UP TO THE TEETH IN FIRE

“Even his dentures got melted down.”

I heard this on the shuttle bus, the Wednesday before Easter, as we were traveling from Sam’s Town to the MGM Grand to see the Cirque du Soleil production of Ka´.  By “we” I mean my lovely wife, Pony, my charming mother-in-law, Margaret; my friend Kevin, with his wife Kathy; and my friend Gary with his wife, Rita.  Months ago, we had organized to all meet in Las Vegas for a bit of actual vacation; doing the touristy thing with checking out the strip and a couple of shows.  Pony had found Sam’s Town: a combination hotel and RV park, with the requisite casino, several restaurants and shops, and many of the amenities one looks for in while vacationing in Vegas. 

But the topic on everyone’s minds and lips this evening was the RV that burned down that morning in the Sam’s Town RV park.  It is one of the chief fears of all RV owners (as I have come to learn).  RV’s are vulnerable to fire, and can burn down within minutes.  Indeed, Pony and I saw one catch fire on I-80 while going through Nebraska a few years back.  The thing was nothing but a smoldering hunk of metal within about 15 minutes. 

In this case, the RV belonged to an elderly couple, and apparently the wife was disabled.  Someone (I did not learn who) ran in to carry her out while the husband was also escorted from the growing flames.  There was some concern that their cat may have perished, but the kitty was found a few hours later.  The burned-out wreck of the RV remains in its assigned lot in Sam’s Town RV, yellow tape cordoning it off from the other residents.  Only the front grill and two front tires remain to give any impression of what once sat there. 

A box was set out in front of one of the RV’s closest to the main entrance of the park, accepting donations for the couple.  They were expected to spend a few days in a nearby hospital, after which they would be provided lodging for about a week, courtesy of Sam’s Town.  People were donating clothes, some tins of cat food, and whatever other sundry articles that someone could spare and thought the couple could use. 

Naturally, I thought of the sum of our lives that travels with us in our beloved Cecilia: the three cats, the dog, the two guitars, and all the other stuff.  It’s not everything we own in the world (some bigger articles of furniture, and a few other cherished objects have been put into storage, or are being held for us by various friends).  Still, I can imagine how terrible I would feel, how hard it would be to endure such a loss.  I hope I may never have to find out first-hand.                               

Like many of the other residents, we donated a few articles of clothing that we felt we could spare (plus a tin or two of cat food).  Like many of the residents, I think we did it to create some good karma; as an offering of sorts, to the gods of the road, to ward off bad fortune in our own travels.  

Here’s hoping it works.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

The Artist’s Way Revisited

I was first introduced to the book, “The Artist’s Way” (by Julia Cameron) by way of songwriter/guitarist, Chuck Pyle. It was at a gathering at Swallow Hill Music Association, organized around people who had taken part in one way or another with the Kerrville Folk Festival (I was pleased to win the Newfolk Songwriting Competition there some years ago). The first time I worked with the book, I started my independent recording label and recorded/produced/released my first two CD’s. I started to work with it again a little over a year ago, and now have two new albums recorded and released (and am currently on the second leg of a vast, cross-country tour to support those new albums).
But at some point I sort of got busy, or distracted, or whatever, and I stopped working with “The Artist’s Way”. A few days ago (Sunday, to be specific), I decided I needed to revisit this book again. The book is organized as a 12-week program to help recover and nurture one’s creativity. It can be a very insightful process; bringing to your attention issues and attitudes that can be holding you back in one way or another. The fact that it is organized as a 12-week program is a very deliberate nod to the 12-step program created and propagated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Cameron has admitted to her history of alcohol abuse, and at one point feared that her creativity was inextricably tied to her use of alcohol. She said out in a very deliberate and conscious way to nurture her creativity while disproving various myths that claim an artistic person (musician, writer, artist, actor, what have you) must entertain a dark and/or destructive vein in order to be creative.
I have not been wrestling with any such addiction, but I have endured a few hard knocks over the last 6-9 months. I have had to deal with various forms or rejection and other challenges, and it has left me a bit psychically bruised, as it were. So I figured it was a good time to work with Cameron’s book again.
The book insists that you don’t have to believe in a “higher power” as such to tap into its principles. But I do have a sense of spirituality, or cosmology that I had got out of touch with. I do not believe in an anthropomorphic, patriarchal god (and certainly not the vengeful, somewhat whimsical figure described in the Old Testament), but I do believe in a creative consciousness that permeates the universe; something that, for convenience’s sake, could be referred to as “God”.
One of the practices of the “The Artist’s Way” book is called Morning Pages, where you sit down (preferably first thing in the morning) and do a sort of stream-of-consciousness writing down of whatever comes to mind for three pages. I have found this a helpful process for sorting thoughts, recognizing goals and opportunities, and sometimes sparking some new, creative ideas. It could also be interpreted as a form of prayer, if you like, or a form of meditation.
While it could be considered no more than coincidence, since resuming this practice, I got three more gigs confirmed for the present leg of the tour, as well as an opportunity to submit some of my instrumentals for consideration on a feature film. Once again, I am encouraged. Thank you, Julia Cameron, and thank you, Chuck Pyle, for showing me this path.

