2018 - The Year of the Blurry Horizon

2018 has been a trudge through a muddy field toward a smoke-filled horizon. It wore me down. When I get tired, I chew through songs and prose. Thank goodness for the uplifting nature of music to sustain the march.

1 - Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator   

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2- Neko Case – Hell On  

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3 – Shannon Shaw – Shannon in Nashville

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4 – Lump (Laura Marling & Mike Lindsay) – LUMP

5 – Liz Cooper & the Stampede – Window Flowers

6 – Lo Moon – Lo Moon

7 – John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness 

8 – Leila Moss – Your Name is Safe in my Mouth

9 – Joan as Police Woman – Damned Devotion  

10 – Anna Hillburg – Really Real

So many others including these honorable mentions: Cryderman, Curtis Rouse – Cosmic Campfire, Lera Lynn – Plays Well with Others, Willie Nelson – Last Man Standing.

Don't Want to Forget

All of October, ever since my sister brought some of my mother’s ashes to me, I’ve been thinking about my Mom. At the end of November, she will have been dead for two years

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Only one other event has marked me in the way her death has, shook me so hard that I felt like I had landed on a new planet. That change was becoming sober, and it involved dramatic loss too. I lost my very best friend who wanted me dead.


That was a positive change. Once the alcohol was removed, I was light as a feather and didn’t know what to do with all the levity but thankfully, I had a heap of new-found friends who did. Once my Mom was removed, the change is entirely difficult to explain. It’s as unreal as speaking backward or not seeing colors. There is no Mom. There is no maker of me. How can this be? Sure, my dad is sweet but he is not my Mom. After Mom died, I became untethered again, and the thinning ranks of our family roll in different directions like scattered marbles.

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I am grateful for the tradition of the Day of the Dead to help me remember. I don’t want to forget her, but I admit, I am. My war-buddies, my siblings - we have been set free. Free to either be in each others’ lives or not, but no longer brought together by the gravitational pull of taking care of Mom. So far, we still reach for each other. And I am one of those lucky people with a second Mom, a woman I adore and respect and count on, my mother-in-law, Beverly Mello. I have spent more Christmases with the Mellos than I did with my family of origin.

A few years before my Mom died, I made an MP3 of a voicemail she left wishing me a happy birthday. That was unusual for her. She seldom called me (I called her) and it was even rarer after her stroke. She said, “A, baby?” Then sounds that sound like words but were not. Then, “you are given. Bye Bye.” She laughed her head off and left the phone wherever it had been and wandered off. I could hear her collapse into the laugh she would make when she surrendered to the absurdity of her situation. Her helper, Holly, hung up the phone after saying, “hello, hello?” That MP3 is a reminder of what I loved so much about her -- her realism and willingness to be a good sport.

My iPhone shuffle is one of my higher powers because this sweet little message has popped up continually in the last month. Mom’s voice, Mom’s ashes, Mom’s picture - these things are real. But they are not alive. I don’t want to forget.

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Mom and I flew to New York City, 1977 to visit Laura. Our first flights! We saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind and King Tut’s tomb at the American Museum of Natural History. We thought we were hot shit.



Karaoke with Me

What if this life is a gift? What if nothing about living matters other than living? Could it possibly be as easy and free as the highly unlikely occurrence of an organic pile of this, that and the other drawing breath then letting loose with a mouth full of song?

Imagine the sweetness, the levity, the beloved state of whatever we were when we were glow balls in the shoot, about to drop into this world. Uncompetitive, vibrant, enough as is, and ready to rock.

Every now and then that is my experience when I karaoke. I just show up and let it rip and sometimes I am amazed at what happens. Sometimes.

More often than not, I worry and fret about whether the song I want to sing is going to go over well, or I end up following a woman in sweats and socks-with-crocks who turns out to be capable of blowing Etta James off the stage. One unfortunate evening, I got stuck with a bad, bad karaoke mix that was a key lower than the original and had strange lyrics in the middle where a bridge would be if the song had a bridge, which it doesn’t! (Warning, warning, don’t sing Echo & The Bunnymen’s version of Killing Moon at The Mel-o-dee Lounge in El Ceritto -- it’s the brown acid of karaoke.) When I asked the KJ if this was a joke and what was happening with the song, he said he’d never ever heard it before and clearly didn’t like me or the song.

My friend, Marissa, got me into Karaoke a couple of years ago. Having been a musician for much of my life, I didn’t think I would like karaoke. I thought I was too good to karaoke. When it comes to music, I have a lot of opinions and when I have a performance, I practice until I feel like I know what I’m doing. Drunken bastardizations along with synthesized guitar solos are not my favorite. But you know what, joy for living is. Watching people go for it taps into that original sweet essence, where just showing up buoys the spirit. And the karaoke community is very encouraging. Participate and you become part of the family. When I flip through the songbook and a song finds me, I feel total excitement. My friend inspires me with her fearlessness. She attempts all genres, extremely challenging vocals, sometimes goes by herself, and even sings duets with strangers!  She also lets me borrow her readers when I forget my glasses.

