Musical Notes

One morning at the end of mass, in the 80’s, the congregation was instructed to sing “Amazing Grace”. As we sang I did not hear my own voice, but the voice of my mother. It was so present. So loving. My mother isn’t a singer. I stopped singing and she looked at me with teary eyes and said softly, “This was Alfons’ favorite song.” Alfons was a dear friend who had died about a year earlier.

Years later, I became friends with a young farm boy from Mt. Vernon, Washington. Bob Peth and I met him on the night of his 21 birthday. One day he invited me to a concert at a venue called The Fire House in Ballard. The band was called The Graces and their lead singer was Meredith Brooks.

I loved everything about that night. I loved being with a friend and not a boyfriend, I loved being in Seattle, a city of my dreams, and I loved watching The Graces. I danced and yelled with the crowd. That’s when she looked over at me and watched. That’s when our eyes met, and I knew that she knew that her music had touched me.

It was a powerful moment with an energy I can only describe as being filled with an excitement of life, of being and of being with someone I cared for.

One day I was in a small German town of Neuss, just across the Rhein from Düsseldorf. It was during Schußfest and marching bands were in the streets wearing their traditional costumes. I woke from my nap after my long flight and went for a stroll in the town.

Not the biggest fan of German folk music, I stopped on the corner of a street, to watch a marching band approach. Suddenly I heard the music and it made me listen. It made me hear something; and that something said to me, “This is a wonderful life, at a wonderful time, and you are very lucky.”

When I broke from my trance the trumpeter, who was watching me for that brief moment, winked and turned the corner. He knew that there was something in his music that connected with me.

Across the ocean in Buenos Aires, my young niece and I jammed ourselves into an already packed subway car on the D-line to downtown. A quartet of young, scruffy young men boarded the train and began to play. They must have been all of twenty-one with their drums, and their trumpet, their fiddle and sax. The ensemble played with gusto and with an energy that lightened the mood of the commuters and filled the car with happy sounds. I watched my niece Natalie, separated from me by the band, watch the musicians. and I was happy that she could share this experience with her Uncle Steve.

The adorable musician with shaggy hair and trumpet, danced in his worn tennis shoes to the beat he created, and I became filled with affection. Affection for my niece, for Buenos Aires, for the musician’s music and for being. He stopped, looked at me, and smiled; because he knew that his music made a difference to me. It brought out some love from within, for the world to see. And that is what music can do.

Remembering Andrew

Today you would have been 25 years old. I can’t imagine you’d be married now but who knows. I’ve often wondered who you’d have brought home under your arms. I’ve never imagined how you’d please your partners but I’ve always imagined they’d be beautiful or handsome, and that you’d make them laugh out loud or giggle behind some bedroom door, trying to suppress a laugh at your antics.

I wonder where we would have traveled for your high school graduation trip; maybe we would have gone to Colombia and hung out at a coffee plantation before seeing the Salt Cathedral. Maybe we would have gone to Ecuador and stayed at Tinalandia, the same place my father took me years ago. We could have hiked the cliffs of Newfoundland. That would have been fun with you. None of your cousins seemed to be interested in Canada, at least not the way I am. People think it’s so much like the United States that they could go there any time, but they don’t and it isn’t.

Would you look today more like your mother or more like your father? Would your hair be dark and thick like your dad’s? Would you be ready to shave off your beard? I’m sure that your eyes would be as bright and filled with expression as I remember. Your eyes! That’s it! That’s how I remember you. They were so often filled with the love of the heart not jaded. They were filled with the excitement of being. And they were mirrors through which I saw my self. I saw myself in your eyes. For your birthday, and for as often as I can remember, I will let people see you in my own eyes.

Andrew and Super Grandma

Poo-pooing Pooh

What I loved about flying with “CG” was that we always laughed so hard together. Another thing I loved about her, and still do, is that she is a strong, beautiful woman who takes care of herself. “I gotta look at myself every day!” she has said to me for thirty years. 

