Happy Birthday, Todd.

One year ago today I woke up in Bob Perl’s guest house, the quaintly furnished mountain house above the garage on his estate near Willow, NY.  We had shared a weekend in honor of Todd, a few old friends and his nephews and me. Bob Johnson, Bob Perl and I had some coffee and packed up to head down to the city for the memorial service we’d planned at his club on the Lower East Side. Mark Burk had left before we’d awoken and we were grateful for his effort to be part of the weekend. Ben Saft had spent a wild Friday night with us, a fine dinner and a midnight hike to an alpaca ranch, worthy of a Todd adventure for sure.

Johnson and I stopped at the Ashokan Reservoir on the way down to NYC. Many a balmy afternoon had been spent with Todd and Marian and Amee lolling around the banks of the reservoir and dipping in for an illegal swim, the water stunningly clear and drinkably delicious. It was a foggy gray morning and Bob and I were sullen. We took a few pictures and continued on down the Thruway.  As we entered Manhattan Bob became virulent against the city traffic. I understood his rage, I’d experienced it myself so many times. Raging at your competitors for the West Side Highway, the Harlem River Drive or the FDR, their aggression, their “yo primero” or “YP” attitudes as we’d say in Caracas.

We made it to the club off of Delancey and found a host of friends and relatives already gathering. Larry Geismar, Larry Goldstein and several other Larrys. David Lehrhoff, David Tessler and hundreds of “faux-Davids.” And only one Nora, one Rachel, one Carol, one Telts, one Jhon. People had come from all walks of Todd’s life, his advertising days, high school friends, cousins from far and near, guys who had only met him in the last few months and couldn’t get enough of him.

Stories were told, pictures taken and a video shot (though I’ve never seen it). We laughed and many of us cried and Bob J. sang The Highwaymen and I quoted some Steely Dan lyrics. It was the best we could do and it was Todd’s birthday, as it is today.  It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago, so much seems to have transpired since that time. The shock and disbelief gave way to numbness and fear, the haunted days and sleepless nights led to dreams in which Todd spoke to us in vivid phrases, saying he was okay now, that we would see each other again. And gradually, achingly, we got used to his absence, found solace only in the presence of his memories, quoting him for the younger ones, “doing” his routines for each other, even listening to the prank phone calls.

In December I performed a childhood story called “Mudballs” I’d written and then adapted for solo performance. In it I had to play my mother, our stepfather, a Todd-like brother named Otto, myself as Max and a narrator on a road trip to the Poconos in 1971. It was a challenge, but not for the reasons you’d think. Embodying my family members was tough enough, but finding sympathy for them was the surprising effort.  How could Joe have married into the family? What were his motives? What qualities were human about him, sympathetic? And how did my mother feel having to announce his arrival to her boys? Did we ever show compassion for her and her difficult situation?

My director, David Ford, helped so much. An outsider with deep understanding of “human emotion” as Todd would call it, he opened avenues for me to find something in The Joe that could be admired or at least that would cause an audience member to discover complexity in him. And with the Otto character, he helped me tap directly into the 14 year old’s rage. It was a very educational process for me, but sadly difficult and ultimately uncomfortable.  I’ll publish the story soon and hope you enjoy the journey.

I ramble but you know what I’m getting at, don’t you? Happy Birthday, Todd. The second one we’ll have with out you.  Wish you were here to see it.


Myrtle Avenue

I dreamt of the old house, the one I grew up in. We were living there now and as I looked on the tiny back yard I realized all my siblings, nieces and nephews were alone, left alone.

There was a tree there, in the space between the split driveways, an apple tree. When I was young it provided shade and smooth tawny bark, shiny, peeling and touchable. When I was just a little older, I could climb it and nestle in the crotch of it, hidden slightly from the glare of the sunlight, the blacktop.

I gazed out on the yard and said “they’re all alone!” And I saw that the tree had been cut down, the triangle it sat on, lopped off in shape and re-blacktopped to erase the memory of that tree.  “I don’t want to live here anymore,” I cried out.

If Todd was the tree, he had provided some shade, some shelter, some place to hide behind, and not much fruit.  If Todd was the tree, he is gone, lopped off and re-blacktopped.

A few years ago I was driving on the 210 freeway from Rancho Cucamonga after a Sippy gig one night. I was viewing the online tour of that house on my new iPhone. My family had sold it to an Israeli contractor who’d made bold, modern alterations to it. As I toured the house, I tried to understand the rooms again; I couldn’t recognize them anymore.  Where was the den where a shelf of books had fallen on my brother while I had a piano lesson? He was buried in volumes on classical music and Judaism and I didn’t want to interrupt the lesson to dig him out. Where was the back hall by the washing machine where our housekeeper had asked me and Bobby and Glen “which one we wanted to be?” One said Bobby Sherman, one Glen Campbell and I was Paul McCartney. Where was the cramped dinette with those famously chaotic weeknight dinners (before the stern stepfather killed the party?)