It Is All Done With Mirrors

We had a photo session last Monday, and our thanks to the D Note (in Arvada) for graciously letting us do the photo shoot at their place.  There was a little bit of miscommunication with our photographer; consequently, he had not brought along his lighting rig.  We started the photo shoot at about 6pm, and (thanks to Daylight Savings time) the sun was still setting to the west.   The photographer and I got the idea to use one of the mirrors we’d brought to reflect the sunlight through the D Note’s window and use it to light me for the shoot.  As it turns out, a slightly drunk biker happened to be passing by at the moment, and cheerily offered to hold the mirror at the desired height and angle to get maximum effect from the reflected sunlight.  It was an interesting bit of improvisation, but we believe we got something useful out of the whole experience. 

The next day, I played for an hour at Holly Heights Nursing Home for a thoroughly appreciative audience.  I have to admit that my nursing home shows are proving to be some of my most satisfying gigs.  The residents are very much in the mood for some entertainment, and I regale them with a mix of songs and stories.  I include more songs that are older and more likely to invite singing along, and it often becomes rather like a party. 

I admit that I don’t have any formal training in music therapy.  At best, I have read a few articles, here and there.  But one article in particular (by Oliver Sachs) describes how music can be used to trigger old memories, or open neural pathways in the brain that step around some of the injured parts of a brain.  Music has helped Alzheimer’s patients to re-enter the present through cherished memories, and has helped Parkinson’s patients to move through dance.  I have seen all of this in some of my performances at Nursing homes, and it has made for some wondrous moments. 

We begin the next leg of our tour in a few days: to Phoenix (for a start), then on to the west coast.  The adventure continues….

Casper Mountain Farewell and Denver Welcome

One week ago, we woke in the cabin on the mountain to find that we had no electricity.  Making a call to Sam Weaver, we learned that the power outage was all over the mountain (and not just our own headache).  According to the clock in the kitchen, the power went out at about 6:30am, and was finally returned about four hours later.  In the meantime, we went about the usual routine of building up the fires in the two main stoves, and began the added challenge of packing up the last of our things for our trip down the mountain and reinstalling ourselves in our RV. 

To be fair, we were not up at 6:30 in the morning.  In fact, we had slept in a bit, after bingeing on the entire Season 4 of Downton Abbey (thanks to our room-mate, Trey, who had acquired it from a local library and left it for us).  Friday evening had been a restful evening of nibbling on leftovers, drinking tea, and watching British drama.  When we finally woke on Saturday morning, there was about half a dozen inches of new powder, a significant drop in the temperature (below zero), and, of course, the loss of electricity. 

One of the casualties of our last load into the car was Pony’s orchid.  It took us close to thirty minutes to make that last walk with a few final items to load in, and half an hour in zero-degree weather (with wind making it worse), was too much for the little plant. 

