Thursday, September 3, 2020

A Brand New Sky

We hear many stories about how this world came to be, and they all tend to involve an event more or less like the snapping of fingers. Let there be light, and there it is. Or a turtle is conceived, floating on an endless body of water, or the goddess cuts off her little toe with a shard of obsidian. There's more or less nothing at one minute, and more and more something the next. And though I love these stories, and see the spiritual truth in them, there is a voice in me, and I'll only speak for myself, that used to say, "Well, that's only a story." But I have found out that sometimes this is exactly the way that things happen. You see, I was there one of the times that the world was begun.


It wasn't very long ago. I was living in Vermont, making my livelihood as a professional kitemaker. Those days I read everything I could about kites, especially on their history and traditions of kiteflying in the Eastern world. My own designs evolved into a hybrid of Japanese kites; I built their designs using modern western materials and stitched surreal elements on them that could then hover in the sky.

I often got work lecturing for schools about Chinese and Japanese kites, and one time a museum in Brattleboro, Vermont hired me to participate in the opening of a new exhibit of Japanese craftwork. The show included many wonderful traditional kites. For this opening they had also invited a traditional Taiko drumming group, who would perform in the parking lot outside the museum building. I learned that they were from Nagasaki, so I spent the week before making my own versions of the traditional Nagasaki fighter kite to fly overhead as they performed.

There was only one problem. The Brattleboro Museum is lovely, an old train station that sits just above a river in a narrow valley that runs parallel to and behind Main St. From outside the building you look in one direction at fire escapes and untidy brickwork, and in the other is the river and tall trees. And on that particular summer day not a breath of wind blew through that narrow canyon. I toured guests through the museum, and set out my kites outdoors for show. Occasionally I could fly one by backpeddling, making it dance around in the manner of those little fighters. But I would eventually run out of space and the kite would drift left, right, left, right, and fall to the ground like a colorful leaf.

After one of these stabs at flight one of the drummers came over to see the kites, and he got a kick out of seeing this bit his homeland fabricated with an American accent. I asked if they would be starting soon and he got this great crooked smile on his face.

"Yes. Soon."

Ten minutes later there was a buzz in the air as we sensed the performance was soon to begin. I put down my kites and joined the rest of the crowd. We all looked toward a cermonial cart, a simple wooden job with four big wooden wheels, painted a bright laquered red. On it sat the largest of the drums, an enormous barrel supported horizontal several feet above the platform. It had drumskins on either end that were easily five feet across. Five of the drummers approached it, four of them wearing traditional hippari jackets with an iconic crest printed on the back. The fifth was bare chested, wearing only a tiny white loincloth. He was muscular and compact, graceful and utterly confidant. He hopped onto the cart in one smooth motion and the others took positions at the four corners and began to push.

They sent the cart with its huge drum and unsmiling passenger right into the crowd. They wove S's through the scattering group. Then they came to a stop in the center of the lot. I looked around to see how big the crowd had become. We filled the area, extending down the road, and even half filling a little park that was across the street. I saw that kids had climbed into the branches of the trees there to get a better look. A couple of pigeons flew in circles over the brick buildings toward Main St, scared by the sound of a truck's grinding gears. Then they came back to roost in the ironwork and boarded up windows.

We all watched the man by the drum. With great care he reached down for a drumstick the size of a piece of stovewood. He turned it slowly in his hand, finding the place where his fingers and palm met it most intimately. Then he planted his left foor below the drumhead, whose center was at his eye level. He planted his right foot several feet back and turned his head, looking over his left shoulder toward the drum.

I became aware that a profound silence had descended upon this little valley.  Everyone was intent on every motion the small man made. His gaze at the drum deepened. He seemed to duplicate the stillness of the wood and skin. Then his arm began to slowly move back, and the drumstick came into position, poised over his right shoulder. His knees bent and his torso lowered. For a timeless moment he stood there, motionless, intent on the drum before him. The world was absolutly still.

