There And Back Again

Just Keep Paddling 

“Just Keep Paddling” - Wesley Cook 

 

 

My brother Doug being gone is a reality I can barely accept. Although the tearful dry heaves and the sensation of leaving my own body from despair are very real, the far deeper pain is the void. The absence. My lungs fighting for air from the desperate cries, is at least something I can connect with in my own reality. The void is so much worse. I feel that something is missing within me. It's like watching a phantom limb sinking, to the bottom of a dark and wild ocean, while I lean over the side of my little boat, in a storm, screaming and begging for it to come back. It's something that I know I can't replace, nor can I fight hard enough to undo what has happened. I'm happy that, even in blissful intoxication or grim sobriety, I don't blame myself for it sinking. This was his decision, and it was one made over the course of years. Yes, years. Doug would never have wanted me to sink with him, but what he did want, more than anything in life, was to end it. A deep and demanding sorrow has finally claimed its greatest prize, one of my heroes.

 

Although he was a big-hearted, loving person, he could never shine the light on himself that he bestowed, so graciously and frequently, upon others. It's one of the greatest tragedies that could happen. It's a harsh injustice, not only to himself, but to all who loved him.

 

I've tried writing songs and articles as a way to, "Talk it out," and I have finished some. This process has started to put a cork in the dam of swells of sadness and heartbreak, but it's just that, a cork in a dam. It's like an ant making a deal with God. It's a carrot on a stick. Seemingly laughable, but, sometimes it's all you can do. You must visualize the light within yourself. It may come save you some day, even if only for a moment. I've had practice doing this with smaller obstacles in life. Now, I get to see what I'm made of. This is the greatest pain I've ever felt in my life. I'm lost. I'm sad. I can't get away from myself or what this is. I have to face my reality. I have to make myself ok. Will that ever happen? I don't know, but I have to believe that it's possible.

 

So after watching my sad, heavy phantom limb sink over the edge of my lost little boat, unable to bring it back with all that I am, I collapse in sheer defeat. I cry for what feels like hours, days, months, years. I shut myself off and go inward. I numb myself. I am angry with myself. I'm angry with life. I'm angry with Doug. I imitate the happiness that I feel I possess somewhere inside, but can't seem to find. However, I've discovered that these merciless, wrathful conditions are not constants. They are waves and storms. Like all waves, they come in, and then they recede. Like all storms, they attack with fury, and then they go home, at least for little while. When the storms break for the moment, and I'm lying on my back, alone in my boat, and the tears dry long enough to open my eyes, I can see stars. They're so beautiful. I can see majesty. I can feel Doug next to me. I believe that I can go on. Sometimes feeling that hope, if but for a moment, is all you need to paddle just a little further, or embrace the silence and drink in the peace, while it's there. I must hang on to those moments, and remember the good. I must.

 

Although I'll never be complete again, I feel I'm lucky to have had him in my life at all. We fought, loved, and lived together. I learned from him. His fingerprints are all over my soul like living colors on a canvas, painting my memories lovingly. His absence from my physical reality can never change that. My love for him is too powerful a force to ever truly leave me. Love is what the little light inside is made of. The storms are afraid of that little light, you know, but it's hard to believe it when the crashing waves snap your ores and knock you on your back. 

 

The memories are illuminated by the light and guarded fiercely. Sometimes, memories of a person are all that you have left of them. So, before the person in front of you becomes a shadow and a memory, make sure that you hold that person from time to time. Hold them so hard that you can't breathe, because when the day comes that they stop breathing, you will wish with all that you are that you had.

 

I'm still paddling, alone, far out at sea, but I stop to see the stars when they appear. I'm still bailing water to keep from sinking and vigilantly guarding the memories. I can feel that light in my heart. I know land is out there somewhere, though I'm far from seeing it with my eyes. I can only feel it for now. Just because I can't see Doug with my eyes, doesn't mean I don't love him. So, I can't let this be any different. These conditions may never stop, perhaps they will, but if losing the pain means losing the memories, then let there never be peace for me again. 

 

Doug used to say, "Everything will be alright." It's something that I believe to be true. Even if it's hard to remember when those waves attack my poor little boat, I believe it with all my heart. If you are suffering in your life, I hope that you'll believe with me, that there is light within you and land out there somewhere. Just keep paddling. Just keep paddling.

 

Burning Man: Chapter 4: The Gift and The Return to The Temple 

 Just earlier this week I was on a plane to Black rock desert and Burning Man. I'm now on a plane back to Atlanta having spent 4 days in the desert. What can I say about Burning Man? It's my second time to have done it and I'm hardly any better at explaining it. My lips are cracked and chapped, my hair is a tangled mess, I have a sunburn, my legs are sore from walking miles and miles on rough terrain, my head hurts, I'm miserably hungover, I'm utterly sleep deprived, dehydrated, broke and planning how to do it all over again.

