Possibilities of Zero

A world of croaking ravens and sand mandalas…

Finding The Road Out Of Traffic – Jim Capaldi, Late ’75…

Jim 111975 was a weird year for the members of Traffic. The setup came the previous fall, when Steve Winwood abruptly left the others and went home mid-tour. After that things went very quiet. While numerous volatile situations had arisen within the band before, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood understood something that the rock ‘n roll public did not – this time Traffic was truly finished.

The three reacted  to the split in different ways. Chris retreated to his London flat and more or less stayed there. His confidence shot to pieces, Chris surrounded himself with friends (and strangers), got high and tried to imagine a future without Traffic. Steve too simply stayed put for awhile, clearing his head, before quietly re-emerging as a sort of super-skilled London session man. He also found time to work with a fellow Island Records associate –  percussionist Remi Kabaka, on an album they never quite finished.

Jim 9But Jim, having learned from previous Traffic fractures to make the best of a bad situation, simply threw himself into work – making a solo album. The product, Short Cut Draw Blood, released in December of ’75, ws strong, consisting of tracks recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, as well as stuff done with London session players (including Steve). It was to be his third solo effort, and to nearly everyone’s surprise, the pre-album single bore him a hit. The winsome “Love Hurts”, while not a Capaldi original, struck some kind of a chord and took off to the #4 position on the English charts that October.

Jim7With the  ever-so-fragile butterfly of success now unexpectedly cupped in his hands, Jim pondered his next move just as opportunity knocked. Contacted by The Old Grey Whistle Test, a British television show hosted by Bob Harris which specialized in ‘live’ (rather that lip-synced) performances – a headlining spot was proffered. And this was truly great, since a national broadcast represented his best shot at sparking a solo career. Of course, without a damn good band backing him, it might all be for naught – a point not  lost on old Jim.

And so began the task. Pete Bonas was likely the first on board. An ace guitarist, Pete was a friend (and currently  lived with) Chris Wood. While Chris’s current near-agoraphobia meant that he could offer Pete no steady work, he did make the connection to Jim – and the two clicked. From there, a mixture of familiar and newer faces would soon join: Jim’s brother, Phil Capaldi (percussion, keyboards, vocals), Rosko Gee (bass, from the last incarnation of Traffic), Nigerian born Remi Kabaka (hand drums),  and two more Africans  (both from Ghana): Ray Allen (sax) and Kiki Gyan (keyboards). With a diverse and musically rock solid group around him, Jim was ready to rehearse and play.

Or was he? One more call eventually was made – and it was strategic: Steve Winwood. The question of ‘why’ is interesting. With the keyboards already covered,  it is arguable that he was truly needed, but having Steve on stage would certainly elevate the impact of Jim’s television debut. And could it be a good move for Steve as well? Having dropped off the public’s radar since Traffic’s demise, this was perhaps a good way to remind people that he still around.

So there it was – a stellar band – more than hinting at Traffic (everyone except Chris), as well echoing all the way back to Ginger Baker’s Air Force (Steve and Remi).

On the day (November 18, 1975), they would play two songs: “Short Cut Draw Blood” and “Goodbye Love” – and the rehearsals had obviously paid off; somehow both sharp and loose, the band was  confident enough to forgo the hit single in favor of Capaldi written tunes.

Of course the music can speak for itself: 

Aftermath: Like Baker’s Air Force, Jim’s all-star band wasn’t destined to last – Steve was in it only for the day, (likely  Remi as well), and the initial glory short-lived. But the others soldiered on, playing with Jim on Whistle Test again, as well as various live gigs over the next few years (his association with Pete Bonas would go on until Jim’s death in 2005). But while he recorded prolifically, Jim’s solo career never quite got him where he wanted to be. Should he have pushed “Love Hurts” more? Toured the US hard early on? Who knows – even hindsight has limits.

But just perhaps, like his former band-mate Chris Wood, part of Jim’s heart was never really in it in the first place. Inextricably bound to the prior magic of Traffic; maybe for both the ‘solo career’ was really a more like a placeholder for a lost love, one destined never to return.JIm 10

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Booklet of Revelation: A Mind Play in Two Acts (and an epilogue)

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 This is a something that happened to me between seven to ten years ago. I was at home, in bed, either sleeping unusually late or taking one of my (frequent) naps. While I will classify this as a ‘dream’, (and am experienced with lucid dreams), this was unique in the sense that it altered my understanding of certain things. Having told the tale to a few people over the years, I have decided to record the details here for whatever they may be worth.

Act I

It began with a sudden rush, almost literally like curtain suddenly being pulled back. I was self-aware, ‘awake’ but disembodied, observing what looked like another time and place.  Before me was a man prostrated on a landscape of jagged rocks, naked, hands over his eyes. Above and around him was an odd pulsing sky, veined with electric cobalt. Unlike normal sunlight, this was almost ultraviolet – piercing, not bright per se but painful. Amid this desolate scene, the man was scared and crumpled, as if weighted by intense gravity.revelation blue - Copy

The source of his anxiety became known to me by an almost whispered ‘voice’ in my head, which became gradually more distinct. The man had just been ‘born’ (or awakened) to the world.  His consciousness somehow coming ‘on-line’ for the first time, he now understood himself as a distinct entity, separate from all else around him. But having been cast out of a unified, if un-self-aware ‘Eden’, rather than finding joy and freedom, he’d been slammed by an onslaught of perception, conveying the true nature of his/our situation. An ancient universe stared him down – an unimaginably old, powerful thing – cold, uncaring, and utterly impersonal. That was the source of his fear – this knowledge paired with an unspeakable sense of desolation. In my dream the inescapable, piercing blue light had been responsible; a radiant, energy field pinning him to the rocks with mind-rending awe.

Why him, why then? If you are going to be a literalist, I suppose maybe he was the first mutant human born more with a neuron in the right place – creating a novel self-aware circuit. I understood this as metaphor – he wasn’t ‘a man’, but represented humanity’s collective evolved consciousness, naked and unprotected. Even so,  I would guess that an newly sentient human would have felt something similar.

As for my ‘dream’ – soon after, this scene simply faded away.

Doesn’t seem like a super big deal does it? Interesting perhaps, but profound, well… These days, ‘existential dread’ is a cliché. Hell – comedians make careers out of it! So had it ended there, I would have scratched my head when I woke and agreed. But it wasn’t over.

As that image turned to mist, the full implication of the man’s condition was conveyed. It was as if, rather than having to think about, or ponder it for years until it made sense (which of course, I wouldn’t have done) – a bulk of information simply focused to a point, after which I suddenly understood (or was told) what it all meant.

The lesson so far: Experiencing the world (universe), unfiltered – as it really is, – is intolerable; expose the naked psyche to the full brunt of this cosmic acid trip & you lose your mind.

Really?

Yes. The man on the rocks was going through something visceral; he felt it in his bones. But when the intellect takes over – as it always tries to do, things only get worse. You are here, but you will never even know what ‘here’ really is, what (if anything) this thing we are part of is doing, or wants. It may or may not be meaningless but either way – you’ll never know. The only thing that really makes sense is that you (or your consciousness) exists. And of course, all available evidence says that even that will cease some day – returning you to the ultimate zero point. Fuck Freddy Kruger – that’s real horror.rev8

Act II

rev 6‘You say you’re living in a world that is driving you crazy? And you don’t know what to do about it?’ Well pay attention folks, I’ve got just the thing for you – step right this way…’

This phase of my dream was less impressionistic and more practical; providing some much needed context regarding this dreadful condition, and a sort of remedy. Finally! I remember visual images being this part of it – a lot of images. In fact, the way I recall it (which of course must be wrong), like a slide show on fast forward, I saw almost everything people do.  And the answer to the question of how one maintains mental equilibrium in a mad world turned out to be both ingeniously simple in principle and quite the opposite in execution. In a word: distraction.