I couldn’t fathom the layout of the house anymore; I was exhausted in nostalgia, put down the iPhone and turned to the driver of the van to tell the tale of where I’d been. But as I did so, a giant highway sign passed over my head: MYRTLE AVENUE it proclaimed. This was the name of the street where this house existed in New Jersey, but this sign was in Southern California.  I’ve been told the 210 is a magical highway, producing an In and Out Burger just when you need one, a veterinarian, a donut shop or the gas station you have a credit card for. The highway proved its magic to me that night.




She was a happy robot. A happiness Barbie.  An automaton of optimism, a sappiness specialist.  Blade Runner is what came to mind but rather than Pris, your basic pleasure model, we had Bliss, your basic optimism model.  She had questions for us and rattled facts at us with a rat-a-tat that was nearly impossible to follow and harder yet to argue with. For if you raised an issue she didn’t cotton to, she glossed over it with a few more factoids and said brightly, “Next?”

We’d come to see a movie called, appropriately, “Happy.” (http://www.thehappymovie.com/)  Director, Roko Belic’s wonderful first film, “Genghis Blues” won the Sundance Audience award and was nominated for an Oscar in 1999. My wife and I were big fans of that film and were optimistic about this new one.  Turns out, it was excellent, an informative trip down the garden path of current happiness research. It was also a travelogue of happy people in the most unlikely of situations. Example: a woman who had been a teen beauty queen and rich and successful wife and mother, who was run over by her sister in a truck while they quarreled on the dirt roads of her ranch. She suffered sixty facial surgeries and emerged nearly whole, her husband left her, her life ruined, plagued by emergent memories of girlhood stolen by alcoholic incestuous father. Like a phoenix, she rose up to meet her inner self, to find contentment in contemplative authenticity.  Example: a rickshaw driver in Calcutta, the poorest of the poor with no more than a roof over his head for his family and rice for food. Rich with love, with dear, loving friends in his squalid ghetto of a back street — happy.  Example: an inspirational lecturer doing a program at Benicia (CA) Middle School. This big-hearted John Goodman-esque fellow passes the mic to kids daring enough to speak up about being bullied, then gets the school to cheer for these kids’ courage and heart. Check him out at http://www.michaelpritchard.com/

We had assembled to see this movie, projected in video at the Ted Adcock Senior Center in Half Moon Bay. The usual assortment of culture vultures in town, the people you only see at the Coastside Orchestra concerts and these films presented by The Visionary Edge. After the film, which was deeply touching, the presenter introduced a Sustainable Happiness expert and the stage was taken by a statuesque, raven-haired, milky skinned model. She wore a long white raincoat out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and an attractive sky blue scarf to add patriotic flare to her outstanding feature: a great joker’s grin outlined in brilliant firecracker red.

The woman who spoke is indeed a happiness expert. (She shall remain unnamed here to avoid ruffling any happy feathers.) She’s studied with the best of the field and made it her life’s work to “happify” (my word, not her’s) the known world, especially in the West, and particularly it seems, for those who can pay her well. (Her fees for a “happiness makeover” range in the $3000 area for a personal consultation.)

She began the discussion by asking a startling question for such a random and public forum: “How many of you have suffered with depression or been medicated for a depression condition?” I quickly looked around to see that of the hundred or so people gathered, only two or three hands went up. (I admit that I was slow to raise my own, but did raise it high, as I am currently on a mild anti-depressant after the death of my brother last year.) I immediately wondered, if one in ten Americans are currently taking anti-depressants (according to USA Today in Oct. 2011), why were more hands not raised?

Our happy hostess went on to lecture and take questions on her research and especially on her programs, which she present to corporations like Proctor & Gamble and Hilton Rewards, a system of exercises to retrain us to be happy. Hilton Rewards asked to use her research in order to encourage their clients to do more travel. Her idea is that none of us were taught to be happy as children and we can teach ourselves to do so now. A bold premise which I certainly choose to believe and would love to see happen.  After many more questions, some of them skeptical, some exposing real stories of audience member’s who had friends and family who’d struggled with these issues, she got to the exercises we all desperately were ready to try.

Turns out they are quite simple and quite affective, carry them out first thing in the morning and see what you think.