This Burning Man, for me, was issued a greater meaning since I had been there one other time to wrap my head around it and how I fit in the scheme. I felt more prepared. Last year at this time it had only been 4 months since my brothers passing and the concept of the album Heavy was still in it's very infancy and the ink had yet to dry on the blueprint of making it. It and I were babies. It's where I met the Temple at Burning Man and I've written about it extensively in previous entries. It's just powerful. READ ABOUT THAT HERE 

Since I knew I was going back and I felt the Temple in my future and it's a custom and tradition that people leave items of loved ones who have passed on at the altar as a somber yet joyous sacrifice, I though that there was something for me to leave this time after all: a copy of Heavy. One year had passed and I had this thing that at least in part came from the experience of losing my brother.

I was to leave my memorial to him at the altar for all of the lost and revel in the pain. That felt cosmically correct and as simple and powerful as any one thing I could do in my life. Back to the desert.

I made sure to save the experience of going to the Temple with the album for a sober, rested day that was toward the end of my time there. We got there on a Tuesday. Thursday was to be the day as we were leaving on Friday.

I woke up, ate food, sat outside to watch oddly and barely dressed people zipping by on their vehicles and got ready to head out. Water bottle, bandana, sunglasses (which should have been goggles because of the dust storms), bicycle and the copy of Heavy. I thought to walk to the temple but the dust storms were kicking up a lot that day and my legs were sore from walking and I wanted to give them a rest so that the last night there could be a fun one without limping. I decided to bike it as the Temple was nowhere near our camp.

I peddle through the streets, passing music pumping from every corner of their shacks, tents and RVs. Taking it in as I feel something serious on my horizon. I take the pathway that leads to The Man for which burning man got its name then the turn to the temple just a little further down the path.

The Man and the Temple are different every year as they're burned to the ground when the festival ends. It's to keep it interesting but I also imagine its also to embody the concept that, just like every one of us, there is only one you in all the universe. You will never happen again and neither should things as sacred as these.

The Temple has a brilliant gate entrance surrounding it and this year its shaped like a cluster of pyramids surrounding a larger one. Again this year right when I walk in I see the familiar markings in ink all over the bright, wooden structure wherever they could go that say things like "I miss you, mom" and "Trevor, we will never forget you". Just a brick in the wall and a blip in time and my little brick in time will join them soon.

I walk inside the Temple and in the center is the altar. This year, it's a structure of stacked shiny, black stones. Likely a poetic homage to the large black stones that give black rock desert it's name. It looks as ancient as the desert itself and commands just as much respect and awe.

I walk up to it and touch it gently like I'm running my fingers through and child's hair. It's mantle is already covered in hand written letters, photos, articles of clothing, poems and whatever else you could imagine that doesn't make sense there but is perfect.

I circle it a couple of times in the cool shade of the structure and am relieved that the uneasy winds outside kicking up huge clouds of dust are kept at bay from this place. I circle it to take it all in, looking on with curiosity and preparing myself.

I haven't looked at the album yet at this point. Just looking for an empty spot near the black stones but I can feel the cardboard creasing and wrinkling from the sweat of my hand clutching it tightly in the unforgiving desert heat.

I pull down the bandana from my face and take off my sunglasses as I see the spot of my ceremony. I crouch in the dust within arms reach of the altar. Also within reach is a sharpie to write with. I sit. It's time.

I begin my inscription on the album: "Doug,". I can already feel my eyes welling up with tears. I didn't know what to say but I wrote my message to him and hoped that he liked the new music. He's always supported my dream and genuinely liked my songs. I hope that he likes these songs in particular as he was the heartbroken muse for much of it.

I wimperingly finish my inscription on the front of the album and only then do I open the album to be met by his smiling face inside. I don't know how that surprised me as much as it did, as I was the one who put his picture inside the album but there it was and it did.

I took a deep, startled breath as my head and torso collapsed forward toward my lap and indian crossed legs and the back of my hand fell to the dusty ground while holding the album cradled upward, never losing eye contact with his photo. It's like I fainted with my eyes open. I heaved air in and out of my tight, scorched lungs and wept deeply. It was as though the Wesley from a year ago took over my body and brought that fresh, scathing pain with him. The magnitude of my reaction hasn't happened like that in a little while now but here it was as if it were new. As though Doug was right in front of me and all I had to so was reach out to save him but I was chained down in shackles and unable to help him despite the fury of my effort and screaming my voice raw with intent, hoping that he could hear me. There it was again to visit me.

I stayed like that for a long time but I had another step to complete my ceremony. I brought my phone with me that holds my album on the music player. I wanted to hear "his" songs to  revel in the somber accomplishment and share it with that place. I listened to "With A Little Love" and "Where We Want To Be". "With A Little Love" is a deep one for me in that place especially and it hits me hard but happily if that makes sense. Then, during "Where We Want To Be" a most amazing and eerie and beautiful thing happened.

