Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ghosts of New Years Past

Years ago, I was working two jobs and going to school full time.  Rarely did the two jobs overlap, but one of the few times they did was on a particular New Year’s Eve in the mid-1980s.

I worked security at a shopping mall forty hours a week.  The job was good because it paid better than flipping burgers and it offered plenty of down time to study for my classes.  My second job involved playing keyboards in various bands in dives around L.A. and at weddings and bar mitzvahs.  At the mall, I met many off duty LAPD officers who moonlighted as additional security.  All of the officers and my fellow security personnel knew I was a musician, and most of them also were familiar with the places where I played.

One New Year’s Eve, I had to work my regular shift at the mall before running home to change, load up my equipment, and get myself to Hollywood to play at a Filipino night club called The Bayanihan.  A friend of mine recommended me for the job.  He was the regular keyboardist for the house band, but he had a more lucrative gig that night, so he asked me to sub for him.  He owned top-of-the-line equipment; in those days, that meant the latest digital synthesizer on the market, the Yamaha DX7.  I owned a Rhodes Electric Piano, an old, old instrument that had only one sound, albeit a classic one from the 1970s and 80s.  My friend also was a master at sight reading whereas I had to study the music and practice to get it right.  Getting it right and sounding like the original recording are incredibly important when playing keyboards in a top 40 cover band.  So going in, I was at an extreme disadvantage.

One of the officers, a helicopter pilot, and another, a Hollywood Division officer, were on duty that day at the mall.  As I left, they wished me well on my performance that evening while grinning and elbowing each other.  There was something up but I did not have the time to ponder what they might be planning.  I made it to the gig on time and set up my heavy, outdated equipment and tried to ignore the concerned looks of my new band mates.  The three Filipina singers plopped a huge, overfilled binder on top of my Rhodes and told me that was what they would be covering that night.  I paged through the book.  I knew the songs from the radio, but I had never played them, and the charts were intricate, demanding exactitude if I was to help the band cover the tunes in a recognizable fashion.  Plus, the only song I saw that utilized a Rhodes piano was the Billy Joel classic, “Just The Way You Are.”  To this day, I hate that song.

I stumbled and bumbled my way through the first set, and I think the singers wanted me fired right then and there, but since there were no other keyboard players in the house, they were stuck with me.  The Filipinos dancing and drinking in the club seemed not to notice my ineptitude, and of course, the longer the evening went, the more drunk everyone became, so my off-key blunders were of no concern to anybody but my fellow band mates.

As we closed out a set, I noticed two uniformed police officers enter the back of the club.  One waved at me, and I realized it was Jerry, the Hollywood Division officer who had worked the mall with me that day.  He was a tall, strapping cop, a former Marine, with his blond hair in a crew cut.  His partner I didn’t know, but he was another tall, muscled white guy with a tomato-red complexion.

The band took a break, and I walked back to say hello.  Jerry introduced me to his counterpart, Mike, and told me that the club had a standing arrangement with the police that if they came by while on duty, they could eat for free as a way of adding additional security.  The band also got to eat free; we just went to the kitchen and asked for different Filipino delicacies hot off the stove.  Jerry and Mike made their selections and since I had never eaten Filipino food, I ordered what they ordered.  Then we went outside and sat in their patrol car to eat.

We were well into our plates of vibrantly red meat, something that looked like chow mein, and fried or steamed rice as well as other unknown dishes and sides when Jerry made a startling claim.  “This is the best dog I’ve ever had,” he said around his mouth full of food.  The cops were known for their practical jokes.  In fact, they often spent whole shifts playing tricks on their fellow officers and on the security staff.  But Jerry seemed to be serious about his proclamation about the meat on his plate.

“This can’t be dog,” I sputtered.  “You can’t serve dog in a restaurant.”

Jerry and Mike both started laughing.  “Sure you can,” Jerry said.  They don’t put it on the menu; you have to ask for it special.”

I called bullshit on this.  “What about health inspectors?  And where do they get the dogs?  The local animal shelter?”

“Yeah, the local animal shelters,” Jerry said.  “They’re just going to kill them anyway.”

“That cannot be true,” I replied.

This seemed to irritate Jerry a bit.  “Who did two tours in Vietnam?  Who took his leave in the Philippines?  They eat dogs, man, all throughout southeast Asia.”

I did not know if what he said was true although just to be safe, I was done with Filipino food.  At least the meat.  What could be done to vegetables?  Still, I wondered if dog meat could be the secret ingredient on menus across the city in restaurants from southeast Asia.

