These essays are not jazz-related, but recollections and tributes to people, places, events and interior landscapes from my formative years, in no particular order including affectionate tributes to my late mother and father.
“Manage Your Expectations” 2014
This was the admonition I often received before Christmas, part of my parents’ machinations to balance out Christmas with my birthday nine days later on January 3. By age 8 or 9, I was consistently let down by Christmas gifts: they were never what I wanted, off brand, or even hand-me-downs.
The year they conspired for Mother receive a fancy camera (that never worked very well), I received her old Brownie camera as a gift. Jeez, one year my sister got a fucking horse!
But this was often set-up for a pretty decent birthday haul. Some of the best presents I recall were genuinely unexpected surprises: * an HO-scale model train set, mounted and running; * a 13-function folding camping knife with fork and spoon (more about this ill-fated gift, anon); * a cool transistor radio.
My ninth or tenth birthday with the brand new HO model train.
My sister, Robin, left.
I remember there was a treasure hunt to find the
radio, probably organized by my mother. After finding small gifts
along the way, and given the clue that my final gift was in the freezer,
I was so disappointed I didn’t even want to look. But urged to follow
through, that’s where it was.
The bright red transistor radio
with stylized brass-colored grill work over the speaker fit perfectly in
my palm. Its flimsy faux-vinyl case quickly deteriorated but the radio
lasted years. Of course, Ed was running his Electronic Sales retail
store at the time, so there was no way he didn’t acquire it discounted,
promo or demo.
I recall listening on Sunday afternoons when
“Emperor Bob” Hudson counted down the Top-20 hits. His shows always
ended with a sexy female voice-over: “Get off the freeways, peasants. The Emperor is on his way home.”
Young Walter Mitty Receives a Gift
contrast, the multipurpose knife I received one birthday was an
uncharacteristically imprudent gift for a seven year old. First, it
was way too large, about five inches long with a 4” blade. The giant
fold-out fork and spoon were large even for an adult mouth. Perhaps
they had ordered something smaller, or gotten a great deal on it and
decided to give it anyway, or that I would eventually ‘grow into it.’
don’t recall ever making much use of its more advanced functions:
scissors, file, corkscrew, bottle and can opener, saw and fish scaler,
leather punch, fish gutting blade, and auxiliary leather punch. But the
knife brought out in me a primal desire to play the hero. Acting out
this desire inappropriately several times, resulted in its confiscation
for months or years until I was “more responsible.”
confiscation came when my friend Vincent Jilly was loosing a tussle with
his older brother and screaming bloody murder. I tossed the knife
threateningly in their direction (no doubt this was something I’d seen
on TV or in movies, though this was the furthest thing in the world from
a throwing knife.) I had no desire to hurt anyone, just dramatically
effect events. The knife was returned to me about a year later.
Confronting the 'Bad Guys' on Knott's Train
about age nine, with malice aforethought, I did take said weapon on a
visit to Knott’s Berry Farm. My intention was to stage a confrontation
on the Steam Train ride (a full-sized train and cars) when the ‘bad
guys,’ who invariably halted the train, came aboard and ‘robbed’ it. I
knew it wasn’t real, but I wanted to play too. I didn’t know what would
happen, and had no intent to hurt anyone, just grab attention.
brandished the knife at one of the actors as he moved past my seat and
he easily wrenched it from my hand. I recall only faintly the fog of
subsequent events: being given a stern talking to by an official in a
dimly lit office: crying and being unable to explain my actions.
grateful that my sister now recalls the event as fun: hat I revealed
the knife to her, and my intent to participate. Not that I spoiled the
afternoon, as I so often did.
To this day I remain unable to
explain myself, except that I had a burning desire to play the hero and
put myself in the action by changing the script. Or that the knife, in
general, unsheathed primal feelings I couldn’t contain.
own that rusted old knife. I view it through a strange mix of
emotions. It is a talisman of incomprehensible urges and my faint
youthful grasp on reality: Walter Mitty with a 13-function fantasy.
The Prince of Escalona 2010
My sister Robin and I loved to visit Escalona School where my father, Ed, was principal when we were maybe 7 or 8. (We went to school elsewhere, closer to home.) I believe he was the schoolʼs first principal and our early visits took place while the classrooms and offices were still under construction and incomplete. There was a skeleton staff, but the place was nearly empty.
The most fun was playing with the internal phone system; a very special treat. With a four digit code I could call up Robin over in, say, the Nurseʼs Office. Or she could call me at Fatherʼs Principal Desk. We did a lot of playing the grown-up roles of running a school, etc.
What I recall even more vividly was that on rare occasions I visited the school when it was in some kind of summer session or odd parent-teacher day or other. For what reason we were taken I canʼt remember; maybe my school was out that day, and my mother working, or taking baby Dan to the doctor.
Inevitably I was an unfamiliar face so it was natural that at some point another kid would ask, “who are you?” or “where are you from?” or “whatʼs your name?” Stating matter-of-factly that I was Principal Radlauerʼs son was usually met with scorn or ridicule.
Like saying I was a magic being from outer space: “Iʼm Supermanʼs son and I have a ray gun in my pocket.”
