Zappa’s Birthday, Solstice 2013

SOMERVILLE – Last time I did the math, about a minute ago, Frank Zappa ceased living on this plane 20 years ago. I was 36 years old at the time, and I felt it was extremely unjust that one of my heroes had been taken away from me too soon. I had hopes of meeting Frank one day; distant hopes to be sure, but at 36 I thought, “hey, you never know, it could happen.” Like I would have anything meaningful to say to Frank Zappa beyond “dig those shoes, man…”

I wrote a letter to him a few years before that, and not knowing where to send it, I sent it off to Barfko-Swill in Los Angeles and never got a reply. It was a humble note telling him that his music had inspired me to be a composer and that I felt in his debt for the example he set for me, for us, for the world. Something along those lines. Pretty usual stuff, and of course I didn’t expect a reply. I just felt it was important to let him know that there were young composers out there who considered his work critically essential to their own musical vocabulary and style.


James Kraus and I did our annual Zappa Tribute radio show on WZBC in Newton yesterday – you can hear the whole show here for a while until James takes the link down. I spoke with caller who challenged me to play some of the new live material that’s being released by the Zappa family, in particular the Road Tapes, Venue #2 CD that came out this last Hallowe’en, instead of “the same old stuff we’ve all heard a million times.” OK, true, we play from my collection every year, which is limited, and we tend to play the same old tracks we like, but in my defense, this only happens once a year, and unless you’re one of those people out there scouring the ‘net for new Zappa material, none of this stuff is getting played on the air at all, period. Better the good old stuff than no stuff at all; but I get your point, whoever you are, and I promise to take up the challenge to find some juicy tidbits for next year’s show. I’m glad you were listening, and I’d welcome further conversation with you.

You can imagine that, in this interconnected day and age, James and I were able to instantly (or as instantly as possible, given our advanced age and lack of iPhone chops) fact-check any assertions we or our audience made. As a result, I scanned dozens of articles and interviews yesterday, and one stuck in my craw a little and I’d like to address it here for a minute or two.

I play in and arrange for Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys, a local band led by myself and my kid, Johnny Blazes. Among my parental duties, I raised Johnny on Frank’s music, and to date our band has played covers of “Dirty Love” and “Goblin Girl”, the latter this last Hallowe’en of course. Every once in a while I wonder if Gail Zappa is going to come crashing down on us with a cease-and-desist letter, but we don’t play these songs often, so it’s not a big worry.

I do have a problem with the following quote attributed to Gail by NPR:

“Somebody goes out there, plays music — it’s not played very well; it doesn’t sound anything like what the composer intended,” she says. “And they are telling the audience that’s never heard it before that this is Frank Zappa’s music. It’s not. It’s some wretched version of it.”

(from “Frank Zappa: A ‘Lumpy’ Legacy by Joel Rose”, April 9, 2009)

I have a question. I want to know who’s out there stopping all the wretched versions of Bach and Mozart that are getting played by people without licences who certainly aren’t making noises anything like what the composer intended. After a certain point – I would argue the moment immediately after creation – the artist loses control of their work and it becomes a part of the world. Certainly, a composer can travel the world performing their work as intended until they die, in an effort to preserve the original sound and intention of their music; but history teaches us that works that survive the ages change with time. Think hard now: are there recordings of the Mozart Requiem that sound EXACTLY the way Mozart intended it to sound?

Didn’t think so.

Next question: in one hundred years, will people still be able to hear Frank Zappa’s music at all? If so, one what platform, using which technology – or dare I ask, which sense organs? Think carefully before answering.

I’m tempted to put together a Zappa Tribute band just to defy Gail’s assertion that we need a license to rock out on Frank’s music. Stay tuned.



Last night the lockdown lifted, and I decided it was time for a walk.

Jennifer had the car, and I was facing the task of getting from Somerville to Jamaica Plain in order to feed Penny. The T was stopped all day, and I had been quietly psyching myself in to the possibility of hoofing all 10 miles of the journey, planning my route to strategically avoid any lockdown hotspots.

At 6:15 in the evening, the Governor lifted the stay-inside order, and we were all free. Facebook lit up with folks appealing for company at their local watering holes. The T started running again. I thought to myself, well, if the suspect is still alive and uncaught, maybe he’ll find a way out of this jam and go disappear in New York City where he can get lost in the crowds. I lightened up because it meant I could probably walk through Harvard Square unimpeded now. With the T running, I could walk for an hour, then grab a bus or a train.