After our break, as we were assembling on stage for our next set, I casually mentioned to the guitarist as he was tuning up, “I just had a great plate of dog.”  I smiled at him like the meal had been a revelation from God.

“Yeah,” he said leaning close so I would hear him over the rest of the band tuning their instruments.  “They marinate it for a long time and slow cook it; that is what makes it tender.”  He winked at me with a smile.  Now I was left to wonder if he was playing his own joke on me or if he was serious about how to cook tender, succulent dog.

We finished the evening with the countdown to the New Year and a list of top 40 songs, most of which I blew for the band.  They pushed on like real troopers around my discordant nonsense.  They more or less threw a check at me as I packed up and I knew I would not be playing with them again.

Out in the parking lot, I loaded my huge amp and casket-sized keyboard into my grandmother’s old Chevy pickup.  Suddenly, a helicopter came screaming over me at tree-top level and assumed a circular orbit above the lot.  The entire area lit up like it was high noon.  A voice came over a loud speaker on the ghetto bird:  “Step away from the vehicle and keep your hands in the air.”

My blood seemed to drain out of me as I was blinded by the light.  Then something clicked over in my brain and I realized it was another officer from the mall.  He was one of the few African-American helicopter pilots in the LAPD and his name was Lawrence.

“Don’t make me have to shoot you,” his voice boomed.  “Get down on the ground and spread your arms.”

I raised both hands to the sky and flipped him the double bird.  Then I noticed all the employees and even some neighbors were out on the street watching the event unfold.  There I was, standing in the 30 million candle power night-sun like a criminal caught in the act.

“Code 4, suspect in custody,” Lawrence rumbled over his speakers.  “See you at the mall, Tonto.”  The helicopter light blinked off leaving me in darkness again.  The sudden silence after its departure was profound.

That was certainly one of the strangest New Year’s I’ve had.

Because of all the New Year’s Eves I spent working, I am glad now that I can be at home as the clock ticks over into a new year.  We watch a movie, have a good dinner, and when midnight hits, we listen to the comforting sounds of gunshots and firecrackers and sirens knowing that we are indoors under a sturdy roof.  I am thankful for that.

In the weeks after that eventful evening at The Bayanihan, Jerry told me that there had been a shooting at the club and someone was killed.  I did not see anything in the newspaper about this, but the club was part of Jerry’s beat, so he would know.  The place closed for good sometime in the 1990s from what I could find in my research.

The only true thing I know about the dawning of a new year is that what is to come will be a complete surprise, but in hindsight, obviously inevitable.  That is how life and good fiction work.  I listen to those explosions of celebration and wonder:  what will 2016 be like?  How much wiser will we be as we roll over into 2017 twelve months from now?  These questions are really one question:  will we still be alive and kicking at the end of this new year?  Who knows?  We just live one moment at a time and do the best we can, even when we feel we don’t fit in, we cannot read the music fast enough to keep up with the band, and we are blinded by the light.  Not to worry:  the crowd is so drunk that it will always love us just the way we are.

On to 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Seven Thousand Ways To Listen

There are 7000 living languages on earth, says Mark Nepo in his book, Seven Thousand Ways To Listen: Staying Close To What Is Sacred (Atria Paperbacks, 2013).  He is quoting the Nigerian linguist Olasope Oyelaran.  To hear, truly to hear what is spoken in any language, with the body, with expression, involves a kenosis, an emptying of the self.  Only then, according to Nepo, can one enter into the realm of deep listening.

I first encountered Nepo’s work in his The Book of Awakening (Conari Press, 2000).  He is a teacher and a survivor of cancer which led him to develop his own philosophy of being in the present, a not-unheard-of idea similar to many eastern philosophies, including Buddhism.  We must learn, he argues in his introduction, to return “quite humbly, to the simple fate of being here.”  This is where deep listening becomes sacred work.

Ironically, a loss of hearing due to chemotherapy drew Nepo back to the fundamental sensory perception of listening.  It was in this lack of noise that he began to hear what exists more deeply in our subconscious:  the rhythms and intricacies of daily life.  “I seems that intuitive listening requires us to still our minds until the beauty of things older than our minds can find us,” he writes.  He compares the assault of daily life to an angry tiger, always demanding our undivided attention, but if we can silence that tiger, in a sense, ignore the tiger, we can begin to hear “something timeless” that continually moves through the world.

Nepo divides the book into groupings of chapters:  “The Work of Being”; The Work of Being Human”; and “The Work of Love.”  Each chapter is short, like a Buddhist parable, but packed with meaning and insight.  He intersperses, throughout the text, reflection, meditation, and journaling exercises that reinforce the message and theme of each section.