Inside the Temple are gongs with mallets dangling in front of them. These gongs are throughout the structure and are high up in the beams far out of people's reach. The mallets are dangled in front of the gongs in such a way that only a certain amount of wind would blow the mallet into the gong, setting off these large wind chimes with varying pitches and notes at totally random times. A beautiful idea as it brings a serene, somewhat mystical soundtrack to what happens there.

I had my ear buds in and listened to the songs with the volume down slightly as to not completely shut off from the environment. I connected with the moment immediately.

While I'm listening to "Where We Want To Be" the gongs start going off at seemingly random times and I can hear them over my music. Their timing is perfect. The tones that go off are in the exact same key as the song, maintaining and contributing to the structural and tonal harmony. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in my life. It's like someone was in the studio with me doing this while I wasn't looking and it was so beautiful and unique that no human ear could have thought of it. It's like I was visited and embraced by something else I've never felt before. It's like Doug came back to share that moment with me and that harmonious dance of the wind was the universe releasing him from his new form wherever it keeps him, to join me here where I am in this physical body. Or maybe I left my body to go to where they keep him. I don't know anymore. I came all that way to talk to Doug, leave him his gift and to have this clumsy ceremony for my crippled human self. I talk to him all the time but I never hear a voice come back to answer me. This time I felt a warmth course down my arched spine and heard a voice speak directly to me that only played during that song. Of all the songs and moments, they met right there and then. For that moment I could feel and hear him all around me and I bathed in the sheer beauty of it all, while looking through the kaleidoscope of tears in my eyes at his face on my humble memorial to him. It was a light that took the shadows from within and dashed them against the wall but for a moment. 

But, like all things, the song ended and the universe called him back home away from me. I didn't dare listen to the song again as the experience would be impossible to surpass and I was feeling so fortunate to have had it at all that I was in a quiet shock. I then clutched the open-faced album to my chest tightly with both hands and fell to my back on the dusty, pebbled floor of that holy place. My eyes were closed at first but then opened slowly to stare directly through the opening at the apex of the temple to the bluest sky my human eyes have ever seen. The dust storms stopped and the new soundtrack was the peaceful hum of wind passing my ears as the soft gusts gently brush the desert ground next to them. Peace is what I felt. Peace. A foreign thing. A stillness within the restlessness. I lay there for some time just staring at the funneled ceiling's skylight. There were no tears now.

I sat up after a while of breathing gently to the stillness. I pulled the album away from my chest to look at it one more time before leaving it at it's ultimate resting place among the other somber gifts. I looked around meticulously seeking a spot to leave it prominently yet never to disturb its neighbor on the altar. I found the perfect place and set it down. I took my time seeing off my little brick in the wall. It was a year of work and a lifetime of pain and care and hope. I had a difficult time leaving it as it's an extension of my brother, but the beauty of the ceremony and the leap of faith toward the universe was something I felt in my bones that must be done. And so, it was done. I took a deep breath and backed away slowly while continuing to lock eyes with it. I walked out slowly to leave it to the universe and the flames.

I was still many hours away from fully being able to cerebrally take inventory of what happened or what I think happened. I got to my bike outside the Temple gates, pulled my bandana back up over my face and put my sunglasses back over my eyes, got on my bike and rode off. I wasn't sure where I was going but there are endless wide open spaces of flat desert ground and I just started pedaling toward the mountains far far off in the distance. Faster. And faster. I was unclear about what happened in the Temple but I felt a relief from the burden and an accomplishment in the ceremony that I couldn't have explained at the time and am still struggling to. A big smile slowly came over my face, I lowered the bandana from my nose and mouth, took a huge breath looking straight up at the infinite blueness and pedaled even faster. I then let go of both of my hands from the handle bars and stretched my hands and arms outward to my side and shouted as loudly as I could "wooo!!!!". I'm not sure what, if anything, I was trying to say but it was a moment of total joy and triumph that I didn't know how to interact with. That's the only thing I could do. It was a freedom that I hadn't felt in some time. It was joy as the Temple and I parted ways and became specs in each other's sights. Rejoicing that we will own some part of each other always. 

The world can be a brutal place that has little mercy; but you have to be vigilant in your connection to living because, on occasion the universe, will put a hand on your shoulder, wipe away your tears, stare into your soul and smile. It is a gift when that happens and that day, the universe did just that. It gave me Doug back even if just for a moment or at very least the universe intoxicated me with it's stars and light to where I felt that's what happened. Either way, it's now in my reality and that's as real as anything there is. It did that for me. In doing so it also told me that pain can be savage; yet, with that pain at least you know you are alive and that's a celebration in a way. 