Since Edʼ style was to be out and about on the grounds and available to his students, Iʼd say, “OK, go ask him if you donʼt believe me.” When my True Identity was confirmed I could see the change in other kidsʼ eyes. They seemed to perceive a cloak of power descend upon my body. I was instantly transformed into something like Royalty: admired, apart and perhaps even a little feared. Hail the Prince of Escalona; Heir to the Throne; Dauphin of the Playground; a person of unique status.
Usefully, it was proof against teasing, sharp practice or bullying. But I played it cool; didnʼt throw my weight around . . . Noblesse oblige. If it drew unfavorable comment or insult behind my back, frankly, I didnʼt care. Iʼm only a visitor in these lands.
(I donʼt recall how often my sister Robin might have visited Escalona or what her experience was but Iʼm curious to know.)
Oddly this sensation was magnified one summer when I was enrolled by Ed in the summer session there. I suspect I was between 4th and 5th grades, but might well have been even younger, when I was placed in a class for 5th about-to-be-6th graders. This upward placement was because my school was academically (and socio-economically) well beyond Escalona, and many of the kids were probably there for remedial catch-up.
I recall the first day or two in the classroom was taken up with a lot of repetitious nonsense about what was expected regarding attendance, discipline, the Rules and Regulations. The Riot Act was read right up front, and . . . was there a system of demerits? Consequences for poor schoolwork or behavior were to be serious and unpleasant. Names would be taken and asses kicked. Hard.
The first couple of days I kept my head down and stuck to my knitting, went virtually unnoticed in the class. The aura of princely power might have been there, but I wasnʼt feeling it, plus I was taken aback by the harsh tone of the classroom regime.
But I was soon aware that the schoolwork, particularly the reading, was easy; material Iʼd mastered long ago. Simple, little-kid stuff.
So around the third or fourth day I was, frankly, bored. One particular assignment was so elementary to me that I quietly asked the teacher -- and I believe these were my exact words -- “do you have something harder?”
The instructor fixed me with an intense, jaundiced eye. Was I jerking his chain? A comic? No student in the school had ever asked him that! Skeptical, he queried me to confirm that I wasnʼt bluffing, did in fact know the material, and left me with something like, “weʼll have to see.”
Before that first week of summer session was over I was informed by Ed on the ride home that I wouldnʼt need to come back to Escalona summer school.
I sensed that he seemed amused (perhaps secretly pleased) that his own academically-middling son was far above these older, struggling, underprivileged kids. A bunch who probably werenʼt the pick of the litter anyway. I was done. Released. We would find something else for me to do that summer.
Princes donʼt march with the infantry. Perhaps I was Heir after all.
MY MYSTERY MISSIONS WITH RUTH AND ED 2013
In 1988 or ‘89 I decided I wanted to share a couple of ‘mystery missions” with my mother and father, Ruth and Ed. This was a game and tradition they enjoyed: surprising each another with an outing, destination undisclosed, designed to delight the other. My mission with Ruth was a great success. With Ed not so much.
Ruth’s mystery mission: Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo Beach
This was a day-long mission. My then girlfriend Valerie and I picked her up at San Francisco airport, and we drove south, along the Coast on Highway 1. This must have been late winter or early spring as the Elephant Seal season peaks in March-April.
The drive was lovely and Ruth was delighted with the destination, about a half-mile walk through sandy dunes to view the seals from a safe distance, with a Park interpreter to answer questions and enforce safety. Lots of pictures were taken.
Mother took a very nice photo of Valerie and me. Though that relationship ended within the year, the photo framed with others hung in the back hall for 25 years.
After Ano Nuevo, we went to Duarte’s in the nearby (formerly Italian fishing village) Pescadero for the Sunday all-you-can-eat Chioppino feed, a long-standing tradition. (Crab and seafood in a traditional tomato/wine-based stock.)
Then we drove her to the airport for a return flight that same evening. It was a successful mystery mission for all concerned.
MY MOTHER IS AN ARTIST 2010
My mother was an artist in many media. But she didn’t look like an artist.
In her later years she appeared to be a conventional grey-haired 80-something lady in a funny sun hat. Like a grandma off to Reno for the slots, or out to a Denny’s breakfast with other widows of a certain age, complaining about their daughter’s worthless ex-husbands or bragging on their successful sons.
But no. Until nearly the end she was busy writing, weaving artistic baskets, attending classes, composing in Photoshop, writing in her journal or planning the release of her 251st book.
Her artistic creativity started long ago. Back in college at UCLA with ceramic masks and sculpture. These objects were in our home when I was growing up. From earliest memory they were powerful images in my psyche.
Here, in the form of a critic's review, is an introduction.
Primitive Visage I (Mask)
This is the hirsute countenance of a glowering Wild Man; the powerful jutting brow enlightened by Nietzsche or Jehovah; bulging eyes contain a dash of . . . is that surprise or fury? When I was small it was a little scary.
The bristling vengeful Old Testament beard is rendered in needle-edged stippled ceramic sharp enough to tear flesh. The color is flat mud; the darkest brown can get before it becomes black. It reflects no light. But in fact it glows darkness and mystery. The impenetrable face is a fortress of judgement.