Act II was a portrayal of that what we do to either passively or actively to avoid the scary truth. Because (oh man, I guess am forced to quote Jack N. here), that’s right: “You can’t handle the truth”. But it’s true (ouch!), you can’t. So we literally do stuff so as to not know about it. What kind of stuff? That’s where the ‘everything’ comes in. Start wherever you want: design golf clubs, build stone spires into the sky, buy Christmas toys, run for office, try to save the rainforest, make and read books, love people, hate people, watch a lot of TV, create complex civilizations and/or destroy them, drink alcohol, shoot heroin, yodel, have intense philosophical conversations, tell a joke, argue the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi – all of it. But let’s not forget the greatest misdirection of them all – religion. For christ’s sake, God was designed to bury this truth. But don’t feel too superior if you aren’t religious, atheists and wobbly agnostics are doing it too; building mountains and molehills of distraction – generation after generation, occupied in fighting the good fight to hide from the cold blue light. And of course we start early. In most cases we begin our lives swaddled with layers of protection provided by adults and society – reassuring stories, simple answers to complex concerns, codes of morality; endless redirections away from the ill-defined fright that always seems to hover close by.rev6

It maybe sounds like a snide condemnation of humanity, or some kind of weakness that should be corrected, but the message was clear to me – we have to do these things. We really can’t deal with it. The knowing/feeling/awareness portrayed in Act I might be reality, but is also basically fatal to your mind. So while civilization has biological functions (because we are that too), a lot of what we know as the psychological aspects of culture are there to protect us from the lonely, vast thing that we both are and are not.

It all sounds rather sad and gloomy, but there was one more piece – and it was for me by far the best part – a sort of happy ending. So read on.

Epilogue:

The last part of this experience took me back to the beginning for a moment before revealing a final aspect. There it was again – the mad pulsing sky – the light that fills and short-circuits the mind. Yikes – no thanks! Well get this, the dream ‘voice’ now says that there is a way to experience it without going insane. And I can recall my feelings when I finally knew what it was – a sense of both surprise and instant recognition. The secret, seemingly the biggest ‘distraction’ of all is – art. Yes – painting, music, sculpture, poetry – all of that. Filtered through the human mind and hands and then put into a form that we can relate to, art is the safe way to view the Gorgon’s impassive but deadly face. Once diluted to a level we can handle, its horror becomes something else – beauty. And that was the last piece of information I got: viewed this way, the universe is radiantly beautiful. Cool huh?rev7

And then, literally like a transmission suddenly terminated, I was released. I recall my body relaxing as if from an arched back, and immediately awoke. I have been thinking about it, off and on, ever since.

Analysis:

Well, I could go on for a long time here, but I suspect that you either get it already or will think I am loony whatever I say. So, a brief Q & A will have to do…

Q: What exactly was this experience?

A:  Well, it could stem from a lot of things I suppose, ranging from an inexplicable super-duper dream to a mini-stroke, to a true ‘voice from beyond’. The most parsimonious explanation is that this is just a rare but more or less normal mode of thinking. Say you are an obsessive type, really bothered by something tough to understand. Of course your brain wants to help and throws the problem into the dark recesses, where it is unconsciously worked on by every spare neuron. When solved, your unconscious spits out an answer which is presented to (or interpreted by) the conscious brain. I can easily see how the voice & visions would be called ‘God’ – mine just turned out perversely atheistic. This would more or less explain the various religious ‘revelations’ you hear about though. They think they are hearing directly from the big boy, but are merely self-deluded. Ahh well, based on what happened to me, it would be an honest mistake.

Q: Well, do you think that stuff in the dream was ‘true’?

A: See above.  If it was simply my brain talking to itself, then this is all self-referential. Of course it would seem true; it’s probably what I wanted to hear!  But that said, it made sense to me, and it still does. We do exist in a state of inexplicable mystery – there ain’t no getting around it. And that in turn leads us to ideas like infinity and eternity, neither of which our brains can process. So yes, I think we are more fragile than we think we are, and have obviously done a lot to make ourselves feel OK about it. The irony is that, in becoming conscious to the world, we mostly hide from it in unconscious ways – weird!

Q: What about the art thing?

A: Great art always affects us in some hard to define but emotional way; seemingly drawing us closer to a mystery, but never fully revealing it. So the question is valid – what is that mystery? Artists too often seem to have a tough time of it emotionally, and are often described as having a bit too much ‘sensitivity’. Are they seeing more of this reality than the rest of us?

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Highlights and Low Sparks – Traffic’s Induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame

For the Traffic fans! Below is an article I wrote for Record Collector – a British music magazine, in 2004. Seems like a long time ago now. While I have resisted the temptation to re-word and otherwise clean it up – I did add pictures not in the original piece, as well as a rare bit of audio which the article refers to near the end. Hope that you like it…

‘Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune, something to make us all happy…’

BBC14Well Traffic did play us a tune or two –including ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’, which was performed after the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15th at the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom in New   York City.  But happiness was tempered by hard feelings which also emerged – unresolved vibes that stretched back to nearly the groups’ beginnings in 1967. The old saying: ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, never seemed more true.

Traffic’s road to the Hall of Fame, was by no means preordained. The group’s success relied forever on the ‘fragile magic’ of musical chemistry between Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and (at times) Dave Mason, to produce a legacy of songs that have endured to inspire generations of fans.  A group that was born out of free jamming – and now seen as a musical mentor to the current ‘Jam Band’ scene, Traffic could just as easily have never gotten past the initial blowing stage. As Jim Capaldi told me the day after the ceremony: “The only reason we got anything done (song-wise) was because I would hand Steve a sheet of lyrics, and then he’d write the music.”  And although flutist and sax player Chris Wood melded into a musical unit with Steve and Jim, guitarist and songwriter Mason, even at the very beginning stood slightly apart from the others – Jim again:  “Yeah, the combination was very interesting.  Me, Steve and Chris were like three introverts really, and Dave was the massive – ‘Hey man’ – with the fuckin’ cowboy hat on.  He was out there, Dave”.  And although he came up with great songs, such as ‘Feelin’ Alright’, the yin and yang of creativity and conflict meant that Dave Mason would be in and out of the group at least three times – leaving lingering psychic wounds on all sides.

Flash to forward to Saturday, March 13th 2004:  Traffic’s intended rehearsals for the Hall of Fame show were not on.  Steve Winwood had previously announced in Billboard that the song Traffic would perform was probably going to be ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’, and that Dave Mason would play bass as he had back in ‘67. Dave showed up for the sessions, but was not happy, indicating that his ‘assigned’ instrument was out of the question since: “I haven’t played bass for over thirty years”.  He insisted that playing guitar, alongside Steve – as he had done on the ‘live’ Welcome to the Canteen album was the best way to proceed. The more things change…

When I arrived at the Waldorf on the morning of the 15th, I knew nothing of this controversy; indeed I had a problem of my own.  My ‘PressPass’ to the event was unaccounted for.  With the dreaded words ‘not on the list’, ringing in my ears, I wandered the corridors of the hotel wondering what to do next.  As I rounded a corner, I ran into Stephanie Wood, sister to Chris, with her husband Brian Withers.  Chris died in 1983, and as his representative, Stephanie was here to pick up his award at tonight’s ceremony.  They too were temporarily without the proper credentials, and we decided to team up to straighten things out.  After a long, comical search the correct plastic tags were finally handed over, allowing a now an effortless stroll into the ceremonial ballroom itself. As we walked across the room, the last stage rehearsals were taking place before the evening’s show. Our timing was eerily precise – within moments of our arrival, the first strains of ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ rolled across the room. But as the lights were gradually turned on, it was clear that Traffic was missing a member. Dave Mason was nowhere to be seen. The Traffic Traffic R&R 2reunion had clearly hit a snag, and with a looming deadline of the evening’s performance, they had at the very least, a technical problem to deal with. But as Jim and Steve wound their way slowly through the song’s intro, a third player emerged from the shadows. Randall Bramlett, from Winwood’s current band was at the far corner of the stage, playing Steve’s Hammond organ.  And the reason why they could go on without Dave was revealed – Randall played ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ as Chris Wood did when Traffic performed as a trio, using his right foot to play bass with a pedal of the organ.   As they played to a nearly empty room, the song choice at least, was inarguable – Mr. Fantasy was, as it always has been, a killer number. Winwood’s face betrayed no emotion, but musically he held nothing back as the tune blazed to its conclusion – chopping great swaths of sound from his guitar until the last chord echoed around the room and then faded into silence.  Come what may, Traffic’s signature tune would have its’ day.