Her laughter comes from deep beneath her diaphragm and her smile lights up her face. “CG” flew turnarounds before she retired while I prefer international; but I’d sometimes pick up a trip that she was on just to be near her. 

On one particular rotation we sat in Detroit for something like three and a half hours before returning home to Seattle. We thought we were going to take a nap but that idea faded fast. Instead, I drank coffee and she ate yogurt. Out of the blue, she says to me: “You ever had a pooh story on the plane?” No. Not on the plane. I’m sure you do though. And I’m sure you’re gonna share it with me. 

“I hate going to the bathroom on the planes! I won’t touch the toilet let alone take a pooh in that nasty place. One day, I had to take a pee so I go to the bathroom. I lift the lid and the seat and drop my nylons and panties, and I bend over and squat over the bowl. I’m just finishing up doing my business and I pass a little gas. I finish up and pull my stuff back up, wash my hands and go back to work in the galley. I’m cleaning up the galley and a female passenger opens the bathroom door, goes in and immediately comes back out! ‘I think somebody had an accident in there’ she says to me. I go in and there it is. Between the seat and the lid. I had shot out a turd! (CG is laughing and so am I and she’s showing me with her index finger and thumb the relative length of her projectile). ‘Oh my goodness I said to the woman. I’ll get that cleaned up for you.'” 

Then she tells me another story while we’re still laughing: 

Remember when we had that uniform that had those long shirt tails for the men? (Yes, I do). One morning we get up to start our service but “NJ” said he had to pop into the restroom first. We said we’d start and he could join us on the top side of the cart when he was finished. We start and we’re looking at each other wondering where NJ is. We keep going and when we’re almost finished with the entire service, he comes out of the bathroom all flustered. As CG relayed the story, NJ went into the lavatory to take a quick pooh. He too hated having to that on the plane. He dropped his pants and underwear and takes his pooh, pulls his shirt back to wipe himself and drops the soiled paper into the bowl. A he gets up to flush, all he sees is spent toilet paper clinging to the side of the bowl but no turd. He turns back and feels the weight of it cuddled in the fold of his shirt tail! He spent most of the flight washing his damn shirt! 

I shared a story from my gym’s owner. “HC” is an octogenarian who has been in the fitness business since I was born. One rainy December morning when the Seattle rains poured and the darkness refused to yield he comes up to me: “Steve, I’m gettin’ old, and it sucks. This morning I get up and come to work. I’m heading up California and I feel this wet on my ass! I reach down and think, Aw Christ, did I just shit myself? Is that what the Hell I got to look forward to? Shittin’ myself and not even knowing it? I park the truck and rush into the gym to get some towels to wipe up my shit from the seat before clean myself off. I open the truck door and the light comes on. I see that my damn dog had barfed all over the seat! Thank God it’s just my eye sight that’s failing me. 

“CG” and I had spent 3 ½ laughing and talking shit. It was time to return to our plane. 

Maybe I’ll share my coleslaw story with you soon. That cost us $3,000 in the end. But I sure do love coleslaw.

September Dogs

Thirty years ago I was a 26 year old who moved to Seattle. It was June. By September I was settled into my apartment and felt very much at home in my new city. I’d also bought my first Melissa Etheridge tape. There is a song on the album called September Dogs. “Just outside my window, I hear the late September dogs. I understand their warnings, I understand their calls…” 

The first Autumn winds blew from the sound as I walked home from the market and I knew that I was home. 

My apartment was a 400 square foot studio with a murphy bed, hardwood floors, and bare brick walls. It had a small kitchen that was big enough for two people to sit comfortably at a little square table; from that kitchen a peek-a-boo view of the Space Needle to the north. The living room windows looked west; from there you could see West Seattle and Elliot Bay. The apartment building was called The Humphrey and it was in the gritty neighborhood of Belltown. I fell in love with it the moment June the apartment manager showed it to me.  

The Humphrey was on the corner of Second Avenue and Blanchard Street on the 200 block. Just a block north was a pool hall, a match book sized coffee shop called Cafe Septieme, and a leftist bookstore directly beside it. Just to the south, Pike’s Place Market. I’d go there for what few groceries I needed. I remember going to the vendors just before closing time and they would sell me fresh flowers at a discount. I always had fresh flowers in my sparsely furnished apartment. 

