Very Special Paper, Indeed

Musical InstrumentsIt is 1988.

My father lives in a hunting cabin off the highway near Missoula, Montana. It is Spartan in its décor. There is a cot. A small fridge. A bathroom. He isn’t here much. Most of his time is spent in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains a cabin for the rangers.

We have returned from town. His neighbor, a young man with long, wavy black hair, is outside. The man wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. My father has described his neighbor to me as being ‘crazy’. This diagnosis stems from an obsession the man seems to have with paper. My father tells me he has spoken about the ‘special paper’ he needs for his project. He can’t get it in Missoula. He must get it shipped.

We get out of the car and my father introduces me to the ‘crazy’ man. We start talking and my dad excuses himself, leaving us alone. I mention I play music. His interest is piqued. “We should jam some time,” he says. I tell him I don’t have my guitar with me.

He smiles. “Come here. I want to show you something.” The crazy neighbor takes me inside his hunting cabin. It’s the same model as the one my father occupies but this guy had a different decorator. The walls inside his cabin are covered with musical instruments – guitars, basses, a lute. There are instrument cases leaning against the walls – cellos, violas, violins. There’s a piano and an organ, and some kind of electronic keyboard.

An Atari computer displays musical notes arranged on a staff.

My father’s crazy neighbor turns out to be a composer. He plays these instruments. ALL of them. He tells me he is composing a ‘heavy metal’ symphony.

Adjacent to the computer is a tall stand that looks something like a drafting table. Sharpened pencils and a drafting brush for clearing eraser crumbs rest on an oversize sheet of paper, printed with repeating lines of musical staffs. It is the paper a composer uses for writing out all the different parts for the instruments in an orchestra.

Very special paper, indeed.

I Choose to be Lightning

It is 1986.Lightning

I am driving through torrential rains on the San Diego Freeway. Lightning strikes every five seconds. It’s the most amazing storm I can remember. And I can remember a lot of storms.

As I exit on Western Avenue, the delay between lightning and thunder diminishes. I stop at the light. A bright flash lights up the night sky but I can’t see the bolt. The thunder sounds simultaneously. My radio goes dead. I think the radio station is off the air.

My windshield wipers sluice rain from the glass. They slow, then stop. I punch buttons on my radio. KROQ. KWST. KLOS. KMET. KNAC. All gone.

I realize my engine isn’t running.

I have always been fascinated by lightning. I spent the evening at a party in college sitting on the patio watching a spectacular dry lightning storm. My beautiful date was inside getting the attention she deserved from any number of guys. I wanted the lightning.

Not long after that I renewed my driver’s license. I changed my signature so the S in my first name resembled a lightning bolt.

I was crossing a bridge in Montana as it was struck by lightning – watched the blue glow travel along the power cable connecting the street lights. I watched another storm from the giant M on the hill behind the University of Montana in Missoula. It crossed the valley towards me, a physical manifestation of my emotional state.

I’ve seen lightning in a snow storm. It was like being inside a light bulb.

I eventually reclaimed my date from the party and drove her home, only to sit with her in front of her parents’ house watching the lightning strike every few seconds.

It is 1986.

My car won’t start. I turn on the emergency lights. They blink – once. I push the car through eight inches of water in Miami-style rain. Another car pushes me to the gas station on the corner.

I leave it overnight. The next day the mechanic tells me he’s had it on the charger all night.

“I don’t know what happened to it, but it won’t hold a charge.”

I have a pretty good idea what happened to it.

I Never Danced With My Mother

It is 1975.Ballroom Dancing

My mother, frustrated that our father doesn’t dance, has decided my brother and I will make up for his failing. Under threat of loss of allowance, once a month we are driven with some of the neighborhood girls to Call’s Fine Arts Center to attend cotillion.

This is where Bobby Burgess, Mouseketeer and lead dancer on ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’, learned.

Chloe Call announces the first dance.

“Gentlemen, please rise, cross the room and select a partner for our first dance, which will be a foxtrot.”

Kami Current is a safe pick. I know her and hope that she feels my pain. I take her white-gloved hand in mine and place the other in the small of her back. We await further instruction.

The music begins. We look at each other. Other couples are dancing. I flag down one of the assistants.

They stop the music. Mrs. Call asks ‘How many of you aren’t familiar with the foxtrot?’ Two hands go up – Kami’s and mine.

And so, it begins.