On the night, the buzz around the event was not about Traffic, nor ZZ Top, or even the induction of George Harrison, but for Prince.  Waiting outside near the ‘red carpet’ many of the stars (but not Prince) would enter by, his name was mentioned often by lingering fans.  And at the ceremony – he was first up, and allowed to sing several songs.  Traffic came next, and their apparent misfortune to follow this ‘hot’ act probably worked out in their favor.  Prince’s preachy acceptance speech was followed by a slick, stylistically diverse set of tunes – that while well-played, could only be marginally described as ‘rock ‘n roll’.

In contrast, Traffic’s introductory video montage interspersed clips of the band at the Berkshire cottage in ’67, and performing live over the years – capturing the groups’ sincerity and lack of guile. At the end of the too short segment, it was at least clear that Traffic had been the real thing: a group whose lifestyle was based solely around music – a living expression of art, having nothing whatsoever to do with marketing calculation or fashion. Following a loopy, almost idiotic introduction by Dave Matthews, Traffic ambled onto the stage for their awards. And as if to dispel any lingering doubts regarding his feelings about a too polished speech, Capaldi, hunched over the podium and began his acceptance (pointing to Mason and Winwood) by saying: “These two guys, I’ll never forget meeting them – I was blind drunk, and fell headlong into the gutter – and there they were, looking up at me…”.  Standing in front of Stephanie Wood, Jim went on: “Chris was the magic man in Traffic, he’s the one that brought us John Barleycorn Must Die.  traffic r& r 3We sadly miss Chris… Traffic forever!”  Dave’s short speech praised his former band mates – “Steve, he’s an incredible musician and Jim with those wonderful lyrics of his – a great inspiration for many of the Traffic songs.”  Finally Steve, even more succinct, wrapped it up with:  “It’s been a fantastic honor to play, and be a part of Traffic. Thank you for recognizing the spirit – thank you very much”.

If the sentiments were heartfelt, and they certainly seemed to be, what was left unsaid spoke louder. And as Traffic’s moment to came to play, Dave Mason was still nowhere to be seen for the Mr. Fantasy performance.  Did it matter to the celebrity filled audience?  It was hard to tell – Winwood, Capaldi and Bramlett got a standing ovation for a fiery version that rocked even harder than the rehearsal. From the backroom, video wired for the press to watch the show, the camera angles and edits went a long way in disguising the loss. Still, as Traffic was announced to be entering the Press room after the song for photos – it was only Steve and Jim who came out – with no questions allowed.

Then came a welcome surprise came at evenings’ finale.  Traditionally, the end of the show jam features a song everyone knows – allowing all the inductees to come back on stage for a last rave up to end the show on a note of unity and community.  A Chuck Berry number was a logical closer – what could be more fundamental? The classic blast of Sweet Little Rock ‘n Roller centered on Keith Richards slashing guitar and Steve Winwood’s boogie woogie piano – suitably rocking the joint. As the tune concluded, there was a slight pause, and as several heads turn to stage right – Dave Mason strode out, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, clutching his custom guitar and proceeded to lead one and all into Feelin’ Alright. With Jim on congas, Steve playing piano and Dave singing and playing a lead – Traffic, or what was left of it, was finally reunited.  The jam went well, with Paul Schaffer, the musical maestro for the show, directing the solos around the crowded stage. So after all was said and done Traffic, and especially Dave had been allowed the last word. The ironic final blow came later; on the television broadcast, nearly the whole tune – Dave Mason’s moment to shine – was cut, with the couple of minutes actually shown obscured by the ending credits.

Behind the scenes, it turned out that Schaffer had been responsible for salvaging the night. Seeing the Saturday rehearsals for Traffic falling apart over Steve and Dave’s conflict, it was Schaffer – the man who ‘knows everyone’ in the rock world, and a perennial peacemaker, who suggested using Mason’s tune to close the show. A stroke of genius, but did it help to bring any closure to the troubled relationships? Backstage after the event Steve approached Dave and spoke: “I’m sorry it didn’t work out on stage mate – but all the best”. Dave acknowledged the gesture with a terse: “Thank you very much”, making it clear that he didn’t have much more to say.  The moment to reconcile passed as Winwood turned and walked away. Dave Mason’s issues thus remained unresolved – he spent much of the next evening venting to friends about Steve “laying down conditions about what I could and couldn’t do.” As the song says: ‘We Just Disagree’. Indeed.

The day after the induction saw solo gigs played by both Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi – the contrast in scale between the two shows a stark reminder of how far their paths had diverged. Acclaimed as a godfather of improvisational music, the Jammys honored Steve with a Lifetime Achievement Award at MadisonSquareGarden. Winwood closed the show – which included the likes of Dr. John, Govt. Mule, Dickey Betts and many others. Jamming with younger musicians, he stepped back into his own realm – free to draw his set from a repertoire ranging from Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and a long successful solo catalog. Although his career has waxed and waned over the years, Steve Winwood remains a force on the popular music scene.  He closed the show with The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, and Gimme Some Lovin’ to a huge ovation.

On the same night Jim was heading upstate in a van to play an acoustic gig in a small bar with longtime traffic r&r 4guitarist Pete Bonas. While Steve was playing before thousands of people, Jim performed for about 40 folks who braved a snowstorm to seek him out in the small village of Pierpoint. The proprietor mentioned that Dave Mason had also played here, not too long ago.

Chatting with Jim before the show, it clear that Mason wasn’t the only one with unresolved feeling toward Steve: ‘Well, when he played that gig the night before the Induction (Steve played with his band at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on the 14th.) – it would have been good, you know, to be asked (to sit in for a number). But no, not a word.” He shook his head and looked out the window at the falling snow.

Like Steve, Jim’s set also contained Traffic and solo songs, all of which he sang with a gravelly passion.  The small room was with him all the way, and Capaldi delighting in the response, giving his all. He’d even worked up a Traffic tune that he’d never played live before – No Face No Name, No Number. Originally sung by Steve on Traffic’s first album, it is a gentle, pastoral tune – one of their best. I had watched Jim rehearse the song earlier in the day.  He was clearly unsure and nervous about doing it, but was encouraged by Pete to give it a go. Finally he set his guitar down, and stood, leaning against a support pole on the side of the stage.  He closed his eyes as he sang the soft ballad:

I’m looking for a girl who has no face
She has no name, or number
And so I search within his lonely place
Knowing that I won’t find her
Well, I can’t stop this feeling deep in inside me
Ruling my mind

I feel no sound
Don’t know where I’m bound

The scenery is all the same to me
Nothing has changed or faded
I’m a part of it, some part of me
Painted cool green, and shaded
So, try to find myself must be the only way
To feel free

It was clearly heartfelt, and spellbinding to watch. On that little, darkened stage he seemed to plumb the depths of the songs’ meaning, across time and space – returning in his mind to a place where four young men sat around a rustic fireplace in a cottage in the English countryside – playing music for the sheer joy of it.  As he finished, he sat down and held a piece of paper in front of his face – embarrassed by the tears that had welled up in his eyes, and perhaps wondering why it all couldn’t have lasted a little longer.

The video is dedicated to Jim…

The Chain

chain

If you are the parent, I don’t have to ask the source of your greatest joys and fears. That child is the most precious thing you have; that you’ll ever have. You knew it the first time you held them.

For me, that moment was maybe five minutes after Lucas was born. His Mother came first of course, and watching her cradle and look at him for the first time was indescribably moving. Then he was put on a warming table, wrapped him in a white blanket and handed to me – a neat little package of new life. A moment later, he blinked, opened his eyes and quietly examined my face. Right there and then – in a flash – my life changed. I understood immediately: I would love, protect, and raise this kid as best I could, no matter what. No simple a change in purpose, right then my life took on a whole new meaning – it was incredibly profound.

So you start again,  living a life superficially similar to before, but with a core now ‘all things parenting’.  Typical aspects: mounds of diapers, statistically random milk spills, irrational concern over that midnight congestion, innumerable radiant smiles, first steps, and reams of dinosaur drawings.

What is really unfair is the weird energy imbalance – they come pre-packaged with an amount you can only dimly recall ever having. As such, at some point during year two you enter a state best described as ‘exhausted joy’, or perhaps ‘happiness marinated in fatigue’ – something like that. And what would you trade it for? Nothing in this fucking world.