Of course. It was not yet born.

When his body uncoiled and the element of the drumstick met the element of the drum, something happened that I could never of imagined. There was an explosion, but it was not on the cart. It burst from the brickwork behind Main St.

From every nook, each last cranny, and every shadowed hollow flew pigeons, born into the new world in instant flight. They darkened the sky, then scattered. At the same time noise was born, and in the wake of the single drumbeat the sound of town traffic resumed. The next drumbeat came, then the next and the next as the rhythm accelerated into a drumroll generated by a flurry of muscular arms.

By then the wind was born, and I went to my kites and placed one in the brand new sky.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Day I Picked up Bob Dylan Hitchhiking

It was 1978 or '79, and I was about to drive cross-county, from Santa Cruz, CA to New York. I was not psyched. I had spent several days trying to find someone to share the trip with me so I wouldn’t have to drive (and pay for the gas) alone. Santa Cruz was a college town, and there were several ride boards on campus and at local coffee shops that I had used myself to go places cheaply. But now I was the one with a seat to offer, and I wanted to find someone, quickly. 

I had a drive-away car, the deal being that I was contracted to deliver this vehical to suburban New York City. For my trouble I had one free tank of gas and a way to get back to my parent’s home for less than a plane ticket, and could bring more stuff with me than if I was hitchhiking. But I had a time limit; they gave you 10 days to make the delivery, and I had already burned through 5 of them. And the only calls that came from my listings on the ride boards were from people who wanted to leave the next week.... too late. If I found someone, we could make the trip faster, but if I was driving alone I would need more time. It was winter, so I would be going the south route; not the quickest way. And now I really had to go. 

I had been staying with a friend in Aptos, the car all packed in the driveway for days. I said goodbye and pointed the car south, feeling grumpy. 

You should know that then, as now, I loved to drive, and usually loved the adventure of a trip like this. A photo of Jack Kerouac was in my journal. This should have been fun. 

So I was on my way. I was approaching the freeway onramp when I saw a hitchhiker with his thumb out. He didn’t have a backpack or dufflebag with him, so the chances of him being someone who would want to go a long distance with me were pretty slender. But I pulled over anyway. I was in my hour of need. 

I would never be able to say this guy was nondescript. He was black, and had a big, almost fake-looking afro that was a pretty unusual site for 1979. He was quite dark skinned, and dressed with more than a bit of gypsy style. He had large nose and an unusal accent. And he immediately came across as a gentle soul. He got in the car, told me he wasn’t going far, and as soon as we had exchanged the most basic pleasantries I opened up to him that I was at the start of this long trip and was not up for it. He listened, intently, and when he spoke it was with a profound calm. 

I don’t remember what he said. I only know that when I pulled over to let him out, I had experienced a profound change of heart. I was ready. I was excited.

It was weird. 

I felt like I had had a visit from a real teacher, and the deep wisdom at that point in time was a simple but honest variation on Everything Will Be Alright. I told him I wanted to write him from the end of my trip and tell him how it went. He said he would like to hear. I handed him my journal/address book, and he wrote his name in the back. He had no last name, and only scribbled down the initials RJ. His address was in Malibu. Which even at that moment seemed weird. Why would someone wealthy enough to live in Malibu be hitchhiking?

I said thanks. We said goodbye. And I had a wonderful trip.

I spent that first night in Needles, California. The next morning I got breakfast and on my way out of town I picked up a hitchhiker. She was a girl, and had two male friends with her. She needed to get to NYC quickly, and they were having no luck hitching together. The guys looked me over, and we chatted a few minutes before they considered me a safe companion for their friend. We put her things in the car, and had a great trip together. We stayed in touch for years afterwords. 

I never wrote RJ. I regret that. I owed him. But I was young, irresponsible, and distracted.