I was the one who traveled across the county to leave the gift behind but had no way of knowing that I would be the one leaving with an even greater one.

  
  
  

Heavy, Unplugged and Return to the Desert 

Long night met by an early morning. I haven't written in a while as I haven't had much mental space to reflect truly and write it down. Getting an album out is a monster of a task and it's still mostly little 'ol me running the show. I'm leaving to go back to Burning Man in a matter of hours and just headlined a festival I came to as a stranger years ago, later an opener and now a headliner. I'm so full of joy and relief but mostly gratitude. I'm nothing without the people in my life and to the people who generously support my music. It happens to encompass me entirely as a person and I can't thank you deeply enough. Here are my thoughts at very least from the past month. 

So the release show for the CD I've worked on for over a year now has come and gone. The stress, the tears, the setbacks, the saves, the waves and the ultimate, clumsy success of getting there. Not only have I been overwhelmed by the support of the pre-CD Kickstarter funding but also the subsequent reviews and response by people showing up to support the shows. The big one having been the CD release show at Smith's Olde Bar. It was sold out. Completely. I always work hard to attain the highest possible goals but subtly brace myself for something to not go as a complete blowout of a success. It finally happened. 

I remember, and will never forget, as I was backstage reviewing my speech in a quiet place for the release show. I felt it was appropriate to write a speech for that night, considering the personal magnitude of the night and that many people there knew the story of Heavy and where it all came from and likely contributed to it somehow. Maybe it was just for me, but it had to be done. My beloved bass player David walked in to change his shirt where I was sitting going over my notes obsessively editing. We had about 30 min till showtime while the last opening act was playing and he said, "hey you know we sold out, right"? I've never heard that phrase uttered to me and I've never encountered such a situation. He said that and I felt my chin bounce up and down and little, a lump in my throat and my eyes get a little watery. My God. We did it. I kept it together but it was a deeply spiritual moment for me and I'm glad that one of my team mates was the one to tell me, since they work so hard with me in this unchartable land that is the music business. What I have chosen to pursue is so so hard. It's so demanding and leaves you open to a plethora of problems, pain and even ridicule being a lone wolf out there in a pack mentality world. It's lonely and demanding but we love it somehow and we get up every day to fight for her. The strength is in the passion. And part of our strength is the people who love what we work so hard for. You are essential. 

We sold out the venue. At that point, all of the weight of being the headliner, all of the weight of expectations for me from myself and others, all of the weight of the people on the business end, all of the weight of my belief in myself being in question with my ability to accomplish or not accomplish a goal simply melted away with a few subtle tears that never left the corner of my eye but met the sleeve of my shirt when David left the room. The night would have unbelievable significance to me regardless, but selling it out was a dream becoming a reality. As any artist slaves for vigilantly. I was able to not deal with anything anymore. I was able to let go. All I had to do was walk out on the stage with my dear band and do our job. I'll tell you, the feeling is something I will never forget as long as I live. If, and it's a long shot, I ever play stadiums or anything like that, I'll still never forget that feeling of that night. I owe it to a lot of people and if you were there, you're part of that living dream. You're one of the people I'm in awe of and you'll never fully understand my gratitude. It's too deep and I can't reach it but will always feel it and speak of it often as it's a source of warmth and strength in this sometimes ruthless pursuit of mine. 

The curtains opened and the people were there. Many faces I knew, many I didn't. The show was one of the best times I've ever had in my life. Then came the big tests for me. I didn't care if I cried on stage but I didn't know what was waiting for me so I was bracing myself to be a mess in front of everyone. Very possible at the time.  You still gotta put on a show though so I didn't want to be too out of control. You know?

"With A Little Love" and "Where We Want To Be". I made it through both of them but my voice was unusually rough. Not sure what that was about. The emotions were in check and later I'm surprised I made it through my speech leading up to "Where We Want To Be". THE song written to my brother about the experience of losing him and how I'll MAKE myself ok eventually and THE culminating song of the entire album. The speech was a clumsy way of trying to be eloquent to respect the night but mostly to give humble thanks to all the people who came and made Heavy possible at all. This little music career mission of mine is all in my head but it's nothing in the world without people in your corner, believing in you, opening doors and pushing you to be your best. I made it through alright and the joy and sadness were balanced such to where I COULD speak without losing it looking into the very faces I thanked then and still thank. I'm a little emotional, you see. Us artists are kinda like that sometimes.

That was Aug 3rd.

