90 days of the ‘Grateful Blog’: Tick-tock-tick…

Grateful Blog: Day 90: 90 days of the ‘Grateful Blog’. At the quarter pole as it were. When I started this blog I did it because I wanted to be mindful of ALL the blessings this life has given me. And I wanted to somehow re-create that feeling we get when we’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table, when we’re all holding hands, and your turn comes when you’re asked what you’re thankful, or Grateful for…

So far I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve put myself on the spot time and time again and I’ve managed to recall some vignette of the day or of my life that reminded me why I was here, why I had something to say, why I was Grateful…

So the thing is today I don’t have much to say. I was ‘Grateful’ most of the day. Even if I was exhausted from the week, the rain, the chattering brakes, the streaky windshield wipers, the skipping CD player, the working till 8pm every night, and the reluctance to engage the Universe in a meaningful way. Today I just more or less got up, got coffee, and plowed through a long Friday in a long week of long days. Nothing amazing or special happened. I survived it–lived to fight another day.

Friday night, finally home and for the first time this week I’m alone with the tick-tock-tick of the clock in my room and it sounds for a change like music, like a rhythmic pulse to relax to. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m Grateful the week had finally slowed down enough, that I can breathe, and just be Grateful for breathing…

‘Pay it Forward’: Cracking the Egg…

Grateful Blog: Day 89: A few years ago when I first started performing as a musician I took my songs out of the basement and into the light as it were. In retrospect, the light was not kind to some of those early songs. But the rest of my life changed in ways I had no idea it was going to change. Believe it or not, I’ve always been a bit shy and introverted and performing has given me the gift of opening up, and I’m Grateful for that. It’s helped me make friends and connect with some of the most wonderful people. I’ve often said that becoming a musician has been like ‘cracking the egg’ on another chapter of my life and it’s true—it’s been scrambled, fried, over easy and sunny side up ever since. But the best part without a doubt is the people I’ve met along the way.

Yesterday I got home from another long day at work and found a package fromNew York. Inside it was a copy of the issue of ‘American Songwriter’ magazine that mentioned me and my song ‘Lost and Found’ as an ‘Honorable Mention’ in the monthly contest. John Taylor sent it to me. John and I met on a train several years ago. When I was first thinking about making a CD he sent me his disc ‘Hometown Paper’ so I’d get a better idea of layouts, graphics, etc. Getting that and his advice helped a bunch–and his great tunes on ‘Hometown Paper’ were a nice bonus. So yesterday John sent a copy of the magazine and I immediately realized the thoughtfulness that took. I’d never gotten a copy of it and I like to save that kind of thing. Getting mentioned in their songwriter contest was a bit of big thing for me.

So it’s just that sort of kindness and thoughtfulness that I’m Grateful for today. For the people like John I’ve met who take the time to offer advice and think ‘You know I bet he’d like a copy of that magazine’ and sends me his personal copy. It’s the coolest thing; Because the next thing that inevitably happens is I start looking at the world through that same lens and wonder, ‘What can I unselfishly do for someone else today?’

So ‘Thank You!’ for the kind gift of the book John. But more than that, for the reminder to ‘Pay it Forward’. I think the world could use a lot more of that and we’d be all be more Grateful, no matter how many eggs we crack along the way…

The ‘Spirit of 76’…Happy Birthday Mom!!!

Grateful Blog: Day 88: Today was Mom’s Birthday. 76. Wow…76. I sent her flowers from my favorite florist back home. Mom cried. That’s how it goes. I called but she was at choir practice. Singing for the angels—much better than singing with them. Later I called again. It was past 11pm her time but she answered and we talked for close to an hour. About this, That. Nothing and Everything.