And then the new Bob Dylan album came out, and I was stopped cold the first time I heard the song “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

You may call me Terry, you may call me Jimmy

You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy

You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray

You may call me anything but no matter what you say.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, 
yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Dylan was living in Malibu. Dylan is a semi-mythical character. I still wonder.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Charlie Mariano’s Daughter

I’m not sure if Russia is well known for it’s espresso. Perhaps it is.

In 1980, when coffee culture in this country was a matter of isolated pockets in our big cities or college towns, I got a job as a barista and sandwich maker at a Russian cafe in Cambridge, Massachusettes. We sat a block away from the Harvard quad and were mostly frequented by students, faculty, and tourists. But we also had loyal customers that worked in Cambridge and came in for coffee and conversation, favoring our cluttered ambiance over the chain cafe half a block away. We stayed busy.

The owners were a Russian family that treated us well. The manager was a friendly young blond woman named Sally Rose who had been there for many years already and who the owners seemed to treat as a daughter. SR loved them, and their little dark cafe, and wanted the rest of us who worked there to feel the same. She came in early in the morning to cut Black Forest cakes and came back late to be sure that we left everything shipshape for the morning.

I enjoyed the cafe, though I know now that as a barista I had my shortcomings. With practice I made a decent latte, but even over time they were artless and inconsistant. But in 1980 one could get away with such blasphemy. Even so, I worked there long enough, and with enough cheerfulness and due dilegence that I earned the affection of the owners, and Sally Rose, and our regulars. And at 23 I was trying to be happy.

There are two regulars I still think about now, more than a few years later. One I remember for her hands, the other for her eyes.

Hands was a woman who came in most afternoons for an espresso. She was quiet, yet friendly. I remember the first time I waited on her, and how I took her order, tamped her grind, pressed steam into her cup and turned to hand her her drink. She reached into her purse for some money, but as she handed me the bills I saw hands that were as black as the purse’s leather.

I wondered for weeks how this white woman had a black woman’s hands. Finally I decided to take a break while she sat at a small table, and asked if I could join her. She smiled when I asked about her hands, and explained that she repaired typewriters. I wonder what she may be doing now....

Eyes was another young woman, and a beauty. Being shy, I don’t remember how I ever ended up sitting with her on a break; the expression “out of my league” comes to mind. But we shared a table by the window and I asked her about her life. She explained she was an artist, and the daughter of a jazz musican. When I asked if it was anyone I would know, she said her dad played saxaphone with Eberhardt Weber. “Oh, you’re talking about Charlie Mariano!” She seemed pleasantly surprised that I would know.

Bass player Eberhardt Weber recorded for a European label named ECM that was a big deal in my college circles. Spare instrumental music from a cold, snowy place (Germany) was a perfect fit for our cold, snowy, college town (in New Hampshire). An ECM record was weather coming out of your speakers; the clear air of a winter morning, snow falling more slowly than possible, or the simple serenity of night giving way to dawn. ECM jazz was beautiful, tended to the uncluttered, and featured album covers that were usually abstract photos bearing no particular connection to the music within. Except that they were a perfect reflection of that music.

And as I sat with Charlie Mariano’s daughter, her eyes were a perfect reflection of the winter that was a young man’s lonliness. She smiled at me, and they changed into a window to all that was beautiful.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

For Tad

Less than a month ago, on October 25, I lost a friend. The last 20 years I didn't see as much of Tad as I would have liked, but in days before we shared things that have always made me feel close to him. This story is one of those experiences.

I didn't hear about Tad's death until several days had gone by. I found out about the gathering in his memory hours after it had wrapped. But below is what I would like to have shared.

Tad Merrick. A good man.


In 1992 Tad and I took a long hike together out of Sequoia National Park in the Sierras. With a few other of Tad’s California friends we hiked the High Sierra trail for several days, over the Great Western Divide and into the Kaweah Basin. We had several beautiful days there before the others had to go, leaving Tad and I to spend another week exploring. We climbed Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak, each a story unto itself. Then we headed south to Little Five Lakes, which would be our new base camp.