The weather report had been calling for some form of rain for the last couple of days. I’ve learned to mistrust the actual timing of these predictions, the weather patterns here seem to twist and turn all the time. Unless a Nor’easter is bearing down on us like a Fung Wah bus afire, predictions of rain can rapidly become meaningless. Actual conditions were mid 60s, windy and sort of spitting mist and gusting 10-15 knows in my face. Just the thing to set the mood as the sun set and I headed towards Cambridge.


Harvard Square was trying to shake off the eeriness that had hung over it all day, but not succeeding. A few joints were open, but most eating and drinking establishments were closed. I saw an inkjet sign on one door: “This Building Is In Lock Down.” Bartley’s was dark, as was the Hong Kong. The few people I ran across were talking about the fugitive, checking their phones for information, looking for a place to grab a meal. I decided to roll the dice against the weather and keep going to Central Square.

I began to realize that I was hitting some familiar haunts on this extended stroll. I passed what until recently was Sandy’s Music. It’s now Monster Mike’s guitars, I think, which is a good thing, sort of keeps the property in the family so to speak, having it remain an independent music store. I regret never having gone to one of Sandy’s Monday night jams. We can’t live forever, though, and Sandy’s fighting some health issues they say, and can’t keep the store. So, I touched the window and said a wish and kept moving.

There were plenty of people in Central, and I peeked in a few bar windows to see if there were any major developments in the Marathon Bomber manhunt. I rambled by a few classic creepy types that seem to hover in the corners of the bus stop, looking for a handout. Decided to keep going – I now wanted to cross the Mass Ave bridge on foot, and I felt like I had it in me.

More closed shops. The Middle East was dark – I wondered if I had ever seen it closed before. The All-Asia, seemed open, but maybe only for friends. Asgard was closed, and I has murky thoughts about all the fallen Vikings that were going to be turned away tonight. Trying to find a punch line, but not having any luck.

The MIT campus was very silent, and I moved through it respectfully. The wounds of the night before were still heavy in the air, though I did pass a dorm that was having a barbecue outdoors in its little quad. Must have been a lockdown lift party. The sun was down and night was falling.


I stopped on the Mass Ave bridge – which incidentally is named the Harvard Bridge – and took some pictures of Boston with my phone. As I started walking again, a caravan of humvees shot past me, heading in to Boston. I had seen a number of cops cars speeding towards Watertown on Storrow Drive, so it wasn’t surprising to see the caravan turn right on Beacon Street on the other end of the bridge.

By now I had firmly decided that my mission was to visit a few old haunts, like a runner tagging bases. I was also talking to Simone by this time. Walking at night and talking to dead relatives is something I have been doing all my life, it seems. That’s one thing I talked to Simone about as I walked, what it felt like growing up in Ohio and talking to my Dad’s ghost under the huge oak and chestnut trees after the sun had gone down.

I passed some more bars on the Boston side, joints that I knew by different names back then. TV sets were showing that law enforcement had located the suspect and the shrink-wrapped boat he had been hiding in. I knew the drama would come to an end before I got home.

At the Berklee College, I decided that I was still feeling too claustrophobic to be able to sit on the Orange Line or the 39 bus, so I headed to the Fens by way of a detour up Haviland Street. The weight of my long stay in Boston fell on me mightily as I passed the building where I first lived in a shared apartment, then by the remains of TC’s Lounge, which was MY BAR for so many years. Without a doubt, TC’s had the best jukebox in town, and I never left there without having downed multiple cheap beers. I looked inside the door, and it’s had its guts ripped out, mostly. I got angry. Walking the rest of Haviland I got even angrier. When I first moved here, the apartments were filled with Berklee students blowing their horns and blasting their electric guitars and record players. Now the street is sterile and silent and clean and genteel. It makes me sad every time I pass by there now. The place has lost its character.

I paid my respects to the 1040 building, rounding another base. The Fens, Machine, Boylston Street where there used to be trashy rehearsal spaces – now it’s all built up so that the richest of the gentry buying up condos can actually peer down into Fenway Park from the upper floors. My feet were getting tired, but I had now taken the turn in my path that would make it very difficult to hook up with public transportation for another few miles.

I took the Riverway path that goes along the Muddy River. It was very dark by then, and that path might be a good place to get mugged, because it’s unlit. On the other hand, there are a number of spots where one can just jump off the path and be instantly back in well-lit civilization. It was the perfect place to talk to Simone some more. Eventually, the path leads to Beth Israel Deaconess and its brightly lit emergency room, a place that will always fill me with sadness. Today, it occurred to me that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is probably in the same trauma ICU where Simone lay.