By the time we got to the town of Casper, a time and temp sign on a fast food place informed us that it was -3 degrees.  We took possession of our RV, moved it into the space we’d rented for the night, and loaded in cats, dog, guitars, and the last handful of boxes.  After getting stuff put away well enough for travel, we rewarded ourselves with a dinner of good barbecue from a take-out place about a mile from the RV park.  You could say that Casper Mountain gave us a proper send-off.  Still, all in all, we enjoyed our stay there, and have talked about repeating the experience next year (when I hope to be recording a couple of new projects). 

The actual drive on Sunday from Casper to Denver was wonderfully uneventful.  Roads were clear, as was the sky, and temperatures were climbing.  This last week in Denver, there has been a bit of snow, here and there, but the temperatures have generally been a lot more friendly, as it were.  We are back into familiar routines: making tons of phone calls and sending out emails to add more and more dates to the next leg of the tour, alternating with practicing or playing gigs. 

Thursday night at Sonoma’z Wine Bar and Grill was very much like coming back home.  It’s become a very comfortable place to play.  This time around, there was some sort of insurance convention being hosted at the Marriott, and Sonoma’z was packed with people.  I noticed several gentlemen, as old as or older than me, accompanied by lovely, significantly younger ladies in the obligatory “little black dress”.  Hmmmm.  No matter: it was a lively and welcoming crowd. 

It’s a weekend of familiar places, with playing last night at Stella’s Coffeehouse (along with Scott Sherman), and playing happy hour at Highland Cork and Coffee today (just preceding singer/songwriter/guitarist, Greg Price).  In about a week’s time, give or take, we’ll be heading down the road to Phoenix and parts west.  For my friends and fans on the west coast, we’ll be looking forward to catching up with you real soon. 

The Casper Mountain Getaway

“Oh crap!” says Pony.

I was perched on one of the dining chairs, working on an arrangement of “Lark of the Morning” (an Irish jig) combined with a Saltarello composed by Galileo’s father, while Pony was sitting on the nearby couch, gazing at her smart phone. 

“What’s up?” I inquired.

It turns out that the weather app on her smart phone had a winter storm warning.  Another arctic blast is due to hit central Wyoming on Friday.  Starting Friday night and continuing into Saturday, Casper is expected to get some 8 inches (or more) of snow, while Casper Mountain is predicted to get as much as two feet of new snow. 

Mind you, Friday is when the RV is supposed to be de-winterized, and Saturday is when we planned to load up the RV, with the further plans to drive down to Denver on Sunday. 

On the plus side (so far!), there is only a 20% chance of snow on Sunday.  But the weather app cannot say anything as yet regarding temperatures or winds on Sunday (I worry about wind just a bit more than the snow, although they are both hazardous enough when navigating an RV and towing a car). 

Contingency plans start with Thursday.  We are loading as much as we can into the RV early (the folks at Sonny’s RV are already expecting us to do something like this, so they won’t be taken by surprise on that score).  Saturday will still be a final load in of guitars and pets, and we will keep fingers crossed that come Sunday we can make our way south (an early start is definitely planned). 

Pony was getting genuinely nervous in contemplating the possible hazards over the next few days.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the potential hardship.  It’s just that I don’t see anything good to come from panic (or anything that even approaches panic).  Buddha said suffering comes from desiring something other than what is.  To the extent that you can accept things as they are and deal with them, therein lies the possibility of minimizing suffering.

Yeah.  That’s the notion, alright. 

Rufus In A Winter Wonderland

We had another five inches or so of snow over the weekend.  Rufus and I emerged from the cabin this morning to find a nice layer of powder over all.  The winds had died down to a polite breeze and the sun was out in all its glory, the snows shining in reply. 