It was in Seattle that I bought my first new furnishings for my apartment. I bought new linens for the Murphy bed the Bon Marche, a double futon that served as a sofa and guest bed, and two director’s chairs with black fabric. The futon was red. As a coffee table I bought a small foot locker from Bergman’s Luggage just a block over on Third Avenue. I still have that locker; it contains my most sentimental belongings. I also had a shelf and desk unit that was actually two black poles that rested against wall. The little electric typewriter that my mom gave me was an essential part of my contact with family and friends. The few books that I did bring with me were also sentimental. A book called “Miami, City of the Future” and a thesaurus that my friend Pauly had given me when I was living in that town. 

I crossed First Avenue with my flowers and watched the people as they passed. The light was golden as the wind blew. I have always been partial to September but the September of 1989 particularly beautiful to me. The rains were coming and I was in the city of my dreams. I was on my own, falling in love, and loving being; I had Melissa Etheridge and The Late September Dogs. “Come on let it rain. Let it rain down on me. Let the rain fill my eyes. Let the rain set me free. Let it rain down on me!” 

Fuckin’Fucked Up!

Marshae Jones isn’t an upstanding citizen, and Marshae Jones is probably just another loser from Alabama. She is a product of Alabama and its culture. She is the product of a society, nationally, that does not support equal rights for all citizens, equal justice for all citizens, or economic justice for all citizens. Add the factor of ten to that because it’s in Alabama, one of America’s shit hole states and you have the current controversy that Jones and Alabama and the nation are facing.

Marshae Jones was pregnant and worked at a fuel company when she and another coworker crossed paths in the parking lot of the Dollar General store. Of all the stupid things, these two bitches were fighting over a man (that’s fucked up). Jones allegedly started the fight, was winning the fight, and had pinned her coworker Ebony Jemison in the seat of her car (imagine how comical that looked, a five month pregnant woman fighting with another in the parking lot of Dollar General. Where’s Springer when you need him?) when Jemison pulled a gun and shot her point blank in the belly. That’s fucked up.

They rushed Jones to the hospital but the car broke down en-route. Fucked up. The ambulance was called and they rushed Jones the rest of the way. She lost the fetus of course. This is where this thing gets really fucked up.

In a state that adores Freedom (with a capital “F”) and Guns (the same), the police eventually charge Jones, and not Jemison with the crime of manslaughter for the death of the fetus! That’s Fuckin’Fucked Up!

You see, in Alabama, and much of the south, guns and fetii are more important than women, more important than blacks, more important than education, social services, economic justice and life after birth. And that America is Fuckin’Fucked Up!

A Dangerous Country

I took Ben to Mexico City where we hung out with my friend for three days before flying off to Guatemala where we spent another five. He is 18 and this was his graduation present from last year. Ben had only left the United States once before and that was to Jamaica with his family to stay at an all inclusive resort.

He chose Guatemala. He chose it because he figured, as he told me later, that he would most likely go to Europe or Iceland on his own. Guatemala on the other hand was completely out of his comfort zone.

Quietly I worried. I worried about being robbed. I worried about being beat up or even kidnapped. I worried that my nephew whom I hardly knew would be harmed and that I would be incapable of protecting him. The US State Department suggested that we change our travel plans to Guatemala because of the insecurity.

I worried. And I finally mentioned my concerns to my partner who confided that he too was worried. This wasn’t like bringing Nate to Costa Rica or Natalie to Argentina. It was nothing like bringing Alec to Spain.

Oh yes it was. We had a wonderful time. We had a spectacular time! We saw Lake Atitlan which I had never seen before, and we hiked up the back side of Volcán de Agua. We watched exhibitions of cocoa production and weaving, we ate hearty food at small restaurants and laughed with the locals. We sat in parks and walked on cobbled streets in old colonial towns.

Sure, Guatemala has its problems. It has its corruption, its desperation, its poverty, its drugs. Sure I was worried about violence.