Mom thought they would teach us, but these kids have been coming for several years, have grown up with it. These are parties where they practice what they know. Lessons are added to the bill, held an hour before the party each month.

I block most of it, save for the night Laurie Ronson wears clogs when we do the polka. I get a kick out of Laurie. So did the kid in front of us when her clog goes airborne.

Out of protest I refuse to dance with my mother.

But one night, at the Blue Café in Long Beach, James Intveld is playing roots rock. There is a woman there who doesn’t know how to dance. I take her onto the floor and tell her ‘Just relax’. She does, and I lead her around the floor like I know what I’m doing. We have so much fun that when Intveld and company take down their gear and head to another gig at the Foothill, we go with them.

Mom has been gone now longer than she was in my life. One of my greatest regrets is that I never danced with her.

I would give anything to dance with her now.

Ion Overload on the Back of the Dragon

It is 2011.

Vince is dying. We have several phone conversations. He reminds me of things from

Little Corona at Sunset. ‘The Back of the Dragon’ in silhouette. Photo by Mark Shadley.

when we were in college. My Les Paul. Songs I wrote. He reminds me of my pilgrimages to ‘The Back of the Dragon’.

I haven’t been in decades. We decide to go there, but the latest treatment has knocked him down. It was crazy thinking he would have been able to make it down to the beach, let alone up onto the Dragon’s Back. So I went there in his honor. I rode ‘The Back of the Dragon’ once more, and I recorded it for Vince.

It is 1977.

Senior year. We have part-time school schedules and part-time jobs. Once a week we drive to Little Corona straight from school. We lay on the beach, swim in the surf, ride the rushing current through ‘The Chute’.

It’s a jet-propelled water slide. In the ocean.

We read Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’ aloud sitting in a circle. We hold it up and show the author’s hand-drawn illustrations, like we’re in first grade. The Dragon is in front of me but I do not see it.

It is 1980.

I have an epiphany about people’s moods improving at the beach. I imagine there is something happening at the particle level, the exchange of liquid and solid that is releasing something into the air.

I have intuited ‘The Ion Effect’. A friend loans me a book explaining that Ions are negatively-charged particles that we take in via respiration. Breathing ions improves people’s moods.

Idea: Places where water strikes hard surfaces really hard is optimal for releasing ions. I go to Little Corona to the rocks. That’s when I see it. There’s a line of rocks receding into the ocean resembling the back of a submerged Dragon.

I climb to the top of the tallest rock. There’s a cleft on the edge like a seat. My legs dangle over the water crashing against the rock below. The ions come straight up the rock into my face.

I go back when the moon is full and the tide is high. It’s a powerful experience.

I’m grateful to Vince for reminding me about it.

On the Run in the Getaway Car

Streetlights in the fogMy car plunges into the early-morning darkness, sweeping along the curve of the freeway onramp. My brother, Scott, rides shotgun. My sister, Kathryn, sits quietly in the backseat as the bubbling synthesizer of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ begins.
I feel the music, feel the pull of the centrifugal force from the arc we are making towards the freeway below.
‘On the Run’ is less music, more sonic sculpture. There is a flight announcement…echoing footsteps. The pulsing synthesizer intensifies.
Ahead is a streetlight. The moisture in the air carves a bright sphere from the darkness.
The music crescendos as we pass into-then-through the sphere of light. It fades as we return to the darkness.
I smile for some reason. Something is happening. But I don’t know it yet.
Now two synths build together, divide and sweep around the inside of the car as a man mumbles something about living for today. The pulse peaks and squeals as the car punches into another bright bubble from the next street light. My stomach tightens, smile broadens as we are swallowed by the darkness again.
The synth quietly gurgles in the background.
Another cycle rises to crescendo without the histrionics, but still matched in synch with the passing of the streetlights.
It recalls the urban myth of synchronizing ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
The piece begins to build again. A buzzing becomes a plane descending rapidly.
No more streetlights. Ahead is an overpass under construction. Work lights and scaffolding covered in sheets of clear plastic.
I think it’s over, but I am wrong.
The plane crashes as we pass the scaffolding. The work lights strobe crazily amid mad laughter as we streak past the scaffolding. I feel it inside. I grip the steering wheel.
We roll out from the overpass into the morning darkness as the piece fades completely.
Kathryn, from the darkness of the back seat: “Did you feel that?”
I’m stunned. Before I can answer, Scott looks at me, nodding.
“Oh, yeah”.