Tomorrow afternoon we are having our second annual karaoke party at The Mel-o-dee Lounge in El Ceritto. Last year’s theme was easy-listening 70s. This year it’s Fast Times in El Cerrito.

As much as I fear looking silly -- a middle-aged lady singing the songs of her youth -- I want to remember to just show up and have fun. Be a glow ball in an off the shoulder sweatshirt and mesh gloves. Last year was a blast. This year will be too and you’re all invited. Oh won’t you karaoke with me?

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Why Would I? Why Wouldn't I?

My friend and spiritual advisor helps me with heavy lifting. When perplexed, she suggests I ask myself: Why would I ___? And, why wouldn’t I ___?

There are two Anthropologie packages that have been collecting dust for several months in our apartment building’s mailroom. I first noticed them when I was rooting through all the boxes and packages for my own Anthropologie order. Mine came, and naturally, I ended up returning them to an actual store where I bought even more sale stuff. But those two neglected packages are still there, months later, taunting me. The name on the packages no longer matches the name on the corresponding mailbox. I’m pretty sure the person who ordered them moved and can’t be bothered to come back and get them.

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Why would I take someone else’s Anthro packages?

Because they are going to waste.

Because I’m curious.

Because I can always take them back to the store for the person who clearly doesn’t live here anymore.

Because they are treasure.

Why wouldn’t I take someone else’s Anthro packages?

Because that’s stealing and stealing is bad.

Because there is a closed-circuit camera on 24/7 in the mail room.

I know I am driving Brian batty reporting to him every evening about the packages. He tells me to just go buy something at Anthropologie (He sounds exasperated.) But I don’t need anything. And it’s not about buying something. What is it about I wonder?

In other news, I watched Queer Eye the other night and they used an Air Fryer to make crispy rice cakes that supported mounds of tuna poke. I told Brian about the air fryer and he went to Target and bought me one. Tonight, the golden voyage is with brussels sprouts.

Nice try distracting me, husband.

I guess I could email or text my spiritual advisor. Or maybe by telling on myself here in this silly blog post the obsession will be lifted. Asking myself why I would or wouldn’t steal has kept me out of trouble, so far, and probably much less perplexed in the long run. The next time you’re unburdened by decency, try it.

Have a lovely holiday weekend, y’all. It’s not Belabored Day, after all!

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! Two Thumbs Up for Democracy !

Can you imagine NOT being able to say what you think about the government?

Any government for that matter?

How scary is Trump?

Well, he’s awful, demoralizing, unrepresentative, and destructive to policies that protect our civil rights and our environment, our financial futures and our children’s, and the civil aspects of our social contract. He encourages sexist, racist, undisciplined and unwise thinking and behavior. But I'm not scared of him. I'm not even scared of the people who are afraid to admit they made a mistake by supporting him and voting for him. Or those who still feel like he's their man. They are unwell in my view. Unreasonable. Whether they have a "Come to Jesus" moment or not is not my business. It's their's. My business is to know how I feel, manage said internal life and be a person that I like.

So far, Trump has not taken away our legal right to say whatever we want to say about him and his corrupt, chaotic administration. Nor has he taken away our right to express our opinions about Putin or any other such lousy-ass person.

They look like fools. They are depraved egomaniacs. The body language is small and scared, especially when posturing.

I am so grateful to have had the luck to be born in the U.S. of A. so I can still say this instead of letting my fear fester, poisoning my insides or even worse, leaking out and leading me to prison or death for saying shit about tyrants.

I agree with Ms. Patti Smith about people having the power.

We have…The power to dream to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It' s decreed the people rule
It' s decreed the people rule
I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth' s revolution
We have the power
People have the power

I saw a young woman outside the Rockridge BART station with a t-shirt that read, “Able & Willing to Rebuild.”

I’m strong. I have heart. I am full of love for this life and this country.

I’m ready and able to rebuild.

As Joan Rivers says, “Oh, Grow up!”

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Taking a Beating

 Photo by Emily Page

Photo by Emily Page

I am full of life and full of death at all times. Fissures forged by both etch my tissue and bone all the while coiled and ready to carry out the mission. Used-up spirit, worn-out cells, interloping viruses and bad bacteria ride the river of Death and yet Life holds sway in every single breath. Until that partnership loses balance. Then most of us will decline slowly, naturally, and finally, all will be quiet. As Ethan John sings, “We all know the future and the future knows us all, and everyone and everything must fall. The silence will be beautiful, the silence will be beautiful.”