To look at him, you would not necessarily consider my dog a snow dog.  Although he’s not a small, yippy sort of dog, he is also not so tall or broad as a retriever or a husky.  And he is more a short hair sort of dog than those other breeds.  Still, for all that, it is a wonder to watch him run up and down the hill and go plowing through the drifts.  There is a bank of snow that runs along a stretch of the cabin’s path to the main road where the snow is nearly as tall as me.  It has been Rufus’ crowning achievement (as it were) to leap upon that particular drift without sinking into its depths.  All the while, there is such a pure joy in his manic wanderings through the snow that is wonderful to observe. 

We are in the last week of our sojourn on Casper Mountain.  Come Friday, and the folks at Sonny’s RV will be pulling our Cecilia out of storage and de-winterizing her.  They will fill her with propane, make sure all the tanks and lines are clean and ready, and generally make her ready once again to hit the road.  Throughout the week, whenever weather is most friendly, we will be hauling two or three boxes of supplies out of the cabin and back into town, back into the RV.  By Saturday, we look to be all loaded back in.  The plan is to spend Saturday night in Sonny’s RV park, then to head out first thing on Sunday, back to Denver. 

It has been a good stay on Casper Mountain.  The cabin has its own personality, a reflection of the man who built it.  It is a little like Hogwarts, in that you can turn around and suddenly find another room or compartment that you had not noticed before.  And nearly every room has at least one bookshelf or more.  The books are an eclectic mix, although they lean heavily on issues of philosophy, religion, spirituality and mysticism.  But there are scientific books of all manner as well, and histories and mysteries.  One could spend a good year or more trying to wander through Warren Weaver’s library. 

Getting back on the road, I will remember building fires every day (I finally got the trick of the pot belly stove in the main hall, and even managed one day of reviving the fire from the live coals left from the night before, and did not have to use one stick of wood the whole day; something of an accomplishment and a measure of how far I’d come in learning the finer points of that stove).  I wonder if I will ever get the coal dust out of the lines of my hands.  I will remember having great chunks of time to play the guitar, work on my novel, organize the next leg of our tour, and spend some delicious spans of time sitting in one of the stuffed chairs reading. 

We will leave behind several new friends that we will look forward to seeing again in a few months’ time.  And we are seriously considering doing something like this again next winter.  I’ve got a feeling Rufus would be up for it. 

Living for the Weekend

“I’ll have to admit, I was leery of the whole live music thing,” said Lisa.  “But you showed us how good it can be.”

 Lisa and Stefan are the owners of the Trailhead Lodge, where I played last Friday and Saturday night.  Both nights were packed (Friday night had reservations throughout the evening, and I ended up playing for an extra twenty minutes, in honor of a party of eight that had arrived towards the end of the evening for the express purpose of coming to see me). 

It is gigs like this that remind me in a beautiful, vivid way why I love my job.  I played a wide range of stuff: everything from Bach to Hank Williams, with lots in between.  I sold nearly a dozen CD’s over the two nights, met several new fans and friends (including a couple who apparently are determined that I should play for the Art Museum in Casper, come this summer), and, to top it off, got fed some mighty fine fare both nights, as well. 

At the end of Saturday night, Lisa and Stefan talked to us about setting up some future gigs; some in early August (when next we expect to pass through) and again for next winter (because we are thinking that winter on the mountain is, all in all, a pretty good thing).  Given the gypsy lifestyle we have adopted, calling Casper our official home base is as good as anywhere, and I have to say that folks here have made us feel very welcome.

I woke Sunday morning, and the sun was bright and beautiful.  I felt fair to bursting with good, positive energy.  The wind was slow and friendly.  We enjoyed half a dozen days or so of relatively warm weather.  Our room-mate, Trey, had his wife (Pam) and dog (Siska) up for the weekend, so the cabin was full of good conversation, and company (human and canine).  All in all the last few days have  been healing and energizing, leaving me more than ready for the barrage of emails and phone calls I look to unleash upon the world, as I continue to carve out the next leg of our grand tour. 

Two weeks from today, and I will be giving a guest lecture at Arapahoe Community College, where I will be sharing some of the experiences we have had on the road, and many of the lessons learned.  However, that also means that there is much to do between now and then.  It’s busy.  It can be really busy.  But it’s a good form of busy. 