In the nine days we were away there were 49 people shot in mass shootings that resulted in ten deaths. That was in the United States. It’s a dangerous country.

More Dangerous Out of Uniform

He is rugged and handsome and hyper-masculine. He is the stuff of calendars and fantasies. He is the type of man that inspires young boys to become soldiers and Navy SEALs. He is the type of man women want to father their children. Men aspire to be like him. He is American; he is the American ideal of what a man should be; a GI Joe, American Hero. He is Edward Gallagher. He is Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the U.S. Navy. And he is charged with murder.

Gallagher served in the elite of the elite, a battle hardened Navy Seal whose squad looked forward to being led by such a man. To them Gallagher could do no wrong. Before his deployment in 2017 to Iraq he had a custom-made knife and hatchet made by a former SEAL named Andrew Arrabito. They had served together. Hatchets have become the unofficial SEAL symbol. Gallagher texted Arrabito, “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”

Even before his deployment in Iraq in 2017 Gallagher, who goes by “Blade” had a reputation of being a “pirate”. That is an operator more interested in fighting terrorists than in adhering to the rules and making rank. (NYT 4/23/19)

I can understand how many Americans would swoon over such toughness, cowboy fortitude, and masculinity; this is a can-do, get it done man with a mission. To Hell with the bureaucrats and administrators and the law. His mission was to kill the enemy!

No. His mission was to serve in the U.S. military and uphold the Constitution of the United States. He was to serve with honor. He was to protect his platoon.

Several of the men under his command reported him for murder. Among the charges are that he shot at and killed civilians, including a young girl and an old man, and that he murdered a wounded ISIS fighter who was captured and under care. He stabbed the wounded fighter in the neck and bled him out in front of both Iraqi and U.S. servicemen and mentioned that it was in response for having lost two of his own men.  Allegedly, he wanted his men to disregard what had happened and even recommit to their oath over the dead body.

Here’s where honor comes in. These men, witnesses to Gallagher’s lawlessness, reported him to their superiors. Their superiors dismissed their claims. It happened again, and the claims were again dismissed. It wasn’t until they threatened to go to the media that something was done and Gallagher was investigated and arrested. To me it is honorable for men to forsake their careers and professional future, to put their own life in danger, and risk harassment in and out of military service for their entire life for the sake of justice. To me that is Honor. To me that is service to the country. These men are the true heroes.

As is always the case in a polarized United States, the cable media and the conservative factions of the country jumped on this as an injustice, a witch hunt on our brave soldiers who put their lives on the line in dangerous places fighting “bad guys”. They began to smear the subordinates who reported Gallagher. They threatened them. Even the president got involved as he always somehow manages to do when the issue is sensational.

From the usual places the usual cast of characters rallied around Gallagher and fought against those who risked their careers to keep him from being a loose cannon.

And all the while I read about this case I thought: How truly, truly frightening to have an elite soldier making his own rules and administering his type of justice.

It wasn’t but a few years earlier that a captured Jordanian pilot by the name of Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh was burned alive in a cage for all to see by ISIL, and the Americans were nauseous by the disgusting act. I ask myself, what is the difference? And what will a man like Gallagher do out of uniform when he returns if he is not brought to justice now?

Ontario I Remember

My good friends in Ontario gave me a book from Home entitled, “150 Stories-Recits” published by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. I love this book, and I have added the 151 story.

In Northumberland County, there was a place called Mayfarm. It was magical, with rolling, stoney hills, woods and old barns. History hid in its hedgerows with every stone placed there by farmers long gone; between the rocky walls lived other residents of Mayfarm. It was where I fell in love with Ontario, and it was where I fell in love with Canada again and again.
I recall the austere beauty of the Ontario winter, where silvery skies turn snowy fields the same silvery grey. Horizon and sky indistinguishable from each other except for the charcoal branches of barren trees, like thread sewing earth and sky together. I remember bitterly crisp winter nights so brightly lit by the full moon and winter stars, and summer days so heavy under steamy, drowsy skies that it seemed only the moon herself moved, and slowly at that.
Then the inhabitants! Geese, flying so low on a late summer evening you felt you could brush the golden light off their wings, ducks and the chickens following me home to their roosts for the night, a doe sharing a drink at the chicken coop, barely troubled by my presence and the moose trotting along the road to Thunder bridge with the determination of a forgotten errand. My friends. They shared it all with me around wood stoves with sleeping kitties and a kitchen table redolent of meals cooked with love.

