to make a living it’s probably worth fixing. Or at least it should be once the driver’s seat dries out. So there I was leaving the car for a few days (no point in driving it) and I was cleaning my ladder and flashlights, tape measures and tools out the back when I came across a box of my brand new CD, ‘Ash and Bone’. There’s not a lot miles on it yet—still in the package even. I offered one to Toby who said he’s meant to come to the CD release but yeah, when he called it’d already sold out. He eagerly took the CD and then said ‘Hey, least I could do is get you a Rent-A-Car’. At that moment, I was damn Grateful for that. Thanks Toby!

So yeah, if you see a guy wearing a muddy Stetson driving down the highway in a fire engine red Kia Soul. That’s me. Really wish it had a cassette deck though. I’d love to put my ancient copy of ‘Rubber Soul’ in just for fun…

Clearing my Throat…

Grateful Blog: Day 52: I don’t normally fall asleep in the middle of the day but today I did. I woke up groggy and a bit perplexed but the news was good. Back in December I starting having weird issues stomach issues in relation to an ongoing battle with acid reflux that seemed to have morphed into sudden weight loss and periodic bouts of not being able to keep food down. Around Christmas I was fairly debilitated, almost confined to bed and understandably frightened. So while I’ve been working my usual 60 hour weeks and frantically planning every last detail of the CD release, I’ve had this looming medical procedure called an ‘Endoscopy’ hanging over my head. It’s pretty simple really: They knock you out, shove a tube down your throat and take pictures. I was pretty calm about the whole deal until this morning and my blood pressure told that tale pretty easily.
The other night during the CD release was so magical for me. There were so many friends and family and fans there to support me. It could not have been better. I was fully present in the moment and I think in the pictures folks are posting on Facebook you see the joy I was having. I tried as hard as I could to put this morning’s procedure whatever implications it might have had out of my mind. It just about 100% worked but nothing in life, as we all know is 100%.
So this morning, I went in, they knocked me out and I slept while they took their pictures. Fortunately I woke up to the same world and the same diagnosis that I had before I went in which is essentially this: “You’re gonna live. Probably a long healthy life.” The lesson that we always seem to learn from these episodes is to never take any single day from granted. They’re too precious. So from Saturday night’s magical show to Tuesday afternoon’s diagnosis, I’ve been living in 2 worlds but we all know better, it’s just one life that we get to live. So while I’m Grateful for such a wonderful show, I’m equally Grateful for some good news today. And in the mean time, I’m Grateful for the not so gentle reminders that every day is magic, that every day there’s something to be Grateful for. That’s why I write this blog. And more importantly, that’s what I believe. Peace—and Good Health to you and yours!     

Pruning Roses on President’s Day…

Grateful Blog: Day 51: President’s Day. Living in thePacific Northwestis a unique experience. I candidly tell anyone who’ll listen how much I hate the weather. I do. It’s gray. It’s wet. And it lasts for about 8 months like that. But there are things that 22+ years of living in thePacific Northwestthat I’ve embraced. They’re funny things. Like how we all know where certain 12,000 foot tall volcanoes are (or should be), even though we can’t see them. Or how Spring starts in February and ends on July 5th. You see, the Northwest is a region of abundance. Abundant mountains, good coffee, micro-brews, forests, food carts, Subaru’s, rain, Gore-Tex, bicycles, rivers, and folks with those little black framed glasses. I have no idea why these things are true but they are. I embrace some of it and some of it I just laugh at. To wit: Sometimes when we all go out of our way to be ‘different’ we end up looking alike.
Anyways, several years ago I was driving aroundPortland—the ‘RoseCity’ on President’s Day when I saw an older couple in their yard, a light rain falling, trimming their roses. You could almost hear them talking about how they did last year compared to the year before, etc. It turns out that’s another quirky thing about thePacific Northwest: it’s tradition to prune your roses on President’s Day. I have no idea how or where that got started but I adore it. It’s dumb because it’s raining—who would do yard work in February—in the rain? It’s practical because we have to prune them once they’ve broken their dormancy but before they get leggy. So it’s the right time. It’s memorable because we have President’s Day to remind us. It’s a little iconic, because it IS theRoseCityafter all. And frankly it’s ‘Tradition’ even if I have no idea how or why it got started.
So yesterday I got out the gloves, the bucket and the loppers and pruned back the roses. My neighbor once showed me the science to it, angle this way, then that way (it baffled me for years), take out the crossing vines (crossing vines?), let the air ‘flow’ through (really?) and take them down ‘X percentage of the Y factor.’ Oh man. Then, sensing my confusion he said ‘Look, their basically weeds with pretty flowers—hack ‘em back and they’ll be fine and better than they were if you hadn’t’. Check. That I got. I actually did find this 1950’s pamphlet on it once at a garage sale and watched the pretty gal in the beehive hairdo show me step by step how but I never fully got the diagrams. I think she over-explained it. They’re weeds with pretty flowers. Skip the spray and the fancy fertilizer. Just take ‘em down a ways and see those little nodes of new growth, yeah those? Right, cut the angle there. Take out the dead stuff. Ok, maybe a little fertilizer. But it’s best to do it on a lightly rainy day. With the one you love. So you can talk about how they did last year compared to the year before. After all, you live in thePacific Northwest, and it’s ‘Tradition’, and every year on President’s Day I do what everybody else does around here, and I embrace it and it in turn embraces me. That’s when I most feel like I belong.

Behind Every Successful Man…

Grateful Blog: Day 50: There’s so very much to be Grateful for today. Last night I was literally on Top of the World. The CD release show for ‘Ash and Bone’ was AMAZING! to say the least. I could not have enjoyed a crowd, a venue, a show or a night more than I did last night. To EVERYONE who came, THANK YOU!!! for making that one of the absolutely most special and singular night’s of my life. It was so INCREDIBLE and just entirely Perfect.
The thing that strikes me the most today is that besides be so humbled by the sheer outpouring of Love, Support and Enthusiasm from so many people is how many people I have to ‘Thank’ because so many people made significant contributions to making the CD and the night special. So first and foremost I’m Grateful that I have the good fortune to have so many people to Thank. That’s a real blessing because I could not have done it without them and will endeavor to find the way to thank each and every one of you.
But today I want to thank the person I’m most Grateful for—in my musical career as well as my life, my Beautiful wife Diane. What you see with Diane is what you get. A great hugger (I’d argue the Best!), a ready and pretty smile, and a genuineness that is instantly recognizable to her friends and all who know her. Diane is not only the love of my life and the backbone of our marriage, she is also the most straightforward, honest and loyal woman I’ve every met. But even more than that, as a songwriter she gives me the freedom to say ‘Hey, I need to drive toTexasfor 3 weeks to play music’ or ‘I’m going to commit $$$ to the making of a CD that we’ll never make our money back on’. She not only doesn’t bat an eye, but she ENCOURAGES me to follow my passion in so ways large and small that often go unrecognized, but we both know are true.
She’s is almost exclusively my first audience for new songs. She is my editor for changes in both content and tone and my sounding board that says ‘you can/can’t sing that’ when I try something out of the box or out of my range. That person is invaluable to every artist. That person—my person, is my lovely wife Diane. She is also my biggest fan and I am hers. She hates the spotlight and hates taking any credit but that saying ‘Behind every successful man is a good woman’ is only partially true because behind every success that I’ve experienced is a GREAT woman.
 So today I’m Grateful because I have so many wonderful people to Thank for making the debut of my CD and the show such a big success. And I’m most Grateful that the person I have to thank first and foremost is just in the next room…