Primitive Visage II (Squatting Man figurine)
To further embarrass, shock and condemn us there he squats: the very same confrontational primitive, his masculinity unclothed. His over sized simian hands and feet are splayed apishly.
All the lines and angles of converge toward his maleness, also unashamed. Karl Marx naked, glaring, posed as the Wild Man of Borneo
His Cro-magnon otherness is emphasized by the mild emaciation and nacreous purpurescent glaze of his skin. The body language of this primitive says our clothed bodies are even more naked than he.
This cheeky modernist vase has just escaped from a Picasso still life. A cool pale blue finish almost powdery to the touch (or eye) suggests modesty, but cannot conceal its resolutely Avant-garde stance.
Its sleekly fluted, yet blocky lines do not want to pour liquid. I wouldn’t put flowers in it for it says plainly, “I’m not for that.”
The gloss black deco handle will not accommodate your fingers; this object could only fit the hand of one of Pablo’s unfortunate many-visaged ladies.
In fact, you’d better not touch it or you’ll be sucked into the topsy-turvy Cubist room from whence it was borrowed.
Horse Head Bust
The only piece in this
collection larger than a bread box, its restful bulk is fleshy and flesh colored.
To me it seems feminine in some undefinable manner. Restful.
Contained. The shape of a sleeping baby viewed from some peculiar
The power is muted, held in abeyance, occupying a vague
yet definitely equine form. The wildness is momentarily domesticated,
craving unity and distance simultaneously. And the head is bowed
earthward as if offering the top of its head for a master’s reassuring
Mysterious Green Figurine (maquette)
The murky color of algae, is this an Ondine arising from a lake?.
Or is it a Fallen Angel condemned to forever be a melted, unformed thing: faceless, female, alien, sexless?
Why does the shape of its head suggest a question mark? Is it entering, or leaving its veiled chrysalis. Does it know? Does it care? Can it weep?
Its frozen grief seems beyond tears. Will it never tell me why?
Cups Shaped Like Pitted Olives (not shown)
Greens again. Rather dark olive greens . . . did the college offer an abundance of green glazes? and why such moody shades of this optimistic hue?
These asymmetrically organic tumblers might seem unremarkable, almost childish. Ovoid gourd forms, but squashed in on two sides as if grabbed up by the hand of their maker while still moist and plastic. Brobdingnagian pitted olives become steins for Troglodytes.
Odd that I still recall them after all these years.
Light and unconcerned this is an untroubled mask. I‘ve long suspected it was secretly a self-portrait, intentional or not. The light white finish adds to the bright optimism. Though somewhat flattened, the fine crackling of the glaze adds dimension, depth and texture.
Appearing somewhat androgynous it seems to look inward as well as outward. This is a face untroubled by the past or future. (There are other ceramics in this collection, quite striking, omitted for now.)
The Artist as Young Woman
These ceramics surprise me as they were done by an essentially girlish, somewhat naive, and as yet unformed, young woman. Unlike a mature artist with a consistent theme or style, these works are wildly diverse as she tries various genres, samples exotic ethnicity and surprises herself with what emerges from the experiments.
This young artist a surprising source for imagery of such strength and mystery. We aren't dealing with a progeny of Greenwich Village bohemians or red-diaper intellectuals. She’s not the product of an artsy-fartsy Northeastern prep school.
She's from Wyoming for chrissakes. Decent, high-plains, red-blooded Midwestern stock. Her unimaginative mother was frank and dour. Her father a Protestant scout master with a taste for model trains, car camping in Yosemite, and woodworking.
But isn’t this part of the contradiction of creativity? That what emerges from an artist transcends its source.
The Artist as Young Mother
married before leaving college. She was soon learning the domestic
arts of child rearing, knitting and sewing, fruit canning and household
bookkeeping -- not to mention the related fine arts of penny pinching,
family scheduling, pet care, rudimentary large animal husbandry . . .
and husband management.
Her strong drive to work in many spheres
simultaneously -- including employment outside our home and taking up
the creative writing for children she was called to -- forced my mom to
become fiercely organized and self-disciplined. And she continued to
dabble in the plastic arts, paint, pastels and clay while introducing
them to my brother, sister and I. By her early 30s, a decade or so into
her marriage, my mother was becoming a successful writer publishing
books for kids.
Together my mother and father’s ashes now lie intermingled on one of the hillsides where they lived their partnered lives . . . and in my heart as well.
In bucolic isolation they built a house of art, music, self-expression; never a dull moment, and rarely a careless one. For over a half decade they were lovers, contestants, partners: each a soloist and ensemble player; both played lead and backup.
The all-too-human flesh of the most determined among us weakens and fails. So will we all.
But none could wish for more satisfying, productive or complete lives than theirs. Few could expect a richer cavalcade of horses and guitars, trucks and electron tubes, barbeque, avocados, books and basketry.
And at the end they were grateful, facing the void clear-eyed; finally ready to surrender the cares of life to others.
Their ashes rest now on a gently sloping hillside they chose together.