Dans le comté de Northumberland, il y avait un endroit appelé Mayfarm. C’était magique, avec des collines, des collines, des bois et de vieilles granges. L’histoire se cachait dans ses haies, chaque pierre placée par les fermiers depuis longtemps. entre les parois rocheuses vivaient d’autres habitants de Mayfarm. C’est là que je suis tombée amoureuse de l’Ontario et c’est là que je suis tombée amoureuse du Canada encore et encore.
Je me souviens de la beauté austère de l’hiver ontarien, où le ciel argenté transforme les champs enneigés du même gris argenté. Horizon et ciel indiscernables les uns des autres à l’exception des branches de charbon de bois des arbres stériles, comme le fil cousant la terre et le ciel ensemble. Je me souviens de nuits d’hiver croustillantes, si brillamment éclairées par la pleine lune et les étoiles d’hiver, et des journées d’été si lourdes sous un ciel humide et humide qu’il semblait que seule la lune elle-même bougeait lentement.
Alors les habitants! Les oies, volant si bas un soir de fin d’été, vous sentez que vous pouvez brosser la lumière dorée de leurs ailes, les canards et les poulets qui me suivent chez eux pour la nuit, une biche qui partage un verre au poulailler la présence et l’orignal trottant le long de la route vers le pont de Thunder avec la détermination d’une course oubliée. Mes amies. Ils ont partagé tout cela avec moi autour de poêles à bois avec des chatons endormis et une table de cuisine empreinte de plats cuisinés avec amour.

Winter scene from the West Field looking east.

  • Swallows arrived from Buenos Aires in late March and early April and stayed until mid-August. These are their babies.

Thanksgiving 2012 with Claude, Garry, Paola, Byron, and Norma DeRose, daughters of Mayfarm’s previous owner Ida Mae DeRose.

Late August harvest looking north from the East Field 2008.

Witches Island and Burnt Offerings

It was on the banks of the Mississippi river, across the street from Grandpa and Grandma Schwab’s, down a steep, steep bank of sand and dirt, stinging nettles, gnats and mosquitoes, and big, tall, leafy trees that I saw Witches Island for the first time.

The grass was high and the bank along the river was cooled by shade and water. Grandma had sprayed us liberally with Off mosquito repellent. Immediately beside the bank the water was still. Not far from there though it looked fierce and swift. From where we stood, looking north, the river flowed southeast. And it was there, downstream, to the southeast, that the waters parted on either side of a point. “Look Grandpa! It looks like there’s an island over there.” one of us said. “Oh, that’s Witches Island down yonder.”

Are there witches? Is it scary? Is it safe? “Yes. I’ve been told. Yes. So I hear. I don’t know.” he answered. Grandpa was a storyteller, a weaver of tall tales. He was a legendary teller of legends. One day, when the river was lower, and the witches are maybe out fishin’ in deeper waters, maybe he’d take us there.

When the day did come we didn’t bring our rods with us to Witches Island, exploring and fishing were exclusive. Today we had to be aware of drop-offs, deep under currents, slippery rocks, loose rocks that fall on tennis-shoed feet, and all sorts of other rocks that caught, cut, and trapped little feet. There were a few fallen trees as we skirted the bank sloping up to where across the street was Grandpa’s farm. We soon entered unknown territory, and that alone was excitement enough!  Grandpa stopped, told us not to make a sound. He had to hear if it was safe enough to approach; then where.

Not much further southeast he heard some rapids. Perhaps there? Maybe the witches had constructed a bridge? Maybe we could cross it without being caught? There was no bridge but the water was indeed  shallow enough for eight and six year olds to cross without falling into the depths. We crossed safely and were on Witches Island!