Lucas and Steve

Lucas and Steve

Some of the most satisfying times of my life were spent in Lucas’ company, doing simple, trivial things – reading to him, playing with action figures, watching Godzilla movies, picking wild strawberries, and so on. And how much do you love this person? There is no rational answer to that question, is there?

***

Dawn’s light filtered through the fir trees into the kitchen – another fine, post-Christmas, winter’s day at  our log home in the Oregon woods. The previous evening’s storm had left some inches of white stuff on the ground, and at breakfast Lucas persistently reminded me about his new toboggan: “And it’s a perfect day for sledding dad! Come on, come on – let’s go!” Me: “Alright old man, just let me finish my coffee will ‘ya?  You know I need it.” Merely one of several nicknames that I had for him, at that time the ‘Old Man’ was maybe four years old.

I finished my cup while his mom helped him suit-up in proper snow clothes; and then out we went. Retrieving the wood-slatted, padded-seat toboggan out of the garage, we scoped out the conditions. Yup, the sledding potential looked pretty decent; that new, powdery surface lay over older frozen snow. So where to try? Living on about five acres of woods abutting other similar parcels has advantages, including a decent selection of outdoor places to play. The not-too-often-used, shared driveway also allowed walks with little fear of being run over. We could have tobagganed right there I suppose  – the little slope of the drive led almost to the backdoor. But even the remote chance of a car sneaking up on us didn’t seem worth the risk – I had another idea.

img010We shuffled on. At the bottom of the hill the drive wound around a sharp left curve toward other houses and the road – no good. Ahh, but to the right – there was another nicely sloped drive belonging to neighbors we referred to as ‘the week-enders’. Portland folk affluent enough to have a get-away home in the country, we rarely saw these people, and sure enough – the snow remained unbroken by tire tracks. Seeing the chain they kept across the entrance in its usual place, I figured we’d found our sledding spot – no cars sneaking up on us here. I pointed uphill, Lucas beamed back an approving smile, I lifted him over the chain, and we were on our way.

The grade turned out to be a little steeper than it looked. After breaking snow for a few hundred feet while dragging the sled (with Lucas already sitting on it), I huffed to a stop at a more or less level spot: “Hmm, this is good enough, isn’t it old man?” He nodded vigorously. Turning the sled around, he wasted no time – wriggling to the front, looking back at me excitedly. I sat down and pulled my legs in, but a problem emerged. While surface looked ideal, with our combined weight we simply broke through the crust and sank. Hmm…that wasn’t going to work.

It began to look like a big disappointment was brewing, but I thought – what if it was just him on the thing? I wasn’t at all sure that little Lucas had enough weight to make the big toboggan move much. But maybe if I pushed real hard… It still seemed kind of iffy, but I hated disappointing that kid, I really did. So we tried it that way, and with my maximal effort the sled achieved critical momentum: he was off, laughing into the wind, a spray of powder arching in his wake.

For the briefest of moments, I was quite pleased with myself. Not simply gliding along on its own, the sled picked up speed as the grade pitched steeper below – he was gonna have a good ride after all.

But a second later he was really flying – going much faster and further than I had thought possible. I scanned ahead to see where this would take him. And that’s when I saw it: the chain. Hanging in a low arc between two metal posts, it was approximately 16 inches above snowy surface of the drive entrance – he was heading straight for it.

Having walked over it only a minute before my brain quickly calculated its position relative to where Lucas’ little body would soon be, and the news was bad: approximately neck height. And I knew, just as quickly, that if he hit that thing, at the speed he was going – Lucas – my son, my only child, would almost certainly die.

Involuntarily, I launched myself toward him, as if to somehow snatch him back from this horror. Within a few steps I knew it was impossible – he was already too far along. In slow motion I ran on, every foot-fall taking me knee-deep in white quicksand, as Lucas, oblivious to the danger, sped on – faster, faster. My mind glimpsed the unthinkable. There was no way. He was almost there.

Out of options, I cupped my hands and yelled – as loud as I could: “Lucas! Duck down! Duck down! Lucas…” It seemed too little, too late – a second later the image of the chain merged with his upper torso… I willed myself to watch; to witness the outcome of my incalculable error in judgement.

But then, somehow – instead of death – a miracle: his head dropped down just as the sled hurtled under the metal links – now furiously swinging back and forth above the snow.

He coasted to a stop some yards later, at a point where the road flattened out. Huffing and stumbling, I finally caught up as he threw his arms up in the air, exclaiming: “Woah – dad! That was fun!” My mind reeling, all I could manage was, “Oh Lucas… that chain… You could have really gotten hurt Luke…” I couldn’t say more, I was on the verge of sobbing. But Lucas, his eyes twinkling in the morning sun, responded with something I will never forget. He said: “That’s okay dad – nothing bad happened this time! Can we do it again?”

***

So, as a parent – how do you recover from that? Don’t ask me; I never did.

As we walked home, I was filled with an unspeakable gratitude that he was alive. There are no words for that. But the other side of this thing – the reckoning for what I let happen – and what else could have happened – well, that was another matter. That brief moment when I thought he was going to die forced me to view a dark, dark place – a malevolent black hole, whose totality engulfed me in a way I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Writing this out – so many years later, I have tried hard to articulate what I envisioned then, and it boils down to this: I saw his future wiped away – and my own reduced to dust. Beyond that, there isn’t much to say.

Some perspective: I never told anyone about this incident, not his mother, nor another soul, for many, many years. I decided (if that is the right word) to simply live with the fact that I very nearly killed my son.

But that silence came with a cost. The inward weight of the secret distorted me in untold ways, and ironically, might have actually done Lucas harm as well. How? Well, from that day forward, I kept watch over him like a fucking hawk. If he wanted to go play outside by himself – I usually went with him. When he made it clear that he didn’t need my company, I snuck out and stood somewhere that he couldn’t see me. Waiting for the bus alone in the morning on our country road? No way – either we sat in the car together – or I stood by him – or, when that became embarrassing, I lingered out-of-sight around the corner – rain, snow or shine. I could go on… See? It was the joy of good parenting turned into a fear-based pathology. Not that I was really conscious of it at the time – it was just what I had to do.

But what about Lucas? Now nearly twenty-two years old; what did my paranoia and his lack of freedom to be an ‘unobserved kid’ do to him – to his innate sense of adventure and need to take normal childhood risks? I don’t know. Recently I did tell him about all of this – and apologized for all of it. I hope that it explained some things for him about our relationship and his childhood. His response was gracious, and as on that awful day, casually forgiving.

And yet, even today, I’m not sure that I would or could have changed anything that came after the event. Having been given the harshest of life-lessons, there was just no way to unlearn any of it. And who would want to?  Given my boy back, and the rarest of second chances,  I knew – exactly – how precious his life was, how quickly it could be snatched away, and how unwilling I was to let anything like that ever happen again.img011

‘What the Hell?’ (Encounters with Weird Animals)

I have always loved and been fascinated by nature. As an adult, I view plants and animals as the current face of evolution’s ever-changing, long running experiment. But the child I used to be perceived only wonder – and that ain’t a half-bad way to experience life.

A large chunk of my boyhood was lived on the cutting edge of suburbia – a paradoxical landscape of neatly rowed, almost identical houses juxtaposed with derelict farm fields. Being not-too-far from Detroit Michigan, it wasn’t exactly wilderness, but a kid can pretend, and I did what I could to investigate things.

Random memories: provoking a harmless eastern hognose snake into flattening his neck like a cobra and lunging at me before it rolled on it’s back and ‘played dead’  ***  switching eggs in birds nests of different species to see if they would raise a ‘foreign’ chick (yes) ***  abducting a clutch of box turtles from a nearby swamp, and lugging then all home in a bucket (and no, my mother was not amused). Now that I think about it, that particular experiment didn’t turn out so good – on one especially cold morning I was appalled to discover my new ‘pets’ frozen and quite deceased in blocks of ice in their plastic containers in the shed. Ah well…

Fast forward to today: I guess you could say that I went on to make a career out of that childhood obsession. At age 53, with two degrees in biology hanging on the wall behind me (not really – I have no idea where they are), I have been teaching the stuff for twenty-odd years. But after decades dissecting and studying life, the original sense of wonder can fade a bit too – things fall into more or less predictable patterns – right?