I made my way up the Jamaicaway on the dark bicycle path until I got to Jamaica Pond, another landmark, another haunt, where I learned to sail with my daughters lounging on the dingy with aggressive boredom – especially since we couldn’t whistle the slightest breeze on those 90 degree days.

Boston has changed a lot over time, but so has Cleveland, New York City, Paris, everyplace in the world. It’s never the same, and whether it was better or worse back then is not the point. Keep breathing, keep hoping, keep loving, that’s the point. What lies ahead is there. Like walking a long distance, you will arrive at your destination after seeing all the sights along the way, carrying your past on your shoulders like a pair of invisible wings.

Made it home, safe.

Diagnosis, part 2

The stomach biopsy came back negative, which is good news.

The colonoscopy results are not as cheerful, but could be much worse. The polyp that was removed was an actual polyp, as opposed to a hyperplastic (benign) polyp. My understanding is, once the nasty-type polyp is removed there’s a chance that it might grow back. I’m booked for another colonoscopy in July, so that the doc can verify that he got it all on the first pass. If the polyp grows back, that’s more of a cause for alarm, as the growth might be cancerous. I get the feeling that I’m going to reach gold status on Flexible Sphygmoidoscope Airlines in the next couple of years.

All in all, I feel a little better about my outlook. I have changed my dietary habits quite a bit, though I still have more work to do in that department. I have definitely upped my fiber intake, and I am carefully avoiding most of the trigger foods on the list. I had a relapse the other night and indulged in some plain pizza – and paid the price later on that same night. I guess the pizza party is over. Time for a kale and quinoa party, I guess…

Diagnosis, part 1

Yesterday, I had both an endoscopy and an colonoscopy. I will spare you the details of the lead-up and prep.

I woke after the procedure very confused by the nurse who urgently wanted me to relinquish the bed I was occupying. Since the recent blizzard and the resulting bad traffic, the clinic was running behind and open beds were at a premium, as they needed to catch up on the backlog of late arrivals. If you ask me, the scope rooms are sort of a slap-em-and-dash-em kind of an affair anyways. After all, after a certain age, we all need the scope, so it’s a problem of scale. But yesterday was more hectic for them than usual, I’m sure.

The nurse handed me two discharge reports and my coat, and told me that it will take two weeks for the results of the biopsies, and that I’ll need to come back for another colonoscopic appointment. That’s pretty much all my brain could handle – nothing else she told me registered, other than “get dressed.”

The results, working from the top down:

The endoscope showed that I have Barrett’s esophagus, and apparently a hiatus hernia. The doctor took a biopsy, and I will hear from him in 2 weeks. Meanwhile, some pertinent facts and treatment indications stand out:

  • There is no treatment to reverse Barrett’s Esophagus.
  • Refrain from eating three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine.
  • Reduce intake of fatty foods, milk, chocolate, mints, caffeine, carbonated drinks, citrus fruits and juices, tomato products, peppers, seasoning and alcohol (again) – especially red wine.
  • Reduce meal size.
  • Raise the head of my head 6-8 inches. Pillows alone are not helpful.
  • Weight reduction.

Here are a few other bits of information culled from the internet that give me pause:

The medical significance of Barrett esophagus is its strong association with esophageal adenocarcinoma, a particularly lethal cancer. Barrett esophagus is a premalignant condition. It seems from my reading that 0.5 % of people diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagus develop adenocarcinoma. Still, it’s enough of a fact to provoke some anxiety.

I will wait the two weeks and see which category my cells fall in to: non-dysplastic, low-grade dysplasia, high-grade dysplasia, or frank carcinoma. Anything other than non-dysplastic will require further intervention.


Colonoscopy findings were: colon polyps, lipoma, and diverticulosis. Biopsy samples were taken, and I should have the results in 2 weeks.

I looked up lipoma, and it seems to be pretty much a benign growth, if it’s small enough. The question I need to ask my doctor is: how big was it? If it was over 4 cm in size (a “giant lipoma”) I might need a section to remove it.

The treatment for diverticular disease is to increase fiber in my diet and get more exercise. According to the handy chart in my orders, I am to seek 30 grams of fiber daily. Suggested sources:

  • Cereals: they don’t mean Frosted Flakes. They mean All-Bran Extra Fiber – one cup of which would net me the whole 30 grams. Oat bran. Wheat germ. Etc.
  • Fruits: pear, blueberry, fig, prune, apple, strawberry, banana, orange, peach are listed – but I should avoid orange because of the Barrett’s.
  • Veg: corn, green peas, carrots, potato WITH SKIN (thank you, thank you!!!), aparagus, broccoli, green beans, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, raw cucumber
  • Legumes: beans, peas, lentils
  • Grains: barley, bulgur, brown rice, couscous, pasta – and I’m guessing I can have quinoa too.
  • Breads: basically answer “whole wheat” anytime I’m asked.
    1. The scary part about all of this is waiting two weeks to hear if they’ve found anything nasty in the biopsies.