Valentines and Mountain Passes

The Trailhead Lodge is a café on Casper Mountain Road, close to where the road forks.  The right fork proceeds another half mile or so to the path that then leads to the cabin we’ve been calling home for a little over a month, and farther on to the Hogadon Ski Run.  My understanding is that the Trailhead has been known by various names over the years, but the current incarnation is owned and run by a lovely couple from Casper, Lisa and Stefan (with the help of a few family members).  I have visited the Trailhead a few times over the last few weeks (I can particularly vouch for the chicken quesadillas), and have even taken one of the guitars with me a couple of times to pick a tune or two.  As a consequence, I will be performing in a slightly more formal way on Valentine’s Day weekend (Friday and Saturday, the 14th and 15th, from 4:30 to 7:30pm). 

We’ve printed up a few posters.  Our room-mate, Trey, has taken some of them down to town, and also put the word out to various folk he knows.  Although we are still pretty new to the community of Casper, we have also let some folks know.  While we have been treating our sojourn on the mountain as mostly an artist’s retreat of sorts (booking the next leg of the tour, making amendments and improvements to Many Hats Music, Inc., practicing and rehearsing and such), I always look forward to a chance to get out and share tunes. 

The last few weeks have been a healing, rejuvenating experience, with hardly a trace of cabin fever.  It probably helps that we do have room-mates: Trey, plus Rufus and the kitties.  And we manage to get down to town about every 9 or 10 days to replenish supplies and such.  And there is the Trailhead, where I have had the chance to meet other residents of the mountain. 

We communicate with friends via phone and internet (from all over the U.S. and parts of Australia, of course).  They are all asking if I am writing any new stuff.  And I have a few snippets for songs, here and there: a chorus for one, a verse for another, a few titles or working ideas, and the occasional melody or chord progression.   Also, I am taking what I have written in the way of a novel over the last year or so, and transferring it onto the notebook computer (up to now, it has been a growing volume of long-hand script in a ringbinder that also contains several of my lyrics and other ideas waiting to develop).  Pony has introduced me to a writing program called Scrivener, so I am going to see how that may affect my writing efforts. 

The upshot of all of this is that we have talked about the possibility of repeating this experience next year, and it seems that both of us are open to that notion.  Yes, I know plenty of friends and family who might consider this evidence of insanity (on both our parts), but it has been a good season of contemplation and creativity, mixed with just enough winter hardship to give us a little physical challenge. 

In the spirit of the original St. Valentine, I send well-wishes and fond thoughts out to all of our good friends and family.  We look to cross paths with all of you over the months to come. 

STILL

I am a fairly early riser.  I am often awake sometime between 6 and 6:30am, and I almost always hear the click of the door as our room-mate, Trey, heads out (around 7am) to make the walk up the path to his car and thence to his job in town.  I do not emerge from the bedroom to see him depart.  Instead, I prefer to enjoy this part of the morning, under the layers of sheets and blankets, enjoying the stillness of the moment. 

Rebecca and Geoffrey gave Pony and me leave to install ourselves in the master bedroom.  This chamber has a row of windows that border the upper edge of the roof.  When we first arrived, it would still be on the far side of 7am (closer to 8) before the morning light would come streaming through those windows.  But we are nearly finished with January, and the approach of day comes noticeably closer, and lingers a bit longer each evening.  So I lay in the bed, with my wife, and the dog, and one or two (or even all three) cats, just taking in the stillness of winter on the mountain. 

I am thinking about stillness in a variety of ways lately.  The mountain was enshrouded in a thick fog this morning (only possible when the wind has ceased).  The dog and I took our usual morning walk, and without the wind to keep us company, the only substantial sound was the crunch of my boots in the snow (Rufus has already learned to tread far more quietly). 