There were lagoons and quiet waters, sand and sandy beaches, trees and more trees! We found some iron stakes. They weren’t from witches but probably from the days when logs were sent down the river. Grandpa said that they sometimes used to stake some of the logs together or fasten them to the shore. We even saw what we thought to be a house! Is that the witches house Grandpa? He didn’t know but if we crept real quietly we could take a look. We did. All the while our eyes big, half-scared, half-excited. Would we run screaming? I didn’t know how I would react if I saw a witch. Turns out, the house was probably, Grandpa said, a hunting blind, long abandoned. Maybe it was abandoned because of the witches? He didn’t know. Could be.

We headed home. The same way we came because it was the safest. And we made it back to the banks of the Mississippi at Palomino Acres. We still had to climb that big cliff with the stinging nettle, but from where I stood, from the water’s edge where I would one day soon throw stones into the mighty Mississippi and my cousin would also throw stones but while standing directly behind me, I saw Witches Island and knew I would return.

The island’s mystique drew me back but faded only in regards to fright and fear and witches. It changed for me to become a place where the Mississippi took a break and invited me to do the same. Tony and I would walk down to one of the island’s lagoons and swim in the still waters on hot summer days. The water there was also warmer because it didn’t move much. The bottoms of the lagoons were soft with sand and the banks too.

One time, the only one time we actually did get scared, and that was because of me and had nothing to do with the island or the waters or the weather, was when we had canoed from Grandpa’s and set up camp on Witches Island. We were safe in our tent, the fire was dying, and the weather still. There was occasional rustling in bushes and such but we knew there was nothing to harm us. It was then I told of the story. I told of the story called Burnt Offerings.

I told my brother Michael, and our two Tony friends, Tony Miskowic and Tony Villar, about the family that rented a house for the summer. When they arrived the house was an absolute dump. The lights weren’t working, the gardens were a shambles, everything was dilapidated. Then, while the mother was preparing dinner, she cut herself. There was no need to look for spare light bulbs because suddenly all of the lights in the house were functioning as though with all new bulbs. The elderly aunt, a firecracker for her age, found herself wanting to sleep in just a little bit more each morning. And each evening she’d retire a little bit earlier. And each day the house became more beautiful. And each day she stepped closer and closer to death; and then she died. The story continued until the house had completely rebuilt itself and killed its occupants. And when the owners returned they were so pleased with the wonderful house guests whose portraits were already placed on the bureau of the top floor suite…In Mother’s room!

I slept well. Real well in fact, but it was the others who told me the next morning that they were all so scared and couldn’t think of much else that night than the house that rebuilt itself by killing the people in it.

Eyes to the Sky

Late July, that’s when we first became aware of it, the long light of summer. Rays of late evening sun promising fewer hotter days to come. In the evening the grass cooled, and the world around refreshed itself for a short time before night fall.

I made my way to the chicken coop, an old dilapidated construction of old church board and corrugated tin. It had been opened to the south to serve as a loafing barn; and in an effort to protect the animals after several “murders”  was reinforced with two interior cages. A plastic pool for bathing and drinking completed the estate known as Fort Francis and Snow White’s Castle.

Each night I made my way to the coop just before the last rays of sun slipped behind the woods in the north west. From the west window of Fort Francis, looking south through the coop I saw Francis himself. Still. Looking upwards, his head tilted to the left. I took a few more steps; cautious and curious. Then I saw Cindy, Razor Beak, Mo’Kah, and Gray Wing all looking up with their heads tilted in various bird positions. A hawk? I looked up and saw nothing in the sky.

I continued slowly and what I saw as I rounded the southwest corner of the coop was a new visitor. She raised her head slowly. “Oh, hello.” I said softly to the young doe sipping water from the pool, only five feet away from me. Without any sort of start, the deer turned and walked into the woods. The birds themselves, the chickens and ducks, seemed almost as amazed as I was. She was really beautiful. And I wondered how long they had been watching her.

Time for bed little guys.