For me, apparently not.

Don’t get me wrong – everything does line up predictably almost all of the time. I have never seen an embalmed cat jump up from an examination tray and run away, for example. But now and then, I have had experiences that I have not been able to classify – bizarre animal encounters which become stories that hardly anyone believes. And yet, I am compelled to tell them – as I will tell you. Yes, there are likely to be rational explanations for these things, but I haven’t been able to locate any myself. Okay, enough beating around the bush:

The Giant Turtle

As a boy who needed considerably more nature than my urban life could provide, I considered myself supremely fortunate to have ‘country cousins’ whom I could regularly visit. My aunt, uncle and their two kids lived on a small river that led into a not-too-big lake in what was then a rural part of south-eastern Michigan. Hard to believe today, but in the pre-internet era, there was much to be done outdoors. My cousin John and I explored, swam and/or fished nearly every summer day that I was there. Yup – real Huck Finn stuff – and it was a blast. For us, fishing was our primary concern, serious business: when, where – proper bait and casting technique – it was what we did.

So I was maybe 9 or 10 years old , he about 7 – and there we were, fishing away as usual, right behind his house where the shallow river meandered toward the lake. With both lines in the clear water, we scanned the surface for the slightest movement or furtive shadow – indications of an interested fish. That’s when we saw it.

Movement seen out of the corner of my eye caused me to glance upstream to see two turtles swimming our way. Now John and I had seen many, many, turtles before, so this was no big deal except for one thing: one of them was big – enormous actually. I’ll cut to the chase: I estimate (probably somewhat inaccurately at this late date) that this turtle was about four feet long and maybe three feet wide. Impossible? See pic below… That’s a fresh water Vietnamese Turtle – that exists (barely) today – the one that I saw was roughly that size.

Believe me, I knew that something extraordinary was going on. The sight of this animal was electric, exhilarating – way, way outside of anything considered ‘normal’. But there it was – as far as I knew (or know now) the biggest goddamn turtle anyone had ever seen in old Michigan.

The two swam right before our eyes – the smaller, normal sized painted turtle giving size  perspective on the monster about a foot behind. Moving a good clip, they ignored us completely. But I was already  frantic – aware that no one who hadn’t seen this would believe it. Desperate to slow them down, I threw my baited fishing line in front of the giant turtle’s nose – maybe he’d take it? No reaction at all. They swam on. John and I trotted along beside them on the bank, following them toward their destination – the lake. I don’t recall how far we got, or how we lost sight of them – but we finally did.

And that was it. Did anyone else ever see this thing? Not as far as I know. Was a turtle of this size even possible for this location on Earth? Not as far as I know. Species? Unknown – but it was not a snapping turtle, not a softshelled turtle. To be honest I recall it looking kind of like a giant version of the normal-sized one swimming with it – a painted turtle – but they don’t get anywhere near that big. So, I have no idea.

Skeptical? Join the crowd. I have to say that I don’t recall anyone truly believing me. Akin to a bigfoot sighting, reactions range from weak, bemused smiles to laughter and derision, but fuck it – I saw what I saw (he says, somewhat defensively). But there was another witness, right? Good old John… Well as we grew up we more or less lost contact, but we did see each other a few years ago at our grandmother’s funeral. And yes, I asked him if he remembered – and he said something like, ‘Umm, yeah, I’m not sure about that…’ And damn it if he didn’t wear that classic ‘bemused smile’ too!  Oh man – what a blow. Guess I’m all alone with this one.

There is one, albeit legendary, bit of support for this thing. The Great Lakes Native American’s have a myth of a turtle so large that the Earth itself rested on its shelled back. Did ancient sightings of real giant turtles inspire the legend? And just maybe one lived a long, long time??? Highly unlikely…

Frogs from Nowhere

Many years later – at the other end of the size spectrum…

The scene: north-central Oregon, near Mount Hood and surrounding wilderness. We (my wife, son and I) live on some acreage, mostly forest, with a pear orchard next door. Finally – the real rural life – nature all around, no neighbors in sight – just the way I always wanted it. Date: around 2003-2004, roughly this time of year (late fall).

After a quick dinner at home, we went out for a middle school function for Lucas – a band concert, I think. And while middle-school band concerts are anything but memorable (except in a bad way), what came after certainly was. We got home, I would guess around 8 pm,  I unlocked the door…

Inside, on the entrance landing – the place where we normally take off shoes and coats – were frogs. A bunch of them. As you can see from the picture above, they were teeny-tiny Pacific Tree Frogs. Yeah sure, they live around here – although I have to say, I rarely see them, don’t even hear them ’em much – except for a lone croaker forlornly sounding off in the night. But here – inside the house – were 15, maybe more. Most were clumped together, mid-floor, although some were on the stairs leading up to the living room, others had meandered downstairs toward the family room – a few had moved around enough for their moist bodies to be covered in dog hair and dust from the floor.

We stared, laughed, then started chasing them down. Picking up frogs here and there as they tried to jump this way and that, I recall exclaiming – “what – the –  hell!?” more than once. It was a very strange experience, yet oddly fun. Eventually all (that I know of) were rounded up and taken out to the forest for release – never (thankfully) to be seen again.

Logical Explanations:

1. They came in through some kind of opening (under the door, a window, etc.). Ah, no. It was pretty cold out, and there were no doors accidentally left open, no open windows, and if there had been any crack under the door, it would have been way-too-thin for them to squeeze through. Even if this somehow was the case – sneaking in via some passage unknown to me, it still begs the question: Why (and how) did they come in en masse like that, especially when you never find them like that in their normal habitat (mating season aside)? Also this would have had to have happened in the (roughly) two hours we were out of the house.

2. Some joker was having fun. Yes – this makes a lot of sense. I can even imagine doing something like this myself during some long-ago period of my life. And Lucas did have two close friends – kids who just might have had the sense of humor to conspire to pull such a great prank. The problem with that theory is that those two dudes would have been at the same school function as Lucas. Also, to pull it off, one of their parents would have to have been involved (driving) – and knowing them as I do – it is highly unlikely. And country living or not, I still lock all the doors when we go anywhere. So lets just say that maybe they were somehow able to do it  – you know, sneaking in (through an unlocked window perhaps) after we left. Yes, but the best part of a prank like that is in getting the victim to mention it, feigning ignorance until you can’t stand it any longer, then laughing and admitting it. Well, that never happened.

So if neither of those scenarios is correct, what is left? You tell me.

Midnight Convocation on Cooper Spur Road

If you are not a country person or someone who knows more-than-average about animals, this next one may not seem like a big deal to you – but hang in there.

Last year (2011), mid-December: The nuclear family was being reunited as the kid came home from college for the holidays. Happily heading out in the trusty Prius, Ramona and I zipped over to the Portland Airport; the plane arrived on time – we collected our boy, rejoiced & headed home. It was an evening flight, so it was midnight (more or less) by the time we approached little Parkdale. For the time of year, the driving conditions weren’t too bad – not another soul on the road –  but as we hit Cooper Spur Road, the fog descended and I slowed down. You’d have to do that here anyway, since the first section of the road is curvy, which in combination with all of the trees, reduces the sight-line considerably. So there we were, rounding the bend just before the bridge over the east fork of the Hood river – nearly home – when forms emerged out of the fog, right in the middle of the road.

Laying or crouching down, two animals stood up. They were cats – large, grey-coated, with green eyes shining in the headlights. Domestic house cats? No way – they were perhaps three times that size, with stocky bodies, and no visible tails (thus excluding mountain lions). So that leaves two possibilities: bobcat or Canadian lynx. The picture at the top of my blog page is a bobcat – a photo I made myself, as it sat in a tree right next to the garage – so they are obviously around. But the animals I saw that night were significantly larger, solid, husky, and walked with a swagger.  I thought at the time, and still believe, that they were in fact lynx (here is  a pic of one that I lifted from Google Images).

So I can hear you now  – ‘Okay Dan, you made your case, you (maybe) saw a couple of cool lynx, – is that a big deal?’ Actually it is. If you do a Google search for ‘Lynx in Oregon’  as I did – you’ll find an article from 1999 that says that some hair samples belonging to a lynx were found in Oregon that year. BUT – no one actually saw it, and the next paragraph says this: “The last confirmed lynx in Oregon was taken 25 years ago near Corvallis and since then it was believed that none existed in the state.”  And search as I may, the confirmed sightings since 1999 are, in fact, zero.