Last night (Aug 25), I played at Unplugged in the Park at Park Tavern which is put on by Rock 100.5. Great people run that station and they really make a difference for local music. It wasn't that long ago I was a total stranger in this town. I remember going to my first Unplugged in the Park not knowing single person and seeing the faces that are so familiar to me now but were total strangers at the time. I remember emailing them years ago and they were nice enough to respond. They mostly couldn't do anything for me as I was so new and who could blame them. They get a lot of those. I remember finally opening up for a band two years ago at that festival and being utterly thankful for it. This year, I headlined. I headlined, and I'm still not sure that's set in. Some faces at this show were the same gracious faces as the release show 3 weeks prior. Many were new faces too. The feeling this time was a little less dire, however. I needed to say something at the release show. For my family. For my friends who really know what's happened in my life. For those who knew Doug and loved him. For the people who believed in me either in close proximity or from a distance enough to give the time and money to my little cause. For anyone who would listen. For myself. But this time, I believed my songs deeply. I mean, I believe all of my songs as they're written as a part of who I am, but something different happened this time. 

During the songs that take me to a deeper, sadder place, entreating the light to stay and wishing I have the strength to both find it and keep it. I could never be immune to what they say or the guy who wrote the words, but I see his pain from somewhere else now. It happened at some point during the show. I felt a weight roll off of my shoulders and crack on the ground beside me, letting me sing freely and triumphantly. I felt the universe telling me that I will, in fact, be alright. During "Where We Want To Be" I even smiled once. It wasn't that the song made me happy but it was more that I finally felt my own words in a different place inside of me. It wasn't just wishful thinking and a long, melodic mantra anymore. It had finally become a part of my life. The catharsis of hope has roots now. I felt them dig deep into my marrow during this performance with my band and many people I love in front of me. It took the songs, the time and the people in my life and the audience to slowly, over time, place the seed of light meticulously, cover it with soil with the utmost care and keep it near the light. I felt that. I let go of something last night and held tightly to something else at the same time. What exactly, I don't know. But I feel lighter. I feel like I can be happy again. I feel like I'm ok. 

So In a few hours I'll be boarding a plane to Reno, Nevada then driving a car to Black Rock Desert and Burning Man. The place where you are confronted with yourself and let go all at the same time, in one beautiful flow of air after another. If you'll go back to the blog I wrote last year about the Temple experience, you'll have a better idea of the man who is writing these words now FYI. Thanks for reading as much as you have and do keep going to get the full feeling of the story, if you like. 

I want to go there and shed my burden and talk to spirits in the temple again. Remembering the place where I heaved any air left in my lungs in a lost, crumbling mess of a human. Despair. Despair. I want to see them again as who I have become. My brother is always with me. I know that. I talk to him all the time. But I also know that that sacred, quiet place has many other spirits. Full of life, forgiveness, understanding and all things that make our humanity special. People lay down objects to burn up in the temple and before I went last year I couldn't fathom leaving anything behind that reminded me of Doug. I couldn't do it. It's still a shaky idea for me but I've grown enough to understand and to have the feelings far enough along to be able to feel the beauty of doing that. It's just an object but anything of his I have is precious to me. Priceless art and a part of who I am. But I created something that's all in my head and now in my hand. The album dedicated to him. 

I will walk to the temple. Alone. I will feel the wind in my hair, see the mountains in the distance, feel the warmth of the sun. I will walk to the temple with a copy of Heavy in both hands as though I feel the weight of the metaphor with my physical person.

I will carry it to that place. I will walk inside. I will walk to the altar in the center where pain, beauty and forgiveness meet for, what I feel is, all the Universe. I will step over people sleeping, crying, sitting, absorbing and I will write a note on the cover of the album to Doug. Words that only he would understand. Again. I will do that. I will set it among the flowers and objects that have no value but carry a full life of meaning to the presenter. It will join that altar, that place, that sun, that air. I will sit there and reflect. I will probably leave some tears on the desert floor. They won't last long in the heat yet they will last forever. I will do that and he will be there and we will see each other again some day. I will celebrate my life and his and ours. I will run back to camp in the sun, joyously and deliberately. It's the only way to live. It's a choice, you see. I will sweat and breathe and live completely. 

I don't know much other than what I feel. But the Universe and the powers that move you that we cannot understand yet we cannot live without, will talk to me and it will tell me where to go next. I feel it deeply and I want to thank them for guiding me. Just as much as I do for my pillars in my life. For giving me courage. If I can still feel that, then I'm already on the right track. It's a dialogue with the Universe but you must speak to be heard. You must rise and meet what you think you were put here to do. It does take courage. You can do it. Fight. Feel. Listen. Love. Let go. Live. It's your time, don't waste it. 

Recording The Album 

     
    
(The third pic has the whole gang: Left to Right: Coty, David, Alex, Brady (goofing off), Cooper, Chris)

My band (lead guitarist Cooper Carter, drummer Alex Morrison and bassist David Schroeder) and I had just played for the weekend of the 30A Songwriter Festival in Florida. A sort of live-dress-rehearsal before we drive on to Shreveport Louisiana and Blade Studios to work with Brady Blade and Chris Bell. 