And it was just a couple of days ago when I heard of the passing of Pete Seeger.  Another stillness.  In the New York Times, they said “he sang until his voice gave out, and then he sang some more.”  Mr. Seeger might have been embarrassed to be compared to Ghandi, but I believe there is a fair comparison, in the sense that both of them thought (and fought) passionately for human beings (although “fought” may not be the most suitable verb).  Ghandi was concerned about industry and corporate activity becoming too large, beyond human scale, as it were.  Pete Seeger addressed similar concerns, although, in his case, he dedicated his life to sharing music with audiences all over the world.  But he was never happier than when he got an audience to sing along and create that community of song.  I don’t know if Pete Seeger ever got around to listening to the CD’s I mailed to him.  But, at the very least, I had my chance to add my voice to the many others who have acknowledged what a positive influence he was. 

In another nod to stillness, the latest issue of TIME magazine has a cover story about mindfulness (and, couched within that all-embracing term, the technique and tradition of meditation).  I have found some time to meditate nearly every day and welcome that addition to my set of daily activities.  And when I play the guitar, I have been able to listen more attentively to the tone and phrasing, and play with a greater sense of intention.  It is very much a zen thing, this way in which the music can co-exist with the stillness. 

THE ART OF COAL

I feel I am starting to get the hang of using coal.  And it is a good thing, too; very timely. 

Yesterday (Sunday), about mid-morning, we received a phone call from Sam Weaver.  Word had been going all around about an approaching snow storm. Sam was concerned that our car was parked just a little too close to the main road, and should the snowfall be heavy enough, a snow plow could accidentally clip the front of our car.  He offered to bring his tractor around, with the attached snow blower, to clear a bit more space for us, so we could park a little farther off (and further protect our Gypsy Rose). 

So a good part of Sunday morning was spent walking up the path to where the car was parked, driving it off to the side (to give Sam the necessary space to work with), ultimately to park it in a somewhat safer space.  In between, we also drove over to Sam’s place for a little bit.  He had an extra pair of snow shoes that he offered to lend us, and we ended up just visiting and chatting for a bit (while Rufus played with Sam’s dog, Ranger; the two of them chasing each other like lunatics through massive snow drifts).

By the time we re-parked the car and made our way back to the cabin, the snow was coming down in a profusion of fat, fluffy flakes.  We felt as if we were walking through one of those dime store snow globes.  Altogether, we probably got about another foot or so of new snow (which meant more shoveling today for me).  The temperature has been colder, and it is predicted to dip about 3 or 4 degrees below zero tonight, which is why I am glad to start understanding the use of coal in the pot belly stove in the main hallway. 

We have more coal than wood, and the more we can use the coal, the better.  There is a bit of an art to it, though.  It’s getting to know how much coal to add (too little and the fire dies out; too much and you choke the fire and, again, it dies out). And timing is very much a vital part of the equation.  But for most of today, I have succeeded in maintaining a steady bed of glowing coals, which in turn keeps the fan on the pot belly’s chimney blowing a constant stream of warm air. 

More than once, over the last couple of weeks or so, I have been reminded of an old movie (a Disney movie, perhaps?) that I watched as a kid, called “My Side of the Mountain”.  The story was presumably about a kid (early adolescent) who, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, set out to live on the side of a mountain for a year or so.  It was, admittedly, a very Hollywood sort of romanticized thing.  Years later, I got ‘round to reading Thoreau’s Walden.  I can say that we are living in much better circumstances than either Mr. Thoreau or the kid in the aforementioned movie.  For one thing, we do have the ongoing presence and aid of the magic Electricity Genie to help us in a variety of ways (internet, DVD entertainment, lights, kindles, and more).  So while we are living within a certain amount of simplicity, it would probably strike Mr. Thoreau as being incredibly luxurious. 

Today has been a good day.  The day began with shoveling snow (and giving Rufus a chance to take care of business), followed by rebuilding the fire in the pot belly, then some work on the internet attending to gigs, followed by guitar practice; rinse and repeat, as it were.  We have found a rhythm to our lives here, and the next few weeks should be very productive as a consequence.