So here I go (again) seeing something no one else does. But there is a little more to this story, something so weird that I still shake my head when I think about it.

Back to the scene:

When we came around the corner toward the animals, the misty conditions created what looked like one large thing separating into three in the middle of the road – so that was a little freaky right there. Stopping the car dead in the road, I said something like ‘Jesus, look at that’ to Lucas who was in the passenger seat (Ramona was in the back). You’d expect surprised, skittish, wild animals that hardly anybody ever sees to quickly run away, right? Well, that didn’t happen. With slow deliberation one cat rose, looked into the car headlights and meandered (south) into the trees toward the river. Meanwhile the other simply stood and stared for a long moment before also walking off to the opposite side of the road.

And this my friends, is where things get really, really  trippy. Between those two cats –  a large bird arose – either hawk or eagle. With wings stretched wide, the thing flapped about madly for a moment, before finally launching itself and veering off into night.

For me, this last bit puts things on a whole new level of the ‘weirdness scale’: two big cats and a huge bird, apparently sitting peacefully – consorting – in the middle of a road on a pitch black night? Doing what, exactly? I still can’t fathom it…

Occam’s Razor tells us that I must have something wrong here. So let me go ahead and present the more logical version of what old Mr. Occam would say: First, the cats were obviously NOT Canadian lynx, just plain old bobcats – which, besides being much more common, overlap in size with lynx – making positive identification difficult. Logically, they were in the road because something was dead (a squirrel, whatever) and the cats were eating it. Meanwhile, the bird – no hawk, or eagle – merely a large owl (this is night after all) came along and landed by them (or the owl could have come first, killed the animal and the bobcats were trying to steal it) and that’s when we came around the corner: end of story.

Possible, I suppose. And it all happened rather quickly, and in the dark and fog to boot! So yeah, maybe. But my goddamn biology degrees have to count for something, right? Of course, I would think so. But when something unusual pops up you work with what you have (experience-wise) to make sense of it, and I do have some background in this area. So as a last defense I’ll say this:

1. While I haven’t seen a lynx before, I have obviously seen bobcats, and these things seemed much too big. Based on the size overlap between the species however, I’ll admit that this is my weakest argument…

2. As for road-kill – there was nothing there in the road ( I looked) as we drove over it. It is possible however that the bird may have flown off with it.

3. I can distinguish an owl from a hawk (the shape of the head is a typical give away) – the bird wasn’t an owl. And yet, as far as I know, neither eagles or hawks ever fly around at night – they don’t have the eyes for it.

4. Whether bobcat or lynx, both species of cats are solitary creatures – seeing two together, except in a mating situation (in the middle of a road??) would be in itself, super rare.

You are free to make up your own mind concerning the nature of this incident, but a year later my confounded reaction lingers: I know not what it was all about, but something very unusual was going on in the midnight fog of that country road.

Conclusion:

So there you go kids – three incidents and one grand story, forty years in the making. Enough? I should hope so.

Actually I have one or two more oddball tales of the sort, but I’ll wait and see if any of you out there found this subject interesting enough to merit the telling.

Jesus on the Street

Traffic light (red), sidewalk next to MLK Blvd, Portland Oregon, late June, 2012: ‘You from around here?’ I turned to see a thirty-something guy, a half-smile on his face, glancing at me with friendly but sad eyes. He was white, five foot eight, thin – a well-worn baseball cap on his head. He was also holding a ratty backpack by one of the straps. I could see why – his faded  tank-top revealed shoulders that were sun-burnt and peeling.

We eyed the signal on the street corner – each with somewhere to go, but neither quite knowing the way. As for me, there was birthday money in my pocket, waiting to be spent at Portland Music – a local seller of  instruments and gear. Having already parked the car on a side street (this is Portland after all), I scanned the road – was it north or south? No idea. Just off the bus from Eugene (Oregon), the sunburned fella hefted his pack and told me that his destination was an adult store called ‘Taboo Video’: “You know, where they sell dildos and stuff…” Was he serious? I couldn’t tell, but chuckled anyway. His presence struck me as gentle and self-effacing – and he wasn’t asking me for money. Feeling at ease, I paid him some attention.

He went on to say that he was supposed to meet his girlfriend at the store, but that she had been a little vague on the exact location, hence his uncertainty. Well, that seemed a little odd to me – if you’re going to travel a long distance you’d make sure that you had solid directions, right? But of course, I’d done pretty much the same thing – jeesh…. So we stood there and chatted awhile. After the light changed a few times and we still hadn’t moved, it was clear to me that he probably needed some assistance to get him where he was going.

So I did something that I never do – I looked at him and said – ‘Hey, I think I know where it might be, let’s go back to my car and I’ll drive you there.’ Was this even true? Not really. All I recall thinking was that maybe we could find it somehow. And no, I wasn’t worried or concerned about letting this stranger in my car – not even a little. And that was odd indeed.

Settled in the passenger seat of the Prius he marveled at the electronic dash display like we were in a rocket ship – he’d never seen anything like it. The class distinction between us was suddenly palpable, and for me, slightly embarrassing. I reminded myself that finding ‘Taboo Video’ was more important. Maybe it was on Burnside… (And BTW, no – I couldn’t have just whipped out my iPhone to find it – I don’t have one!)

Well we drove down Burnside, each scanning the buildings – nothing. Knowing that I was going to the instrument store he said something about playing bass – that he only used 2 of the four strings. Huh, cool. I basically do the same thing.  We had something in common. By now a couple of miles east from where we started, it was clear that Taboo wasn’t anywhere near where I’d guessed it might be. What to do?

Just about then Music Millennium came into view – a Portland treasure, and one of America’s last great record shops. It seemed as good a place as any  to ask directions. Taking the best parking spot I could find – not legal, but nearby, I ran inside as he stood beside the car to shoo off any threats. Laughter burst forth as I explained my situation to the guys behind the counter, but one soon turned to the computer to find the way – it was about a block from where we started.

Pulling away from the record store, I finally asked my passenger his name (although, as often happens – I almost immediately forgot it), and we shook hands. Then I sort of laughingly said: “Well, my wife would kill me if she knew I picked you up today.” I don’t know if I thought he would appreciate this or think it was funny or what, but he looked me straight in the eye for the first time and said: “You know, sometimes people just really need help.”

Believe it or not, this one little sentence stopped me short. An unexpected, naked truth had tumbled forth, and with his sad eyes locked into mine, I suddenly felt very emotional. I think I could have cried right there and then. Weird, I know. But I was  driving, so I pushed it back. At the time, I couldn’t fathom my reaction. I also couldn’t come up with another thing to say.

As we drove west he took up the slack, telling me that his precious backpack was in fact a recent replacement for one stolen after he’d left it briefly with a ‘friend’. I got the sense that it had contained most of the precious stuff he had. Luckily someone else had noticed his plight and had given him his current pack – allowing him to make the trip. He expressed surprise at the gesture, and seemed quite grateful.

Seemingly out of the blue he asked me if I’d ever used Oxycontin – the pain drug. I had not – was he asking if I had any? I told him that all I knew was that they were quite addictive – and that you needed to be careful with it. He assured me that he knew, but said he’d recently injured his back and having lost his medicine with the original pack,  he’d been in a lot of pain until a woman on the bus noticed and gave him one. Again, I recall his sense of gratitude, almost of wonder at this act of kindness.

Getting close now. I said something like – “I imagine your girlfriend will he happy to see you.” He said: “Well, she isn’t really my girlfriend – I met her once in Eugene – she is from here –  gave me her phone number. She said I could call her some time – and we could meet up…” Once again, in some ill-defined way I was shocked. Who does something like that? The distance, time and effort – and for what – the chance that she might actually be there?

Suddenly, the destination loomed – ‘Taboo Video’ at last – a squat, grey structure on the corner, with blacked out windows and a near-empty parking lot. As we approached he looked out the window and smiled before gripping my hand again. Then he jumped out, opened the back car door for his pack, and said with a half-laugh: “I don’t want to lose this.” I did a quick scan around – nobody else there – certainly no one waiting.  Maybe she was inside. As I pulled away, I caught a last glimpse of his form jangling in the rear view mirror as he walked toward the store.