 

Brady Blade is most notably a drummer who has worked with Dave Matthews, Emmy Lou Harris, Bob Dylan and MANY others. He also recently opened Blade Studios which is a state-of-the-art recording space with unfathomably expensive equipment and a beautiful layout that would make anyone feel that their craft is of utmost importance. Brady was also to produce this album with me, in that he would bring suggestions to the table and help the SONGS shine their best without losing their essence. I will go into detail about this and how it's changed some songs drastically, in a good way.

 

Chris Bell is a world-class recording engineer. What that means is that he dials every little detail of the microphones and settings of a board that look likes something you would find at NASA and makes it bring out the best of what you do. He's been an engineer for folks like Eagles, Peter Gabriel, Erykah Badu, Earth Wind & Fire, Destiny's Child and more. Pretty wild resume. He might be amused to think that, at first, I thought he was a very shy person. That changed later as we all hunkered down for long days and nights in the studio. He's a great guy and, much like Brady, a consummate professional. 

 

Must not forget Coty who was Chris' assistant engineer and helped run the board and many of our sessions while Chris oversaw the operation. Coty is also hard working and very patient which is important in this sometimes uber meticulous business of recording feelings wrapped in sound. He was committed to the mission and he and I stayed late one night to record vocal take after vocal take with me when it seemed that I was "in the zone". He will have a bright career in this industry, I feel.

 

It was a long 9 hour drive from 30A to Shreveport but my drive was longer in that I stopped half way somewhere around New Orleans to work out. Not just because it helps me feel good but it's also because I was on the verge of tears all day and I had to blow off steam. I had woken up that day with laryngitis. I could barely talk. I couldn't scream. No singing for me on that day. I woke up and wanted to bawl my eyes out and throw up. It was worse than not just being able to technically record with my guys, which is bad enough considering how much time, money and hard work had gone into making this happen. But what made it worse is that I'm the captain of this ship and my shipmates are some of the best a guy could ask for and I'm letting THEM down too. I have a very strong sense of leadership and vision but I have an even stronger sense of teamwork and always fighting hard for those who show up and fight for you. I was devastated. It's kind of like Drew Brees at the Super Bowl they finally won. It meant so much to the city and to the people. It was spiritual. It wasn't just a game. That's what I felt like. I'm DEFINITELY not comparing myself to his level of greatness of what he does but I felt like I was leading this army down a righteous path and right before the game, I got my arm ripped off. When the guys realized that I felt like that and I wasn't answering my phone they left me a long voicemail where each of them passed the phone around telling me it would all be ok and we'll get through this. I gotta be honest with you, I choked up a little. It was one of the nicest things anyone could have done for me at that low low point. Especially for these guys to leave that message when I felt that I just let them down so bad. I'll keep that voicemail for the rest of my life.

 

We arrive in Shreveport. The hotel is under renovation but I don't care.  Brady sure did when he found out and we were relocated. Like I will demonstrate in this blog, he made us feel like a big priority. Time to crash.

 

DAY ONE. 

 

We wake up and are due at Blade Studios at 10am. We walk in the front of this multi-office building where one of them is a large animation company. They're serious. We got to take the tour and I held a fucking OSCAR they won. It's heavy. It's badass. I digress.

 

We are escorted in by Sarah who's one of the gals who runs the office. I then meet LaShana with whom I've been coordinating accommodations and scheduling. She is just a pleasure. Such a nice person and has a great energy about her. We talked for a long time one of the days and I taught her how to play a D chord on guitar when she said she'd always wanted to play guitar. Well, she can play the shit out of a D now ;)

 

We then walk into the actual console/control room. Wow. Sitting there are Chris and Coty and we're all introduced. No Brady yet. Coty is mostly running around setting up the drum mics, amps and vocal booth mics and Chris is doing whatever it is he does to make shit rule.

 

The band and I are walking around in disbelief at this facility, get some coffee and see the sandwich meats, fruits and vegetables spread for us. At this point I've stocked up on a tea called Throat Coat that singers use, warm salty water gargles, Ricola and honey. I'm still mute at this point and I'm doing what I can to level this laryngitis and hopefully be able to sing enough to track with the band. You see, the method they use and sought out about this place is that the band is recorded LIVE. They're all micd up in the large room and I'm in the vocal booth isolated from the drums etc so we have the feel of performing together as a band but each of the channels are separate so that if I drop the ball, for example, the ENTIRE band doesn't have to do it again. I just go in there and re-do my part. Very awesome method and these guys are specialists at it.