  1. Smile, actually force your face into a smile. The research shows that the brain does not know the difference between a forced smile and a real one. The physical smile releases dopamine just like the real one (or jogging for that matter).
  2. Say out loud: Today is the Happiest Day of My Life.  If we program ourselves this way, it will happen, we will have a happier day and great things will come to us.
  3. Do some “Laughter Yoga”, start saying Hee Hee Hee, Ho Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha, until you break out in real laughter.  This was good fun last night as the room rapidly exploded into great peals of nearly authentic sounding laughter. The good doctor herself seemed to really enjoy it, like Angelina Jolie (whom she resembles) receiving an Oscar!
  4. Jump up and down five times and say I’m Happy each time.  This one is really fun. Try it now.

When her portion of the program was over, the audience quickly left the Adcock Center, probably exhausted from the strain of a new emotion. But I was feeling fine and not particularly judgemental of her work, glad to have attended the evening’s activities. And I had a question.  I approached her gently as she stood tall and available at the corner of the room, no one else lined up with me.

I introduced myself and mentioned that I thought the question regarding depression had a curious response this evening. If one in ten people were taking anti-depressants, then why didn’t more people raise their hands?  I asked her if this was a common response when she addressed groups, corporate groups for instance. Perhaps there was something about the way she phrased the question, I suggested. Or maybe it was because it was the very first question she asked, rather a difficult opener I admitted. Was it because depression was too stigmatized? I wondered. Because we were in a small town?

She smiled. A lot. Broadly, earnestly, unapproachably. I wondered if she was actually hearing what I was saying, if she were present at all. A thick veneer was presenting itself as I attempted to probe the issue further.

“Its because you were never taught to be happy as a child.” She said.

“But I know how to be happy,” I said. “I’m a musician; I work with children in music. I do understand what it feels like to be happy.  I am on a temporary course of anti-depressants after my brother’s death last year,” I told her.

“I’m sorry,” she said automatically. I asked her further about the depression question. Did she have this inauthentic response at corporations? “I don’t always ask that question.” She said and grinned so broadly that I was frightened and put off, which I wondered whether was her intention.

She had offered a $1000 discount on her services to anyone who signed up that night. I guess she realized I wasn’t planning on signing up, I already knew happiness, I was just suffering a temporary setback due to circumstances beyond my control.  But she offered me something free at that moment — a hug.

It’s hard for me to refuse a hug, from anyone. I rose up and received an embrace She reached out and gave me a hug that contained no actual human warmth in it that I could discern. It was a goodbye hug, no better yet, a get-lost hug, a don’t call me, I’ll add you to my email list hug.

When the rains came . . .

The rains finally came last night and boy, did they ever. Huge, thrumming, thundering rain, pounding and biblical. We should have lost power, we always did before, no router, not enough candles, reading by votives, no heat, but it was warm this time and perhaps the power company did some work on the boxes, on the lines.

I flicked on the deck light and looked out at the pooling lake and saw, a cane, varnished, yellow and floating, carved with mysterious icons, Todd’s.  Given to Bodhi like so many other sticks and swords and protective make-believe real steel weapons.

Then I dreamt of a six-gun. I was showing it off at a bar in Austin and a cop spied me through the window from across the street. He came in to check me out. “It’s not loaded,” I lied. “My brother gave it to me.” That was true, in the dream. It was the Colt he’d used, the one he’d lent Bodhi for a photograph one year before, the firing pin removed, the barrel empty and spun to prove it, in the same living room where we held his memorial in Berkeley.

I almost cried this a.m. I tried again, the sinuses giving way to some strange humidity, what is this feeling I wonder, as the cheeks, the nose, the eyebrows draw together. Weeping like a wounded aloe plant, but as the man said, “and these pills won’t let me cry.” He was Freedy Johnston, it’s a good quote.  I get it now.

When she loved, she loved wholly and fully and it was everything to her.  When she loved it was without reservation, without desire, she would go anywhere, do anything, live anyplace.   When we feel the ache of abandonment, we need to be held, for we were not held enough, not us.

I am an unreliable narrator. I am not judge and jury. I will try and get you to feel things to sympathize, to be there for him when you were not in real life. To regret. I know I do.

A new.

It’s new here. I’ve left some behind. Last year can contain these things. It was time for releasing.

I spent the week doing some medicine work. Recounting the good and the not so good – all the fragments of my brother found in me, attached to pieces of detritus from the earth, mostly lovely sticks and stones, and yes, they could have broken my bones and the names sometimes did hurt me, but the stuff of earth with thoughts attached was placed safely in a circle, given back to earth.