      I’ve been hearing pretty much this same advice for the last few times I’ve been to the doctor: cut down on the fats, ramp up on the fiber, get more exercise. It’s been hard this last year, I’ve been very indulgent and careless in the way I’ve been eating since Simone died, not paying any heed to the warnings. I’ve put on weight when I should have been taking it off. I’ve been allowing myself to backslide, telling myself that my grief was a good reason to eat crap food and drink more alcohol than I should.

      Time to get back on the right track.

Out to sea

Friday morning, July 27, 2012, we were on the road again.

I overpacked, of course. I rummaged and found my green Shipyard Brewery fleece, and threw that and a number of other overshirts into a bag, along with my rainproof bike windbreaker, dry socks and a pair of shoes. I loaded the bag and my mandolin into the car, along with Simone.

Simone rode in style, still in the plastic box from the crematorium, but I had found a bright bag with Jolly Rogers printed all over it to carry her in. I think she had gotten birthday presents in that bag, and it had made its way to my house filled with defunct cell phone chargers, wires and other electronic ephemera. When I removed the wires and stuff from the bag, I got a strong whiff of Simone’s perfume. I crammed the tangle into the side pocket of Simone’s laptop bag and put her in the pirate bag.

I was incredibly sad. Part of me didn’t want to take this trip, because it meant that I would be parting from Simone’s remains forever. I began to think about keeping some of her with me. Moping around the apartment wasn’t accomplishing anything, so I took off.

I picked Jennifer and Sam up in Somerville and we drove to Pam and Lisa’s in Newburyport. We were waiting for Johnny to show up with Jinger and Zak, and for Maeve and Justin to show up, then we’d all caravan up to Kennebunkport in time to board the Eleanor at 2 pm. We had one chore that we needed to perform before we drove the last leg, and that was to place some of Simone’s ashes in a box to save for Jackman Hill.

When the mortuary handed Simone to me and Johnny back in April, they explained to me the system that the crematorium uses to ensure that the box of cremated remains actually does contain the person it’s supposed to contain, so I was not surprised to find a small metal tag with a serial number stamped on it when we opened the box. Simone’s ashes were sealed in a plastic bag. We cut the cable tie cinching the bag closed, and filled a beautiful wooden box that Pam had bought. It looked like a pirate chest. Simone would approve.

This for me was the first big hurdle: actually seeing what Simone’s remains looked (and felt) like. It’s mostly dense ash, with small white flecks of bone. Pam noticed that there were pieces of wire in the mixture, and we puzzled over this for a few minutes, until we came to the conclusion that they must have been staples left inside Simone from the emergency open heart surgery.

Soon after we finished and closed the boxes up, everyone began to arrive. Pam and Lisa had laid out fruit and a wonderful zucchini bread for breakfast, so once everyone had eaten a bite we got in our cars and made the trip to Kennebunkport. Traffic was heavy. When we arrived in Kennebunk, it took half an hour to inch across the bridge into Kennebunkport. We got to the dock and parked, and when the captain, Rich, gave the signal, we boarded the Eleanor with food and musical instruments and Simone. Besides the crew on board we had Pam, Lisa, Johnny, Jinger, Jennifer, Sam, Chris, Emily, Lucas, Zachary, Maeve, Justin, Zak, Carol, Kate, myself and Simone.

The sky was incredibly cloudy, and Rich told us that we might expect to get rained on, but the sea was in beautiful condition, very calm, and that there was virtually no wind. I was a little troubled by this report, only because for the last three months, I had been imagining a sunny day with a stiff wind, and thinking about how it would be to manage pouring Simone’s ashes with the boat making headway and listing somewhat. The weather had been rainy for the last few days, so I had repainted my imagination with clouds instead of sun – but I never really imagined having to use the motor without sail.

Rich motored us down the Kennebunk River and out past Cape Arundel. Once we got a little way out, the tiniest of breezes picked up, and Rich cut the engine and had his crew hoist sail. We started making small headway, and traveled out just beyond a green bell can. It was a little chilly, and it rained a little too, so we all were wearing fleeces or rain jackets. Rich turned the Eleanor about and we started to head back in.

Chris and I got our instruments out and began to play. We played “I’ll Fly Away” and everyone sang – and of course, nobody thought to bring the words, so we all got stumped. Chris and I played the Ook Pik Waltz. Carol read a poem. Pam read some pages from Thich Nhat Hanh. It got quiet, and the rain started again, a strange, gentle rain that made a singing sound when the raindrops plinked on the surface of the ocean, which was calm and still.