In his chapter on restoring our confidence, for example, he develops the theme of two powerful teachers in our lives:  not-knowing and paradox.  The translation of paradox from the “Greek para (beyond) and dox (belief) indicates to Nepo that something is “beyond our current understanding of things.”  This highlights the ideas of faith and belief in a nutshell.  There are aspects of this life that are beyond our limited human understanding.  Quite simply, there are things we cannot know.  Yet, these aspects are truths in and of themselves and cannot be ignored, resulting in a paradox.  He ends the section with a journal question:  “Tell a story of how some aspect of who you are has fallen away and died and what new way of being has replaced it.”

I find resonance with this idea because life is a series of little deaths, of things falling away as new opportunities present themselves.  We are born on the highway toward the end from the very first breath.  The signposts on this highway are often these little deaths—the end of a job, a divorce, a completion of a project or major quest.  Things must die, like the leaves in autumn, in order to be renewed and continued.  Life is seasons, and every season has its death, every journey has its end.  When we end, we are transfigured into another existence.  There is the energy of our life which rejoins the greater soul that Emerson spoke of so eloquently, and there are the memories of us carried by the people we touch in our lives.  All of life contains some piece of the soul of existence, and therefore, nothing ever ends; as Frost wrote, there are three magic words about life:  it goes on.

If I had a criticism of the book, it would be its length.  At times, Nepo is repetitive.  Like a lot of theological, spiritual, or self-help literature, the book could be edited down a bit, maybe even to the length of a magazine piece.  But this is a minor criticism, mainly because some of us need the lesson conveyed in several ways to internalize what we need to learn.  Often, we fall back on our old behaviors.  We want to control what happens to us, we wish to dictate our lives, but we soon learn that this is impossible.  Nepo writes, “For under all our attempts to script our lives, life itself cannot be scripted.”  In the end, we can only live, and a primary component of that living is listening.  Everyone has a story; every part of creation has a truth running through it.  If we fail to listen, it is as if we are “reading the books of astronomers but never really looking at the stars,” as Nepo quotes from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

This is one of the strengths of the book:  Nepo links his ideas to, or supports his thesis with, literature.  He comes to the table with a doctorate in English, so this is not unexpected.  On the other hand, maybe it is better to go to these texts rather than allowing the words to be filtered down to us through Nepo’s pen.  His writing is accessible and his voice is strong which makes for easy comprehension and consideration of often difficult philosophical ideas.

Nepo is a gifted philosopher and a deep thinker.  There is much to take away from his work.  The cover illustration sums up his point of view:  a dock gradually moving away from the photographer into the blandly blue sea.  That is our life, and even though the dock ends, it opens into the new world of the ocean with its own trials and tribulations, and yes, joys.  If we listen, we can hear the waves, the water moving in its endless breathing in and out, never ending, but changing according to the seasons and the sky.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Time Away

Christmas Eve.  Probably the best one ever.  Just the two of us.  Quiet.  Peaceful.  Cold out, enough for a fire in the fire place.  Plenty of time to rest, read and sleep.

I have so much needed time away.  A moment’s pause in the rough and tumble universe.  Some days, I would step outside my office, look down the hill to the Santa Monica Bay and wish I could fly away.  Too many words, words, words.  I did not want to write or read another one.

But lately, I’ve felt the call to come back to the world.  It is time to pick up pen and paper again.  It is time to sit in front of the fire and read, read, read long into the night.  Contemplate the ideas we seek, the message in a bottle that is a good book.

It is natural to search for stillness in our lives, a shelter in the storm.  The holiday season can be brutal.  Car commercials interrupt my Pandora stream.  Deals and gifts and endless advertisements to change your life by buying and buying and buying.  Capitalism’s finest hour.  Black Friday.  Cyber Monday.  Last chance to get in on the deal.  Then the reprieve of after-Christmas sales.  New Year’s bargains.  Too much.

The man by the side of the freeway holding the sign.  The woman going through the trash cans up and down my street, mumbling to herself.  Prayers.  Oaths.  This is who we are.  No middle ground, just excess and emptiness, silence and the screams.

In the middle of it all, I think of Thoreau’s cabin.  I think of the high country.  Snowed in.  Silence as a rule, broken only by the pops and cracks of the fire.  Read.  Meditate.  Find the silent heart of the season.  The true meaning of Christmas.

This is why I needed time away.  I needed to find that silence.  It’s here, inside me again, and now it’s time to make my way back.

May you find the silence of which you dream.

May you find the stillness deep in the heart of a winter’s night.

Dare to dream.

And wake up to live again.