The funny thing was that neither Tad nor I had a camera on this trip. Tad was one of the most serious, and best, photographers I knew, and I’ve carried a camera with me most of my life too. I did buy a cheap disposable camera before we left, but I used it up in the first two days as we passed Angel Wings, Valhalla, and Hamilton Lake... some of the most beautiful places in the Sierra, or anywhere. But time after time, especially after our other friends had left, Tad and I would be staring off and mentioning what an amazing picture we were missing... the alpenglow on Black Kaweah mountain in the minutes after sunset, the early morning glow filling the basin as if the rocks themselves were emitting light. Seeing a herd of wild deer high on Eagle Scout. We started a little practice between the two of us -- when either of us saw an opportunity for a photo we would both pause, look, breathe, and let the vision sink deeply into our memories.

We already had quite a few of these images stored in our grey-matter film by the time we found a lovely campsite above one of the Little Five Lakes. We set up our camp... me with my little tent, Tad with his characteristic tarp on the ground and a little rainfly above his sleeping bag just to keep off the dew. As I remember we had finished making and eating dinner, soaking in the charms of our new spot, when we heard the sounds of breaking twigs nearby. We investigated, carefully, and from a distance saw a bear approach an old fallen log that wasn’t far from our camp. He started to paw at the rotten wood, and as we watched he licked the newly exposed areas, having a snack of the bugs there. It was pretty fascinating to watch...

When the bear had his fill, he started to wander again, this time toward our camp. Fortunately we had hung our food, so we were not too worried about that. But as we watched he started to explore our stuff, sniffing our cooking pots, coming close to my tent, and then heading to Tad’s tarp. He walked around it, then started to paw the bag. He went to the head and when he stuck his nose right into the bag Tad decided that was enough. Following the recommended protocol he grabbed some rocks and started to throw them near, but not at, the bear. I joined in too... We got his attention, and, in no great rush, he squinted at us and then lumbered downhill, away from the camp and toward the lake. Tad went over to make sure that his bag was OK, which it was, and we looked at each other and laughed. It was a pretty cool thing to have witnessed.

We went to the edge of our campsite to see if we could spot him again, and for the first few minutes thought we may not. We could hear him, but not see him. Just the lake, and the mountains beyond started to gather rosy light from the setting sun behind us.

And then he appeared. He appeared at the lake’s edge, then wandered toward a little peninsula that jutted into the waters. In no great rush he made his way toward the tip, where it was only a few feet wide. There he paused, and then started to have a drink.

From where we sat, everything fell into perfect synchronicity. There was the bear, in perfect silhouette. There was the bear’s reflection before him, in the perfectly still waters. There were the high Sierra peaks beyond, also reflected, now deeply colored with that light that you only experience at 10,000 feet, and only the briefest while at sunset.

We looked at each other, and looked back. We paused. We breathed.

I miss you, Tad. Be well. I hope the light where you are is just like the light then, and your tarp is safe.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Weather Report: Snow

There's a descending motif in the Let it Grow section of Weather Report Suite, by the Grateful Dead, that always makes me think of the slow fall of snow from the sky. As it began to snow this afternoon, I put it on. I looked out the window as that riff arrived, and all was in concert.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

First Heat

The first heat of Spring arrives, and the bulbs and grass surge, the cats head for the shadows, and I pull out the music that saunters. No rush to get anywhere.

Phillips, Grier and Flinner have several albums together, but Looking Back is my current favorite. They respectfully cover the Beatles (I Want You) and Hendrix (Little Wing) with a touch that is only possible because of their great musicianship. They take their time, and honor the mood of the original while stamping it their own.

Why does warm weather make me want to listen to this...? Therein the mystery.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Kelly Joe Cool Spring

The spring dances haphazardly round the Beltane pole, uncertain about whether to commit to a bloom or send frost and snow down the back of schoolkids jackets, shivers down their spines that beat to the pulse of Kelly Joe Phelps "Tap The Red Cane Whirlwind."