Life on the Isle of California

‘Isle of California’ (1972) by Victor Henderson, Terry Schoonhoven, Jim Frazin of the L.A. Fine Arts Squad. Image from

The man across the aisle is wearing a gun. It’s Friday afternoon in April, 1993. I’m in the Santa Monica Laemmle watching ‘Reservoir Dogs’. His coat is caught on the chair arm. The gun is an automatic.

There has been a verdict in the trial of the four LAPD officers charged with violating Rodney King’s Civil Rights.

The officers were previously acquitted of assault charges, resulting in the L.A. Riots. The coroner attributed 60 deaths to the verdict.

I get why he’s carrying a gun after the riots. I went to a range with a friend who was an NRA instructor. I was good with a .45 and a Glock 9. I killed many paper men. But I don’t have the temperament to own a gun.

They are announcing the verdict tomorrow morning. There is a curfew for the weekend – sunset to sunrise.

After the film, the man with the gun waits with me at the corner.

“Excuse me, but I noticed you’re carrying a gun.”

He’s embarrassed. He’s a cop. He’ll lead a group of officers in the field if anything should happen.

I picture him watching Michael Madsen sawing off a cop’s ear with a razor to the music of Steeler’s Wheel.

Saturday morning: convictions of two of the officers for violating Rodney King’s civil rights are announced.

No riots.

On Sunday, Roy Felig and I meet on Santa Monica Boulevard.

There are no pedestrians. No cars.


We walk to Butler. Village Recorders. A famous mural covers the building.

The street beyond the studio is blocked. There’s a guarded gate with large barrels to slow approach.

Beyond the gate – a multi-story building surrounded by a parking lot.

The mural shows Interstate 10 truncated near Blythe, now the water’s edge.

Context – I completely misinterpret ‘Isle of California’ as California falling into the sea.


We wander closer to the mysterious gate. We see two things: a sign informs us this is the Santa Monica Courthouse.

And a sniper on the roof tracking us with a telescopic rifle.

Pancakes, Bacon and Practical Jokes On the Side

PancakesIt is 1987.

My father has recovered from his first stroke. He hikes into the wilderness with wrist crutches. Sunday mornings he makes pancakes for everyone in the Forest Service tent cabin.

My father is a practical joker from waaaaay back. He and his brother, Bill, have jokes they regularly play on each other that started in childhood.

Dad finds a strand of silicone insulation from a window that is being re-glazed. It is long and green and shiny.

One other thing – lateralized sensitivity is a stroke thing. After my dad’s stroke, he can’t feel his right nostril. People are always telling him to wipe his nose.

One Sunday morning, he announces the pancakes and bacon are ready, turns to the famished hoard holding the platter with a pile of pancakes on it, and a long, green, slimy strand of construction-grade snot making like a pendulum back and forth just above the top pancake.

It is 2001.

Dad’s second stroke. He is depressed and angry. He has given up. He wants to die.

After rehab, I move him around the corner from me. I read the news to him in the mornings. In the afternoons, I come back to ask him questions about what we read. Memory exercise.

He can’t remember the word ‘remote’, as in ‘remote control’.

I read that the brain can make new pathways and it could be remembered a different way.

“Dad,” I say. “What do they call the thing they dig around a castle?”

He thinks about it a moment. “The moat.”

“And if they dig it a second time, they have to (wait for it) re-moat the castle.”

I do this a couple of times. He gives me dirty looks.

I sell my place and move with him to our house in Idyllwild. One day we are sitting in the living room. He reaches for the remote control but it’s just a little too far away. He looks at me like a child, pleading, and he asks me: “Steven, can you hand me the moat?”.

I look at him in horror. What have I done? I am ‘moatified’.

My father smiles. It is the first time he has smiled since his stroke.

He smiles at his little joke.

Goin’ South and Other Colloquial Expressions

It is 1997.

I am a technical instructor based in SoCal. I’m teaching in Hong Kong 75 days before Kiss, Bow, or Shake Handsthe British return it to China. I am told the students all speak English.

We have a book called ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands’. The book explains issues that can affect business communications, whether they be cultural, behavioral, or linguistic. I learn, for example, that in China one presents one’s business card with both hands, by the edges. I also learn that, while the students and I may speak the same language, there will be another issue that will affect my training.

The Chinese have a sociological concept Westerners know as ‘face’, referring to one’s sense of dignity or prestige. I learn that students in China do not ask questions of their instructors. Questions imply the instructor has not done a good job of teaching.