I am deeply moved by all the suicides in our country. As reported by The Washington Post and the Center for Disease Control, 45,000 people in the US took their own lives in 2016. “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and one of just three leading causes that are on the rise. The others are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdoses…The report said people without known mental health problems were more likely to die by firearms than those with known mental health problems.”

These are scary times when living becomes an indictment, a life sentence. Most of us know there is help available of some kind or another, and even though no one wants to take it, some of us do. How awful for those who don’t. The suffering, the repercussions.

There was a time in my early thirties when I was at the end of my rope. I was living the life I always thought I wanted. I drank as much as I possibly could, had as much time to be as creative as I could stand, and had a beautiful body which I granted every known pleasure I or another could think of. But I could not win. My soul was wildly angry from neglect. I can tell you what I felt when I was drunk and inconsolable, too sick to ask for help. I wanted the alarm bells in my head to stop clanging. To SHUT THE HELL UP. No amount of alcohol (or drugs) could quiet them. I could not outrun the volcanic-like flow of anguish, loneliness and despair that made jumping off the cliff look better than dodging the burn path. Or worst yet, I could no longer feel the lava consuming my flesh because I was depressed and senseless, anesthetized. I could care less. I no longer mattered enough to try to overcome my debilitating shortcomings. I did not want to try ever again. And your love was not enough.

The only reason why I did not slit my wrists was because I passed out before I could do it. And of course, I really didn't want to die, I just wanted to stop hurting. And I did not want my cat to have to deal with my dead body or starve to death. And, my life force was clearly stronger than my death force. The bottom line: I was lucky.

I eventually asked for help and received something that continues to work for me. But I had to want it and go get it. I had to show up for myself. There are people I know and love who drink a whole lot and own guns. As much as I wish I could love them into wellness, I have to admit that jumping in front of someone else’s bullet gets us both killed. Instead, I just love them as is. No illusions about my power to fix someone else’s problems. If they ever ask for my help, I am available.

The opposite of struggle is surrender. But some of us won’t give up, can’t slow down, or trust that help is for real, for the taking. Some of us let shit go but shit keeps coming back in waves too big to transcend. We go under. Some of us hold our breaths and wait for the wave to pass. Some of us drown. Sometimes a beating tenderizes me. Sometimes it’s makes me murderous. It’s not a virtue to be lucky. I have learned to live with contradictions.

But it’s painful to watch people circle the drain. Especially people we love. Suicide is so hopeless, so violent. Maybe that’s why people we would never suspect would kill themselves do. They don’t want anyone to watch them drown. Remember how hopeless, how wretched it must have been for the person who grabbed the gun or designer scarf. And if you're on the survivor side of that tragedy, remember there's help for you, too. Let’s be nicer to each other. We’re all taking a beating.

A Country Singer wrapped in a Country Singer

Subtitle: An eventual music review of Laura Benitez and The Heartache

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In the year of our Lord, 1991, I fell in love with a country singer. I was married at the time, lived in Irvine, California and the singer was not my husband. My husband and I worked at the Improv Comedy Club but in our spare time we interned for MCA Records. MCA would send boxes of promotional CDs and posters which we would take to record stores in Orange and San Diego counties to make displays and provide other promotional services. It was my husband’s gig, but of course I helped. In one of the boxes was the newly coveted CD. I wasn’t familiar with or even into country music, except for Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, and that was only because I had dated Emmylou’s tour manager way back in my Tennessee days.

The force of my attraction to the music on the promotional CD consumed me. At the time, I did not realize I wanted out of my marriage. But the way the country singer sang about the sidewalks ending and albeit faraway yet achievable planets of love...it unhinged me. I felt the singer’s feelings, his passion, and the utter heart broken-ness that pierced holes into my cynical soul. I wanted his breath in my hair, his arms around my waist and his voice coming out of my own throat. I wanted to be him.

I left my first husband and moved to San Francisco.

In San Francisco, I dusted off my desire to be an artist. I started writing poetry and songs and read my work at poetry slams at the Paradise Lounge and Kilowatt. I drank and smoked a lot. I wound up working as a cocktail waitress at the Warfield, and the San Francisco Improv, the very club my ex-husband and I had opened only two years earlier. I found my pack of wild and woolly “artists,” and for the first and only time in my life, I was single. I was in love with suffering. Having my very own apartment on the corner of Golden Gate and McAllister Street was revolutionary.