The time had come to put Simone in the Atlantic. I got the nod from Rich and approached the lee side of the boat. Pam was on one side of me, and Johnny on the other. Jennifer was behind me, holding on to my belt line so I wouldn’t topple in to the drink. I was really unaware of my immediate surroundings; I was only aware of the wire railing on the side of the deck, the bag of ashes in my hands, and the sea below me. I learned a long time ago to keep one hand on the boat, especially when standing, so leaning out slightly over the water with Simone in both my hands felt very strange, like I was floating in midair or something.

Photo by Justin Kennedy.

It was difficult to sprinkle her evenly. She sort of came out in smallish doses, and I was trying to make sure I kept some of her for the ride back. I didn’t want to lose all of her in the drink, so I was being cautious. Finally I managed to accomplish a long pour; her ashes rippled and danced up on the water, and the sea made a gentle fizzing sound. There was a deep power in the moment, and for a second it was as if I could see deep in to the waters and I felt life all around me. The water was green and blue and the ashes turned the water yellow and they hovered near the top, spreading slowly and twisting slightly. I watched as she fell behind us, and I managed to keep a few good fistfuls of her in the bag when I stopped pouring. I felt hands around me pulling me back in to the cockpit of the boat.

We played a few more songs. Jennifer sang “Crossing the Bar”, a Tennyson poem set to music that her sister has sent to her. Johnny sang “Blue Skies”, and the sun peeked out. I sang “Here Comes the Sun”, we played an instrumental version of “Greensleeves”, and we ended with a version of “Amazing Grace”. Rich cut the engine on, and we motored up the river to Eleanor’s berth.

We went next door the Arundel Wharf for a big meal. I watched everyone from my end of the table through tears, I could not stop myself from weeping long and quietly.

She’s happy out there, dancing with the porpoises.

Haunted by helicopters

Every time a helicopter flies overhead, I find myself on the verge of tears.

When Pam phoned me, Simone was on her way to the emergency room at Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport. I was in the conference room at work in Cambridge. I turned to Adam and simply said, “I have to go.”

I somehow willed the car through Monday early evening rush hour traffic, up the ramps, over the Tobin, up Route 1, on to 95 north. I managed to squeeze and dodge and keep forward momentum at all costs, upset, knowing I was upset, knowing that I had to drive safely, but knowing that Simone’s life was hanging by a thread and that every minute counted.

The weekend was unusually warm for March, it had been sunny and in the mid-70s. The weather was shifting a little, and with a cooler front moving in, the wind had picked up and was actually tearing at the coast. My car was buffeted on my drive up, it felt like the sun and the wind were both trying to push me off the highway into the hay farms on the east side of I-95 as I rocketed northward.

Pam and Lisa were in the ER reception area, actually more like backstage at the ER, it felt like. There was a social worker, whose name I forget, but she was as kind as she could be to us. We were put in a small private waiting room until we could be told Simone’s status.

We were told that Simone was stable. The bleeding was under control. She was on a medication that kept her immobilized. She needed to be moved to Beth Israel in Boston, immediately. Ordinarily, she would have been flown down in a helicopter, but all flights weere grounded because of the extremely high winds. She was going to have to ride down in an ambulance.

We were brought in to see her as they were prepping her for the trip. She was on a ventilator, so they had to switch around wires and power supplies and IV lines and such. We were introduced to the two men who were going to drive her down and care for her. Again, I forget their names, but at that moment they struck me as the most competent men in the world. Pam asked me if I would be willing to ride down with them, and I bravely said of course I would, but the driver told me that they couldn’t take me on board.

Just before they wheeled Simone to the van, we went over to her. I looked in her eyes, which were half open. I leaned over and spoke to her softly, and told her that these two handsome men were going to take real good care of her, and that she was lucky to be riding with such good-looking guys, and that I wouldn’t be away long, and that I would see her in Boston real soon. I told her I loved her, and how she had really great people looking after her.

The driver told me that they might have to turn on the lights, just to hurry things up and make the ride smoother and quicker. All I could do was nod and wish them good luck. I told them to take care of my baby.

The last time I saw those men was in the downstairs ER receiving area in Boston, at Beth Israel. I thanked them, before we were ushered in to yet another small waiting room.

Fast forward to today.

I work across the river from the Mass General Hospital buiding where the med-evac flights land and take off. Each time I hear a helicopter, I get all trembly, and tears well up a little, and I say a prayer for the pilots and passengers.