***

I can see how all this might seem a bit too much about too little. So I had a short interaction with a poor guy, whose name I immediately forgot – big deal. Maybe I just don’t get out enough into the ‘real’ world to see what it’s like. Yes, I can understand that point of view – even sort of agree with it.

But be that as it may, the effect on me was real enough – the episode wormed itself into my consciousness in a surprisingly forceful way. In fact, on the way home that day, I had already assigned the guy’s name as ‘Jesus’ in my mind.

Jesus? Huh? Well, it caught me off guard too. It might help to know that I am essentially an atheist – not a Christian by any stretch. So no,  I never thought the guy was literally ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or any such thing. ‘Buddha’ would have probably worked just as well – but I was raised a Catholic, so what are you gonna do? Regardless, weeks later the memories of the interaction refused to vacate my mind, and the name stuck too, essentially forcing me to figure out why. Clearly there was some kind of lesson in all of this – not that I believe my Jesus friend was overtly intending to ‘teach’ me anything. Nope, he was just a normal guy, living his life, doing what he did – a teeny bit of which I observed, some of which he told me.

So what exactly was this lesson – what did I learn? After a lot more contemplation it turned out to be simple, basic stuff – things I should have already known.

The Nature of Vulnerability:

The reason why you don’t do what I did – pick up and drive around with a stranger – is because it puts you at risk. Easy enough to understand – this is what we teach our kids, right? Without knowing someone at all you have no idea what they might do – you might get hurt, killed. So we pass them by, even the ones that we might be able to do something for. It just isn’t worth the danger – you have your family to consider.

Generally, that’s the way I think about it, but that mindset excludes something important. What about the other guy – Jesus? Wasn’t he, much more than I, truly vulnerable? Out of sheer necessity, he flat-out put his trust in people everywhere he went: the woman who said that they might meet up, the ‘friend’ who watched his backpack – the lady who gave him a random pill. And then, me. At every point – and I can imagine untold others – he simply assumed that folks would do what they said they would.

How many times had this man been disappointed in his life, frightened, hurt? And yet he approached me with a kind smile and unvarnished optimism that I would prove trustworthy. I find that incredible, amazing.  And humbling too, since I know that this is far, far beyond my own capacity.

Recognition and Compassion:

Maybe on some level I understood all of this right away – I honestly don’t know. But I must have processed quite a bit on the fly – I knew that I was going to try to do something for this guy within a few moments of meeting him. An invisible barrier between us dropped, allowing me to move past (or through) the preconceptions that usually let me to ignore people such as he. This unconscious recognition, not of our differences – but of our shared humanity – allowed his “sometimes people really need help” comment to knock me over. Apparently for me to fully understand, I needed to be directly told:  compassion is an essential part of being alive. If you had asked me, I would have said I already knew this – but in practice, I did not.

Somehow I had forgotten.

Along the way an ‘amnesia’ had set in – it seems that I lost sight of what it meant to care, even minimally, for those outside my circle of friends and family. Sure, I donate money to charity, clothing to Goodwill, etc., but how often do I personally encounter and do something for a stranger? Rarely. Mostly they exist somewhere else, apart from my awareness, on the other side of my car window…

Then along comes this eccentric guy – Jesus – gently shaking me, waking me up a little.

I know that all this ‘Jesus’ stuff is loaded terminology – a lot of baggage,  for sure. I actually think there is a better name for people such as he:  ‘Functional Christ’.  It sounds a clinical, but also maybe helps distinguish and separate things a little from that historical figure. A Functional Christ could be thought of as a type of person who (consciously aware of it or not) reminds us of our better, more caring nature – as Jesus of Nazareth supposedly did.

Maybe the concept could be more clearly understood as a question: What was/is the actual function of Jesus Christ? Was he there to save souls from damnation? To get people to some place called ‘Heaven’? What if it was actually something more basic to the human condition – right here on Earth. An Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Sprong said it like this: “The function of the Christ is not to rescue the sinners – but to inspire you and to call you to be more deeply human than you’ve ever realized there was the potential within you to be.”

Atheist or not – I can understand that.

So this ‘Jesus’ (or Buddha, or whatever name fits) walks right up to me on Martin Luther King Boulevard – requiring only that I be open, just a little. How many times had something similar happened without me realising or understanding? God knows… But perhaps this is the nature of things – to forget again and again about our relationship to our fellow-men –  until these ‘Functional Christs’ show up  and prod us to remember. How many are out there right now – have always been there? And what if Jesus of Nazareth was just a really well-known version of that himself? Would that be such a bad thing?

Finally, here is a beautiful little video that illustrates the wonder that can come with being open to an unexpected encounter with a stranger:  

I would sincerely  like to thank Mike Kellie for introducing me to both the Dylan video as well as one with Bishop Sprong, whom I quoted above.

The Road Back: Traffic plays Blind Faith

When Steve Winwood departed Traffic in late ’68, the odds of his ever returning seemed quite remote. His next venture – Blind Faith – was born – no, conceived, a Super Group. As such, Steve, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech started off with the presumption that they were destined to summit the peak of ‘musical greatness’. From such heights, who would look back to the lowlands of mere mortals?

Ah yes, but presumption can be dangerous…

Blind Faith indeed held the seeds of  greatness; the evidence is there for all to hear on their debut (and only) album. But that aside, it all went awry pretty quickly. Blame it on who you will – the managers, artistic naiveté, or the corrosive effect of dope or greed. But the fact remains – by fall of ’69 – the same year they were born, Blind Faith was no more.

So what was left behind? Well there was a nice pile of cash from that big tour of the US. Oh, yes, and those songs…

Soon after, Traffic somehow re-ignited – first recording music, then playing shows. Once back on the road, they certainly had no shortage of material – 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die! album held a bounty of good stuff to choose from. Combine that with Traffic’s back catalog and the fact that they could jam like a son-of-a-bitch, and there was little need to dwell on a mere ‘side project’, as Jim Capaldi was fond of calling Blind Faith.

And for the most part they did not. But once in a while, maybe just for fun, one tune did get played. And why not? ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ is one of the best songs Steve Winwood ever wrote – arguably one of the most memorable songs of the rock era. So ‘why not’ indeed. The version heard here comes from the fabled Fillmore West in San Francisco – the site of many a fine show during that time.

Still there would be a necessary retrofit – the Traffic of 1970 was almost a counter-reaction to the excesses of Blind Faith. Far from a stereotypical  ‘Power Trio’ – Capaldi, Winwood and Wood produced a subtle, thoughtful brand of wares. Lacking hype, over-the-top guitar pyrotechnics, or roaring, endless drum solos (thank you!), Traffic’s more contemplative musical angle was unique – and amid the increasing heaviness of 70’s rock – refreshing.

Of course, ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ was never a heavy song to begin with. In fact, it always had the ring of a Traffic tune to it – minus the flute. Well, the flute was in there now, as was an organ (vs. acoustic guitar on the original) and an almost subliminal sax in the later half. Throw in foot-pedal bass, tasty drums and typically impassioned vocals – and the song was refurbished, reinterpreted – born again…

Is it better than the original?  No – but this is so different that it almost doesn’t merit direct comparison. The Fillmore version is an artist’s rendering, an impressionistic take – leaving the thing standing quite well  on its own merits.

As for the sound quality of this – while recorded by an audience member on a reel to reel, unlike many tapes from that era the sound is quite good, with the instruments distinct and well-balanced. Intriguingly, a professional recording of Traffic playing this song sits in the vaults as well – but don’t hold your breath on that.

The lost art of ‘listening to music’…

This tape also reminds us that the whispered rumors of a time in which audiences actually sat and listened to music, rather than nervously engaging in constant, pointless chatter, are in fact true. But children, that was long ago, in a land far, far away…

Existence 2.0

Read more…

Traffic – Looking for the ‘Dealer’: BBC, late ’67

Jim Capaldi came into Traffic a hell of a lead vocalist. Once in that band however, he moved to the back, sat down, and pretty much clammed up. But ask anyone who’d ever seen the Hellions or Deep Feeling, and they’d give it to you straight – Jim was as much a front man as a drummer – a soul shouter with power, gravel and a little menace in his voice. The alliance with Steve Winwood would change things of course; as Traffic got rolling, Jim’s singing seemed destined for a more supporting role…

But he did get to the front now and again – twice in fact on ‘The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys’, and once before that, on the debut album. But that turned out to be a mere prelude to the next phase. Once he started cranking out his own albums in the 1970’s,  Jim Capaldi was, by far, the most prolific ex-Traffic singer/songwriter.