 

We're all plugged in a had levels checked and we're ready to rock. Then I see from the vocal booth at a slight distance (all of these rooms have huge, soundproof glass so you can visually signal each other) a tall, slender black man with poofy hair and crazy glasses walk into the control room. It's Brady. He turns around to look out into the two rooms and, of course, I know it's him. We point at each other in acknowledgment and he then walks through the band room and up the stairs to the vocal booth. Our very first meeting? We both just start laughing and hug. Considering how our chemistry is strikingly similar, as we soon discover, it was the perfect way for us to say "hello it's so nice to finally meet you" in a way that we get without having to say much. Brady is a family friend of Cooper's and they've known each other since Cooper was a kid. Both he and other friends who have worked with him always said that Brady and I would be peas in a pod. Cooper is the one who made working with Brady a possibility and I'll always feel a deep gratitude for him having connected these dots. I've been accused of having an infectious laugh and his is infectious. Hearing him laugh just makes me smile. It's raspy, genuine and unshy. He also hears that my voice is destroyed. He reassured me that what's most important to him is me getting the best possible album I can. He said we'll just track the band this week and that I can come back when I'm healthy and do vocals. His commitment to the project was demonstrated right away and was unflinching in his willingness to go the extra mile for us. His name is on this too so it makes sense but it didn't come from a place where he protects himself but it was in a much more caring way to me. So genuine and understanding. If I was going to have anyone reach into my songs and want to tinker with what I feel like are my children, he's the man I would allow to do this. He also pointed out outright that he would have notes on all of the songs and that, for the most part, I had written solid songs in terms of melody, progression and lyrics. Whew. Nice things to hear from a guy of this calibre. He was quick to point out that this is my album and not his. He said, we'll try out some things and if they don't work we'll know and if I don't like them we would go back to the way I had it and "record the shit out of it". His humility in presenting ideas really opened the floor for all of us to open up the dialogue as far as suggestions or ideas and nobody's feelings were hurt if they weren't accepted. This is where magic happens. I think it did.

 

We get ready to track our first song and he suggests "It's You" which is the poppy love ballad of the album and might be pulling away from the other songs on the album as THE single. TBD. He suggested that we slightly change the rhythm of the song to a more driving, straight-ahead sound and that we stretch out the path to the chorus by adding another verse. I hear what he's saying and we rough-record it that way. It's great. I go away and write another verse that gels well between it's brothers and sisters in the message. I come back after 20min and the whole team agrees the new verse is a keeper. We move on a record it with these new notes. I fall in love with it this way and the band really crushes the performance. Cooper lays down a solo that I have MEMORIZED, it's so good. He's the guitar nerd in this outfit and I mean that in a sincerely positive way. He's truly a thirsty student of the instrument and it shows in his vast knowledge of the instrument but also his care in taking the feeling of the song and complimenting it by absolutely crushing his guitar parts with hauntingly beautiful tone and surgical precision. In this song, my beloved rhythm section is a driving force and Alex and David are metronomes. Alex holds this driving rhythm down and David is right on top of the groove and adds only when called for. Brilliant and contributes much the sanctity of the song. They do this for all of the songs but this is first time I see it under a microscope in a new light. I'm so impressed and proud of my guys anyway but this time I was gushing inside and still am. 

 

Obviously, I'm the weakest link for this session since my voice sounds like a dying cat gasping it's last into a distorted bullhorn. Weak, obnoxious and so far from where it needs to be. We soldier on. Despite this, the blueprint is laid down and we move on. 

 

DAY TWO.

 

My voice is actually starting to bounce back. A lot. My falsetto is still shot for the most part but the rasp is kinda nice and I can get my diaphragm into it and belt through the parts I get into with some volume. Holy crap this is awesome. This is the day that starts to be the most difficult for me. There are two songs on this album "Where We Want To Be" and "With A Little Love" that were written for or about my feelings revolving around my brother's suicide in April. The material is difficult but it's really brought home with the melody that makes you feel the words on a spiritual level right in your gut. First on the table was the song "With A Little Love" that we've been playing with a Sam Cooke sort of vibe and a slow, Motown rhythm. Brady reached into this song and pulled out what is to me one of THE gems of the whole album now. He suggested a completely different rhythm that none of us wrapped our heads around at first and we were all apprehensive of at first. But remember, we go all the way to explore the possibilities and if we don't like it, we can always go back to the original. Cooper brings up an etherial, beautiful guitar sound that is starting to feel like something Sting or U2 would have released. "Fields of Gold" was brought up as a comparison. That song is so beautiful and special to me that I just about died when that came up. So we dial in what to do and cut the track. Oh my God. We all go back to the control room to hear it on the big speakers so you can hear every detail, good or bad. I'm floored. I mean, I wrote the thing and I never ever felt this emotional over my own words. Brady was right. I could see that some of the guys were a little taken a back by how different it was at first, but it's a whole new animal now. I start playing it to myself and and working out the new way to sing the words and I get emotional. I play it over and over again to work out the words that I'm saying and, for the first but not last time, I have to excuse myself. I rushed to the bathroom and locked myself in it. It came back and it came back hard. I borderline hyperventilate when it hits me. It's not quite outright crying, although there are certainly tears, but it's more of a panic. It's a frantic feeling that's sad and desperate. I started thinking about my brother and I really felt that I was talking to him in these lyrics. The feeling was powerful. I stayed on the bathroom floor for a little while, composed myself and came back. 