Mom comes from tough Bavarian stock. Her Mom—Grandma, made it to 89. I hope she does too. Sometime I think it’s out of sheer stubbornness, but other times I’m not so sure. This is the same woman who calls me every year on 9-11, my birthday, and no matter the time of day or night and sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. And she cries when she gets flowers. Probably 15 years ago in a particularly nostalgic moment I took the cassette tape of her singing on my answering machine and kept it, because you never know when you’re going to miss hearing your Mom sing you ‘Happy Birthday’. Besides, it’s Tradition…

There are so many stories. I can’t tell them all. Mom always likes to tell how she was 72 hours in labor with me before I finally made an appearance. Being the 4th boy and being promised 3 consecutive girls the doctor asked Mom is he should ‘push me back in’ because she was hoping for a girl. To which she replied ‘Hell no!’ In 1967 ‘Hell’ was a swear word and high treason to good Catholic gal like Mom, but I’m pretty sure she meant it what she said ‘Hell no!’ I was here to stay…  

Ever since then she’s survived 44 plus years of me. Tonight we talked about the wedding in 1974 inBrooklyn; I was not quite 7 yet. In the smoky din of the PFC (Polish Falcon Club) and the polka music I went around table to table drinking the leftover champagne. At the ripe age of 6 I got drunk, danced, and then passed out in a corner. It’s funny how we’ve always been able to laugh about that like ‘well, sometimes things happen’. Mom said something to the effect of ‘Hey, you were 6, a handful and impossible to keep track of.’ That’s so true but I’d never heard it so well said.

Yet despite that, along with Dad, they did an amazing job raising me. I knew right from wrong, and the value of things like hard work and respect. There’s no way to quantify that. One day you’re 6 years old and then you’re 44. One day your Mom is 38 and then she’s 76. It all happens so fast: Labor, kindergarten, champagne, baseball, soccer, high school, college, marriage, house, job, the flowers, and then here we are in 2012.

On the phone, Mom tells stories like I do. She weaves in and out until no stone is left unturned. And where the memories and the truth get mixed up there’s the undeniable fact that what’s important is the telling, the passing of the torch, the storyteller handing off he muse to the next generation. I get that from her. No one who knows me or her will deny that isn’t the gospel truth.

Yet talking to Mom tonight, on the 76th anniversary of her birth, there’s something different there. I’m no longer trying to prove anything and she’s not trying to teach anything. We’ve achieved that weird parent/child relationship where we can enjoy each other person to person, for who they are, not who we thought they were. It’s cool beyond belief because it hasn’t always been that way. She’s proud of me and I’m proud of her. We’re both survivors. Both stubborn. Both singers. Both storytellers of the first order. We’ve both been working on this a long time. It’s nice to come to the spot where she can cry when I send her flowers and I can cry because it means that much to me to make her happy.

Mom reads this blog. Every day. Hey, Mom—somewhere I still have that cassette, of you singing me ‘Happy Birthday’. Someday I’ll be 76 and I’ll need to hear your voice again. But tonight we can still call and do it in person, and tell our stories. I’m so, so Grateful for that. About every other day this ‘blog’ makes me cry and I’m Grateful for that too. It tells me I’m alive. And Mom, it’s OK to cry now. I’m way ahead of you….

Bread, Cheese and Perfect Strangers…

Grateful Blog: Day 87: It should surprise no one that knows me that I talk to the people at the grocery store. I mean we all do that right??? I can’t say that I know them all by name but we always talk. About this, that, life, the weather, and plans for the weekend. I always say ‘Hi’ to the checkers as well as the gals at the deli, and ask then how they’re doing, to the wine steward who lives in Battle Ground and the guys at the butcher counter, Johnnie and Ramón. Johnnie’s Dad died last year. It was a hard time for him. He took several trips toCaliforniato be with him, then to settle his affairs. Johnnie’s an easygoing guy but you could see how losing his Dad wore on him in his face. It’s been almost a year now and I still see it there. I know it’s still going to be awhile but every so often Johnnie gets this big laugh and I know he’s going to be alright.

Tonight Johnnie wasn’t there and Ramón was. We chatted a bit and of course I asked ‘how’s it going?’ and he said ‘Great! I can’t complain’. It was unusually chipper for him. So I asked ‘Well THAT’s positive for a Monday?!’ and then he said ‘It could be worse—a lot worse. You know the gal who works the cheese counter and olive bar?’ ‘Yeah, sure I do.’ She had a stroke the other day. Can’t talk or function. She’s got a 2 year old.’ My heart sank. I’d talked to her dozens of times. She’s a fan of country music and she always said ‘Hi’ because she saw my cowboy hat. We’d talked about music, and life—almost never about cheese or olives. I’m sad that I don’t know her name although I doubt that’d matter. I spent the rest of the time in the store in a fog, trying to wrap my mind around what a difficult time she must be going through while feeling Ramón’s sense of optimism and relief because that horrible something that suddenly happens wasn’t happening to him, or me.