One afternoon, while wandering the aisles of Haight Ashbury Music, I saw a sign on the bulletin board that read, ”George looking for Tammy.” By now, I was a fixture at the cutout bins at Amoeba and Rough Trade, digging around for anything I did not know musically and cost about a buck. There were shit-tons of CDs for .99 cents. I was learning about country music. So I auditioned for the band, Western Electric, and low and behold, I got the gig! I learned songs from a cassette tape of practices with the former Tammy, who happened to be none other than Wholesome Jill Olsen, and I started gigging fairly regularly with this Alt-Country band in the Bay Area of California.

Guess who came to town and had a gig at Slim’s?

Guess who became the country singer’s favorite San Francisco girlfriend?

I dated that country singer off and on for years, even had an ill-fated move to Nashville because of an unrequited, unrealistic hope for a future that was hogtied in liquor and lust. I just wasn’t ready to become who I would become.

Instead, I was a cocktail server at the Bluebird Cafe where I shit-talked  other country singers with the bartender who was my bestie-in-woe-begotten-love into the wee hours every night after the cafe closed.

 

All of this to say, it’s not about the man; it’s about the woman. And the Bay Area country singer-songwriter, Laura Benitez and The Heartache’s most recent recording, with all its thorns slays me. It takes me back to so many of the country artists from my early 1990s induction into Sandy’s Country Music Hall of Shame. Falling in love with something I could not have led me to what I could -- my own imperfect voice. Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Jann Browne and Kelly Willis taught me. Freakwater, Sally Timms, Gillian Welch, Maria McKee and Victoria Williams raised me up. That led to Patty Griffin, Candye Kane and Iris DeMent showing me who I  am. Benitez is part of a new generation that continues in this tradition.

with all its thorns is a collection of short stories told through song. Laura's voice reminds me of both Susanna Van Tassel and Lucinda Williams. Her songwriting blends classic elements of honky tonk, country and folk. She hits all the most human places with its earnestness and ire. She is funny, smart and forlorn. My favorite cuts are Whiskey Makes Me Love You (honky tonk) In Red (Murder ballad) and a folk-ballad about the Oakland tragedy, Ghostship, which makes me cry every single time I listen to it. Almost the Right One/Cai mi Cielo brings Doug Sahm & Texas Tornados to mind and Nora Went Down the Mountain is an updated version of To Daddy by the one and only, Dolly Parton. The Heartache are a crack shot country band and Laura is their rose. Here’s your current opportunity to see them.

Laura Benitez & the Heartache play "Whiskey Makes Me Love You" at Neck of the Woods, San Francisco on August 1, 2015

The road to my father’s home is paved in patched potholes.

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My recent trip to Florida to visit my father had a bumpy start. I flew out of Oakland through wind and drizzle then landed under buckets of rain in Orlando. There was so much turbulence on the flight -- hot bumpy air shook our metal tube from one coast to the other. I found it exciting, and a fitting start to my adventure. Visiting my Dad has never been easy, but then, neither was visiting my Mom. We are uneasy people.

That first morning when I went to my father’s court-mandated home for mentally challenged seniors, and he did not recognize me, I was shaken. But not for long. Even when the rain poured down in frothy white sheets as we drove along two-lane Malabar Road toward the river, I just slowed down. I could tell my Dad was nervous because of the way his legs kept jerking. And small talk became no talk. He air-braked, just like my Mom used to. To my surprise, I did not take it personally. I was given all the strength and courage I needed maybe because I asked for it. Each morning before I picked-up my Dad, I’d say, LOVE, I need you. Give me strength.

Eventually the rain would die down and we made it three days in a row to The Shack on US 1, which is a cool old Florida restaurant perched on the Indian River. We became re-acquainted meal by meal, ride by ride. It got easier between us. We also made trips to Walmart and the beach. Ice cream is our family’s drug of choice and so, we had hot fudge sundaes each afternoon before our goodbyes.

 

There was a time, not that long ago, when I was scared of my father and what he might do when I visited him. I was scared that he might attack me physically when I was driving. Or that he might run off when I thought he was in the bathroom. That we would argue about reality. Or the scariest proposition of all, that he might ask me to help him realize his dream of not being court-mandated and to find a way to live on his own. I noticed I spoke differently with him than I did with other people -- I was a little too cheery, too alert.

 

 

But this trip was different. He’s proven himself to be trust-worthy. And I have changed, too. I no longer see my father as a burden. He is a man who has lived through incredible odds and is still standing. His thoughts intrigue me, and his appreciation of my interest in him is unmatched. He is thrilled that I care. To get to know him, even though it’s late in the game, and let him know me, a fairly true version of me, is deeply satisfying. I have a friend who says, “It’s never too late in soul time.” It’s incredible to come from such a dysfunctional family and to pave avenues of healing. Those family-potholes of shame and neglect and lost-connection can be patched. Bumpy rides are fine, they get me where I need to go.

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