There is a certification test given at the end of the course and none of my students have ever failed it. I am committed to making sure my Chinese students don’t either. I develop a rigorous system of daily reviews in which I grill them on each concept covered in the preceding days.

On Friday morning, we assemble in the classroom. Their manager joins us for what will be their final review before taking the test. By Friday the review takes 45 minutes. Every student answers every question posed correctly. I am thrilled. So is their manager, who stands in the back grinning.

It is 1999.

I am conducting the same training in The Great White North, Toronto, Canada. As I cover the section on database maintenance I explain that if the components of the system get out of synch the system would ‘Go South’.

I realize that this is a colloquial expression and remember what the book said about avoiding them when doing business abroad. I apologize to my students for using such an expression.

“‘Going South’ probably doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does where I come from,” I tell them.

They look at each other, then they look at me. They smile and nod.

“Yes, it does”.


Forever 39

It is 1985.

My mother’s birthday is approaching. She will be 39. She has been 39 for at least ten Fire Cautionyears. She was 29 for ten years before that. She tells the story about being Den Mother of our Cub Scout den when one of the boys asked me her age and I replied without hesitation ‘29’.

She has been dating Len, an architect, for a several years. He really cares about her. But he is a widower. His wife died of cancer. He is reluctant to marry again. They date and have fun together, but I know she wants something more.

Len’s 60th birthday follows hers by a couple of days. They have a joint birthday party at Len’s condo. His daughters have arranged for a three-tiered cake covered in white fondant. Embedded in the fondant are 115 candles, representing their combined ages.

Go ahead. You do the math. She’s 39.

This is a good idea in theory. Two of Len’s daughters and I begin lighting the candles with long wooden matches. I realize two things: First, that unless we hurry, the first candles lit will be completely melted by the time we light the last one. Second, there are so many candles burning that we soon reach a point where it is hard to find a way to light the remaining candles without being burned.

But we manage to do it. I am certain that the heat is picked up by Soviet spy satellites and that for a few minutes their command and control system is trying to decide if it is the heat bloom of a missile launch.

Fortunately, Len’s living room has a vaulted ceiling so we don’t need to call the fire department.

We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and everyone claps as they blow out what candles they can. The golden light bathes my mother’s face. Her blue eyes shine with happiness.

She has a crooked smile due to a partial bridge. She’s always been self-conscious of it. When I took her picture for her real estate collateral she only asked that I make her smile look good.

Her smile is beautiful.

This is the last time she will be 39 again.

Now she is forever 39.


Putting the Performance in the Performance Tools Workshop

It is 1997.

I am in a staff meeting of the education department at FileNet Corp. in Costa Mesa. Department Manager Barbara Hubert is presenting us with our role in the upcoming user conference at the Disneyland Hotel. We will have a conference room and my supervisor, Peg Schwink, is going to do a workshop based on our performance tools course. Barb shows us posters with pictures of hammers, screwdrivers and saws. The she holds up the canvas tool belt those supporting the workshop will wear, printed with FileNet Education.

I think ‘If you’re going to do a performance tools workshop, why not go all the way and do a riff on ‘Home Improvement’ and their show-within-a-show, ‘Tool Time’. I scan the room, searching for a likely Al, the Tool Man’s pal.

Meeting over, I walk out into the hallway where I find Dale Niksch, a slightly stout and bearded course developer waiting.

“Tim?” he says.

Dale has a little theatrical background. I’m a 20-pound ham in a 10-pound can.

We race to Barbara’s office. We tell her we have an idea to enhance the performance tools workshop. She invites us to sit down.

“Before you say anything I want you to know that I already know what you’re going to say,” she tells us.

“You do?” I ask.

“You want to do ‘Tool Time’.”

“As an introduction,” I say, looking at Dale. We are making this up as we go. “Maybe do a little humorous bit to set it up.”

“Spend whatever you need to get costumes. Do you have tools?”

We haven’t gotten that far. She offers to bring a crescent wrench.

Barb’s husband, a former firefighter, has refurbished an ancient steam-powered pumper drawn by horses. The crescent wrench is huge and weighs 50 pounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better prop.

“But how did you know what we were going to say?” I ask as we get up to leave.

“Well,” she says with a big smile. “When you interviewed here, Peg came to me afterwards and said ‘Doesn’t he look just like Tim Allen?’”

I am dumbfounded.

“You must get that a lot.”

I’ve never heard that in my life.