I bought my groceries. The checker was new. It was weird somehow. The flowers I’d bought for my wife didn’t ring up right. There was no special occasion, mostly ‘just because’ I wanted her to feel special today. Ultimately I gave in, told the checker ‘whatever’ just to stop holding up the line. I went outside and it was windy, a storm front brewing. The wind hit my over-stacked cart and things fell onto the pavement. I started gathering up items in the road when a much older man, probably in his 80’s, stopped, stooped over, and took a new, warm loaf of bread that had fallen out of the sleeve onto the pavement and gently slid it back in and handed it back to me. Our eyes met briefly and he kindly said ‘Here’s your bread, I hope I didn’t make it worse’.

In retrospect it seems like such a weird thing to say, but at the time, it made perfect sense to me. That little kindness between perfect strangers that we might see every day and never, ever notice. Tonight I’m so Grateful for that…

A Little less Sugar…

Grateful Blog: Day 86: Bert Sugar died yesterday. Bert Randolph Sugar was known as “The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century”, as well as “one of the foremost historians alive,” and was elected to the International Boxing Hall in January 2005. Bert was one of those larger than life characters. He wore a fedora, smoked a cigar, rolled with the high rollers in some of the biggest sporting events in the last century and witnessed a ton of them in person. I’m not really a boxing fan but Bert was a regular guest on one of my favorite sports radio programs: ‘Prime Time with Issac and Suke on 1080 AM.’ Issac and Suke called Bert once for an appearance on the show and 2 weeks later Bert just started calling the show and giving tips on which college football teams would win that weekend.

It became a regular feature and I totally looked forward to it even though I couldn’t have cared less who won or lost. Bert would call in Thursdays at 4:30pm and tell stories about how he’d hung out with Mohammed Ali or drank with Joe DiMaggio and you felt like you were listening to the radio in 1956 or 1966 all over again. He was a complete throwback from another era, a living legend and a real-live link to the past that most folks just read about in books. He also had that wise-acre sense of humor and gravelly voiced demeanor that’s part weird uncle and part genius. The fact of the matter was that Bert Randolph Sugar was one of a kind, a world class storyteller, and the sort of guy we never see anymore, and that I think we could use more of.

There was one night I was listening and Bert was laughing loudly, his whiskey and cigar tinged laugh and said ‘Hey fellas, once upon a time don’t work no more’. I wrote it down and went home and wrote a song by that name that night. I’m Grateful he called in every week and told his stories. I think he just wanted someone to talk to who knew what a treasure he was. I miss Bert already…

Doverlaff House Concerts: ‘The Church of Song’

Grateful Blog: Day 85: (Part 2) Continued…

After yesterday’s Talent Show, I finished up my set list for the 2nd Official CD release show for ‘Ash and Bone’ and got ready for the show. The show was part of the Doverlaff House Concert series. It’s becoming legendary in the Portland area one epic show and fabulous artist at a time. It’s put on by Dan Dover and Cheryl Mitzlaff, 2 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet hosting musical acts in their home with 50 of the best audience members you could ever hope to have. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of the talent show: A full house and no judging. Its part concert and maybe part church service: The ‘Church of Song’ perhaps.

There’s something magical about the setting and the room, or I should say the people in the room. They show up early, stake out a choice seat, and then mill around with the artists prior to the show. Folks hug, catch up, and you can palpably feel the warmth in the air. Then the lights get set down low, the artist takes the ‘stage’, less than a foot from the front row, and then something special is about to begin.