But here we go back to earlier, simpler days. A typically overlooked track from the Mr. Fantasy album, ‘Dealer’ is really cool – very atmospheric, with a Spanish inflected acoustic guitar and melodic double-tracked flutes. Often mistaken for a ‘drug song’ – roulette and playing cards are the currency here. In fact, the song may actually have been inspired by Traffic’s manager, Chris Blackwell – a well-known lover (and master) of the game.

This BBC version presented here differs significantly from the original in having much more electric guitar and flute, as well as a slightly harder edge overall. That it runs more than a minute longer than the original is another treat. ‘Dealer’ is also from one of the very last sessions that Dave Mason did before exiting Traffic for the first time. In fact, by now (December 11, 1967), he’d already turned in his notice and was simply fulfilling his final obligations.

But this sure doesn’t sound like a guy phoning it in – Mason’s driving guitar and deft interplay with Winwood’s own six-string really juice things up here. Throw some inspired flute runs from Chris on top of that, and the BBC version arguably betters the album track – passion-wise.

Stylistically, Traffic now found itself at an unseen crossroads. With Mason’s absence looming, precise and well articulated playing was about to be replaced with loose-limbed, adventurous jamming – a trait forever after associated with the band. While the ‘Traffic jam’ would go on until late ’74, for better or worse, in the wake of Dave Mason’s departure, this band’s rock ‘n roll highway would never be the same.

Pictures of (dead) Strangers

“You bought old pictures of people you don’t even know?” My wife, incredulous, was looking at me with a half-smile, half-smirk. Well, yeah, hmm, I guess I did…

It was only after her reaction that it dawned on me that there might be something odd, maybe even stupid about what I’d done. Certainly, when Lucas (our son) and I entered that antique store in our former home town of Ypsilanti Michigan, I had no intention of paying twelve bucks for three ancient photographs of total strangers. No, we went in just to take a look at their old stuff, maybe waste a little time – innocent enough.

Good old Ypsi

Lucas goes to school in Ohio, and it has become a yearly ritual for me to accompany him there in the fall from our home in Oregon – after first visiting with family in Michigan. And you know how it is – meeting family gets you thinking about family – even if it isn’t a real conscious thing. But it can lead you in interesting directions. Certainly when I visit my parents I tend to look at a lot of our own old family photos. But at least those pictures  are important, jeesh, they’re the record of my life, for Christ’s sake! And how, exactly does that relate to my interest in these long gone, unknowns?

I’ll say right off – it’s a little complicated. First, when I found the shoe box full of pictures of late 19th, and early 20th century in an upstairs back room of the store, I was only mildly interested. While they all seemed to be of people from Ypsilanti (kinda cool, I guess), there was no rhyme or organization; just a jumble of unfamiliar faces. But I kept poking around anyway. Then you start to notice little things – wow, look at that hair! Aren’t those clothes odd? Not to mention how stiff and formal everything is – the air of seriousness with these folk is off the charts – none of ‘em (not even the kids!) seem to have the vaguest idea how to smile. Maybe they didn’t do that back then… Yup, these weird, old, dead people are so different.

So maybe that was what I was thinking, I guess… Looks like I’m still having a hard time justifying the purchase, so let’s move on. Here, take a look. I paid good money for these:

The Kid

Neatly trimmed hair, open face – looks like he might have at least been trying to smile. But what about the clothes – that’s a boy right? Is that a dress? And for what must have been a valued portrait of a family member (these things weren’t cheap back then), the outfit seems kind of ratty, maybe even dirty – so that’s strange. No shoes either. And then there’s that right arm, and the way his little hand just hangs – he’s not leaning on anything, as it might first appear – he’s either injured or deformed. So I don’t know, this picture was compelling, and made me want to know more about this kid, what he’d been through. Of course with nothing else to trace – no name, no date or address (same for the others) – I’ll never know any more about him than what I can see here. Sad eh?

The Couple

Real serious people here. Are they married? No left hand fingers visible for a ring check (they seem to be actually hiding those hands!), but I’d have to say yes. Okay, but are they in love? Well, that’s tougher – your guess is as good as mine. Again, maybe they didn’t do love back then, who knows.

The ‘happy’ couple

But they are young – eighteen – twenty maybe. And I’d say that they had plans. The guy in particular looks like he has some ambition to ‘make it’, but clearly isn’t there yet. Notice how the jacket is way too big? Yeah, he obviously borrowed that from someone, his dad maybe. So he’s a low level clerk, or an apprentice or something. As for the woman, all I can say is that she appears ready to do her part – you know, take care of the house, produce and raise the kids, keep the old man in line. Okay, I know how it sounds, but I ain’t being sexist here, that’s just the way it went back in 1910 (or whatever).

So to these two – let’s call them Florence and John, I say this: with probably twenty good years in front of you before the Stock Market crashes and the Great Depression rolls over everybody, you (John) have time to find a decent job and nice house – get moving old boy! With a little luck you might have some of the kids grown and out the door before things hit the fan. And I am really sorry to say this, but no, there won’t be any Unemployment or Social Security programs to help when things get bad. So listen kids, start squirrelling as much money away as you can, ASAP (hint from the future: under the mattress or buried in a coffee can will be better than a bank – trust me!).

The Girl

Having pondered this a little longer, I realize that there is a small (but statistically significant) chance that I bought the other two pictures merely to cover the fact that I wanted this one. Interestingly, in this photograph the heroic self-restraint of that repressed era pays off.  Look at her – the hint of a smile, eyes filled with mystery and inner potential – Jesus, she’s an early 20th century Mona Lisa. Beautiful…And that jacket – its’ almost modern! In a time where women were supposed to project only a pure feminine ideal, here was a chick unafraid to express herself. Awesome. So yeah, I kinda fell for her. Crazy, I know. I’m happily married, not to mention being way too old for her – wait, no, obviously, she’s way too old for me, and surely dead – umm, well let’s just forget that thought…

But my point is this; beauty is beauty – it is mysterious, appears where it will, happens spontaneously, and if transitory can sometimes be captured in art – in this case, a photograph. So the ‘why’ of my purchase isn’t that complicated after all. I bought the picture for the same reason anyone pays for art – I saw something magical in it.

The cool thing to me is how the old and new worlds have collided here: an image of a beautiful, long gone young woman, stuffed seemingly forever, in a shoe box in a dark back room, within store full of old junk, in Ypsilanti Michigan – noticed by some middle-aged dude from Oregon, and then suddenly available to be seen by anybody in the world via this thing called ‘a computer’. Call it random chance, fate, whatever the hell you want, but I think its neato.

One More Thing

Believe it or not, one last mini-epiphany tumbled out of all of this. I finally think I really figured out why these pictures of the unknown dead hold so much power for me – they literally represent what is in store – for (almost) all of us. Within three generations (at the most) nobody on Earth will know or care who that grinning fool (insert your name here) is in that photograph from the early 21st century. In all likelihood the new owner of the house your child or grandchild lived in for the last forty years of their lives will throw out that box of curled up pictures of you he found in the attic  – that is, unless he tries to foist them off on that Junk dealer downtown. And let’s be honest, that probably won’t happen. No, image-wise it will be the Oblivion Express for the lot of us – yesterday’s footprints erased by today’s high tide. And the thought of that can be a little unsettling (especially for those of us hoping our lives will have some lasting impact), but maybe it is also sort of liberating. When its over, its over – you have done your part – take a rest kiddo. From there it will be up to the big, old, Universe to decide what, if anything, it all meant. Another mystery, wrapped in an enigma, stuffed in a…

P.S.

I know, I know – most of your pictures won’t die in an attic, since you have already uploaded them (like these) to the world-wide web internet thingy. So yeah, maybe you will be remembered forever after all. Um hmm, we’ll see…

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