And after a week of daily practice in this safe, high desert, we picked up these fragments and with Bo and Amee contributing and carrying, brought them to another place, released the directions and set him free. On fire.

And the songs came through me, Indian Sunset, and Fallen Angel and he was released upward into the high desert sky where shooting stars in Pleiades and a thick margarine moonset met us on the edge of 2012.

He should be free and so should we be.

The Man at the End of the Beach

Yesterday was a strange one. I’ve been recovering from a slamdunk flu type thing, hit me Friday after the Glee party. The kids were dancing on the tables in the M.U. room at Cunha, wearing orange cones as hats, wheeling each other around in lost and found bins, strutting on the runway, really stretching out.  The vice-principal came in around 5 something, looked around agape and seemed to find another meaning for that word, a-ga-pe – he felt the love. We all thought we’d be seriously busted, the kids all jumped off the tables, starting trying to act normal, and he just smiled and said “who are these kids?”

The night before at the high school concert, he’d come to me and said, “This is really special what you’re doing here. These kids have a niche, they didn’t have one before.”  So I guess when he said “who are these kids?” he meant like, “where have they been all this time?”  Anyway we didn’t get busted, but I did get the flu.

So I was finally crawling my way out of it yesterday and prepping for my first ever solo performance last night at The Marsh, SF.  I was performing act one of a story I adapted for stage, “Mudballs.”  It visits a suburban colonial house in New Jersey in 1971, two crazy boys and their overworked, underloved mother and the days when a male suitor arrives, and becomes the unwanted stepfather the boys didn’t expect.  I took the dog to the beach and did the long walk from La Costanera to the northernmost end of Montara State Beach. Tide was low and sun was high. I practiced my lines from memory, running through the show on the way down. I got to the far rocks and climbed up to where you can’t really go much further. I took some photos, posted on one Twitpics, paused, and started to head back.

I noticed a guy sitting there alone on the sand. He was baldheaded, with major tattoos, he looked healthy, awake, but isolated with intention. I was in my own world too, not quite above water yet from my illness, trying to memorize my lines. I did not say hello. We did not make eye contact.  I came down off the rocks, removed my outer layer, made sure I didn’t drop anything,

tied the sweater jacket around my waist and walked back the mile to the south.

I got to the parking lot, very thirsty, very hungry, missed lunch somehow, 2pm, gotta pick up Bodhi and his friend at school, gotta get ready for my show. No keys.  Not anywhere, not in pockets, not under the car, not anywhere.  Remember this story of Todd attaching his keys to a kite string at Berkeley Marina?  The kite took off and he went screaming down the hill “MY KEYS, MY KEYS, THAT KITE HAS MY KEYS”  Well I remembered it.   Did it mean anything, was he paying me a visit?

I did the march of tears all the way back out to the north point, hotter now, thirstier, weary, repeating the lines from the play, rerunning the whole act again.  When I got out there I noticed that the bald tattoo man was sitting on the rocky point where I’d sat.  I hadn’t found the keys the whole way out, so vainly figured I’d check the rocky outcropping.  I called up to him:

“Hey man, did you see any keys around there?” No answer.

“Hey man, excuse me?”  No response. Was he meditating? Just couldn’t hear me? Ignoring me?

Louder yet, “Hey man, did you happen to find any keys around there?”   This time he heard me. He almost smiled.

“No, I didn’t see any keys.” He was nice maybe, not unapproachable, not suicidal. He had been waiting his turn. Waiting for the farthest spot on Montara Beach, the place where you couldn’t go any further away from everything. The place where my keys vanished. Who was he? What significance did he play in this mystery?

I lost the keys.

Amee rescued me.

I found a spare.

We drove to the city.

I performed the show.

I lay in bed.

The characters in the show, George, Marilyn, Otto, the people they are so closely based on, they are all dead. I am the only one remaining who was in that dinette, trapped in that car, step-son to that weird dude, brother to that hero, I am the only one here to tell it like it was.

Me and that bald-headed guy with the tattoos.
The man at the end of the beach.
And you.

Night of Writing Dangerously

I’m off to write dangerously, a six hour marathon to cross the finish line raising $50,000 and writing 50,000 words. I’m at 47,000 and change right now, so there’s no question in my mind I will “Win” Nanowrimo this evening. (everyone who writes 50K is a winner and the prize is . . . )

So thanks for the comments and encouragement and I hope to post some excerpts of the novel here after I’ve gone back and cleaned up this unholy mess of typing.

This sounded completely farfetched to me when I first heard about it. I’m sure many of you have had the same reaction. I’m here to tell you it is not and it can be done, even easily, so write on!!