There’s this beautiful mix of intimacy and electricity. At some point in the first set I played a brand new song, less than a week old. I wasn’t even sure I knew it. So just to highlight that (and because I’m a sucker for a certain degree of that high wire act) I got out from behind the microphone and played the song unplugged, acoustic and stood even closer to the audience. You could hear a pin drop. That might be scary for some musicians but for those of us who’ve played one too many noisy clubs the opportunity to really be heard is intoxicating. I think they loved the song as much as I did and somehow I believe they felt the experience as intensely as I did. It was truly amazing. The opposite is also true; with no real encouragement or direction that wonderful audience spontaneously bursts into song and sings along with you. Like being able to hear a pin drop, it’s also music to the ears. It’s better than that actually, it’s like being swept up in a wave and allowing yourself the freedom to enjoy the ride…

There are not enough words to describe how I felt about last night. Like the first ‘Ash and Bone’ CD release show it sold out and did so really quickly. I like to think it’s because my songs are getting better and because my shows are gaining a reputation for being special events. I don’t know. I guess I have no real perspective on that and maybe I shouldn’t. I’m just so dam Grateful when people spend their precious free time spending an evening with me, to let me tell my stories and sing my songs. It’s a bit like this blog. You start out thinking you’ll create something and then that something becomes more special than you ever imagined. And like the show at Artichoke Music, last night’s show was so, so special. It felt like part celebration, part graduation and part conflagration. For a little while we set the place on fire, fanned the flames and it kept us warm.

There’s nothing better for me than living in the moment and nothing better than that wonderful ‘Connection’ with the audience. Moments like last night define my life in a way I had no idea was even possible until I started this journey 4 years ago when I met Dan and Cheryl. I’ve often said that anyone you meet on any given night can change your life. It’s so true. And last night was just further proof of that. I’m so Grateful to be part of a circle of friends and a community that can still hear a pin drop, that loves to sing along on a chorus, that cries with you, laughs with you, and hugs you once beforehand and twice afterwards. Some night’s are better than other and last night was one or those…Amen!

The ‘Talent’ Show…

Grateful Blog: Day 84: (Part 1) I missed yesterday’s ‘Grateful Blog’. Actually that’s incorrect. I didn’t miss it so much as I lived it. I went to be early Friday night only to wake up Saturday morning at 4am and while tired and still 16 hours from my 2nd Official CD release show for ‘Ash and Bone’, I had a set list to do. Set lists are funny things. I’ve tried the spectrum form avoiding them entirely, under the guise of spontaneity to a blow by blow word for word set up. I’ve found the best lie somewhere between the 2 extremes. In any case, I was up early and spent a good portion of the morning toggling between working on my set list and listening to the early morning ‘Swing and Country’ radio show on KBOO 90.7 FM. By mid-morning I was off to do a talent contest (a what???), yeah, one of those American Idol type talent show deals.

It was set up very much like the TV show talent shows are. I was ENTIRELY unsure what the heck I was doing there but when they asked I thought ‘sure, why not, no harm right?’ It was first class and well run and when I got there the contestants backstage were anxiously awaiting their turn. At some point I realized that it was just like everything else I do in my life—I do it for the fun, for the experience and for the amazing people I meet. In fact I was having such a good time doing just that backstage that suddenly I was called up and it was my turn.

So there I was on this big stage, with almost no audience but the 3 judges at their table and I was clearly on the spot. It was actually a little nerve-wracking for a second or 2. But then I did what I did what I always do, tell my story in words and in song. I know that it’s not for everyone but for the people who like what I do, they really like what I do, and there’ll be that ‘Connection’ they’ll make with the songs and with me and that alone with be worth it.

I have no idea how I ‘placed’ or didn’t place in the contest but I know how it turned out—I did my thing, I met some great people and my song actually moved one judge to tears. I don’t know if that qualifies as ‘talent’ or not, but I do know this: I’m Grateful that I did it because it involves the process that as artists we continually struggle with: The fear of rejection. Nevermore is that so on naked display as a ‘talent’ contest. But I’m most Grateful because I met some really great people: Fellow contestants, organizers and judges–every last one of them. In the contest between ‘winning’ and that ‘Connection’ I’ll take the ‘Connection’ any day of the week. It’s really no contest at all. And I’m Grateful for the wisdom to know the difference…

The OTHER ‘George Zimmerman’…

Grateful Blog: Day 83: His name is ALL over the news. ‘George Zimmerman’. If you’ve been out of the country or out in a cabin inMontanawith no electricity or a newspaper he’s the guy who shot a young black teenager inFloridathe other day. The teenager, Trayvon Martin was apparently wearing a ‘hoodie’ and in some bizarre act of vigilantism, some guy named George Zimmerman shot and killed him. The whole thing is a tragedy from top to bottom. I don’t know all (or even most) of the facts but I do know that when one person shoots another it carries the label ‘tragedy’ for me.

But this isn’t about that. It’s about , George Zimmerman this guy inFloridathat I knew. I met George in college. We knew him as ‘Mr. Z’. He taught music classes on campus at theUniversityofDayton. I heard his classes were easy, fun, and would fulfill a certain # of credit hours towards graduation. That sounded more than good enough to me. When I showed up the first day I was unprepared for the man with the rolling accent, the deep laugh, the silver handlebar mustache, and the love for music. But there I was, 20 years old, trapped in a class called ‘Popular American Song’. I was thinking Springsteen or the Beatles, we got Debussy and Copland.

After a short week or so I realized that I started to actually like the class. Debussy did this huge electronic ‘noise’ piece for the World’s Fair in Belgiumin a theater that was designed to emulate the 9 chambers of a cow’s stomach. I mean who in their right mind takes on THAT?? George commented that Debussy famously said ‘Music is the space between the notes’ which is of course true to the 9th power. This old musical cat, George Zimmerman, ‘Mr. Z.’ was cool.

Then one day George, as was his custom, invited a bunch of us from his class to dinner, at his house in the suburbs ofDayton,Ohio. Mr. Z. served 5 or 6 of us, damn near starving college kids, this ridiculous gourmet meal. He LOVED to cook. Dessert was this crazy orange peel concoction with caramelized sugar, I’ll never forget it. Amazing! Then he showed us his collection of instruments, mostly pianos since that’s what he played including some serious 1800’s instruments. I think we were all a little bit intimidated and wary since George was so sweet and giving, and then there was his Christmas tree, that he still had up in April. Well, he was eccentric a little bit…

Later, I found out new things about George. He was nearing retirement and would soon be moving from his beloved Dayton to Naples, Florida. It was a big move. But I also found out that George was a respected lecturer and entertainer. He had a TV show that he created and hosted called ‘Passport to Music’ and ‘By George’, which aired in Dayton from 1968-1975. He told me he had Ella Fitzgerald on his show once. Met her. Had her sing on his show. Damn. THE Ella Fitzgerald??? Wow. He was formerly an elementary vocal teacher and Supervisor of Music for Dayton Public Schools. He published a collection of children’s songs, entitled ‘Seasons in Song’. And he wrote books???! Like ‘Everything Makes Me Think of Food’ that had the review ‘this may be one of the few cookbooks as worthy of the armchair as the kitchen counter.’

So George Zimmerman, ‘Mr. Z. as we affectionately called him, was certainly more about food and music than violence. Yet hearing his name, said over and over (and over) this week in conjunction with ‘Florida’ brought him back to memory like the smell of bread brings back the memory of a bakery when you were young. I spent 20 minutes trying to find Mr. Z online. No luck. I found his cookbook though. http://005899f.netsolhost.com/new_page_3.htm

But then I remembered that I’d tried before with the same lack of luck. He’d be in his 80’s now, maybe older. I don’t know. But Mr. Z. was the first guy in the Universe to teach me abut music and food and Christmas trees and the sheer fact that what’s important may lie entirely BETWEEN the notes and not the notes themselves. I TREASURE that. I’m more than Grateful for it. This ‘George Zimmerman’ imposter inFloridais NOT the ‘Mr. Z.’ I knew. Nope, that story is a tragedy. The George Zimmerman’ I knew was a passionate and compassionate man, a lover of food, music and the company of friends. It’s been too long since I thought about Mr. Z. and I hope to God he’s still hanging in there or least has gone to his reward with Ella…

In any case, I’m Grateful all that he taught and inspired. I may not have been listening then, but I AM now…Mr. Z is still teaching, and there’s no tragedy in that…