 

Cooper lays down a solo that breaks my heart, David helps drive this new song and bubbles just below the surface to bring texture to the song but it's Alex that I'm most proud of on this song. Alex is young but he's almost a drumming prodigy in a lot of ways. He, like Cooper and David, are obsessive about about their instruments and have a huge passion for it. This is combination that the greats come from. You gotta remember that Cooper is the best in the room at what he does, David is the best in the room at what he does and so on; however, Alex is a drummer in the room with one of the best drummers in the world. This is intimidating stuff to anyone. No one can deny that Alex is a stone solid drummer and can do extremely difficult techniques and keep time but he's young. He's come to my world from a speed-metal drumming background. It's amazing to be that precise but it might not leave room for feeling or dynamics sometimes in songs that don't have even 1/3 of the drive or rhythm that you're accustomed to. Less is more is something that many drummers don't understand and I wasn't sure he would when we first started working together. But the talent is there. No question. He's come a long way since he's been a part of the team and he's been nothing but a great contribution to this band. I was impressed with him to no end especially in this session. Brady told Alex to step aside so that he could show him the pattern and type of drumming he suggested Alex do for this song. It didn't take much coaching. Alex fucking nailed it. This is a totally different style and feel from what he came from and what we've been doing for about year. He had an opportunity to learn from one of the very best and expand his horizons in his craft. Not all people have enough humility or really care about anything but their egos enough to want to grow. They do what they do and don't care to get better, assuming they're any good to begin with. The guy went in there and delivered. I was impressed but so were both Brady and Chris. Very impressed. 

 

DAY THREE.

 

We're working through "Heavy", "Up The Wall" and "Give Me Something To Believe In" which are upbeat and fun. The voice is extremely cooperative by this point and we knock out band and vocal takes. Boom. Didn't see that coming vocally three days ago but here we are. We're all excited but tired and we have to take breaks on occasion to both get away from the project to cultivate objectivity but also to get out of the rat cage of critiquing each other. It's a great environment we've had but it can still get stressful. I tell Alex to go blow off some steam and destroy his drum set a little, then Cooper said "fuck this let's go play". Chris is totally down and starts getting ready to track the guys. You see Cooper has his own band called Cooper Carter and the Royal Senders, of which David and Alex are members. They played down on 30A and crushed. They're so good. They get micd up, Chris is live tracking and they DESTROY their performance. Brady and I both started laughing with excitement, as is typical for us, and both started filming. Then Chris took the video camera into the band room and got some video of his own. It rocked. Hard. It was fun and they were all into their performances. Cooper was tearing it up, Alex was slaying and David was crushing his bass walks and wearing that grin he always has when he's playing live. It was one of the high points of the whole experience. It was the perfect break from the labor of going over everything with brutal critique, although out of love, it can still be tough. Just like at 30A I couldn't help but laugh and rock out to their music. Even if I didn't know these guys, I would enjoy watching them but as my band mates and dear friends I can't help but gush with pride when I see them do their thing. We are all total equals but since I'm older than these guys and I'm the leader of the band, when I see them play I feel kinda like an obnoxiously supportive dad watching his kid play his first soccer game. Video camera out, T-shirt with the kids name and voice cracking from yelling encouraging words at the top of his lungs. We needed that. I needed that.

 

DAY FOUR.

 

Three 13 hr days down and we're into the fourth day. My voice is almost 100% at this point. I have no idea how I did that but I will always swear by my treatments. Even Brady commented that in all his years of touring with singers he's never seen someone bounce back this quickly. No one is a shocked as me. We start laying down vocals and "With A Little Love" comes out great and later that day it's time for the big one: "Where We Want To Be". This is the most personal song I've ever written and it's directly singing to my brother about what happened. It's raw and it's my heart spilled onto paper. The band track is solid and I can really feel this song now. In the vocal booth are my guitar for the rhythm tracks, a bottle of water, cup of coffee and a picture of my brother that I brought with me. It's my comfort. It's my simple shrine to his spirit and the biggest reason I'm in Shreveport with these people working so hard to get this out. I crack several times during the many takes of this song that I do. I'm super critical of the performances and obsessively go over this performance of all of them. This must be perfect. This is my only path to talk to Doug. This has to be right. I almost blow out my voice a couple of times and had to walk away to lock myself in a dark room a couple of times. It's also the most dynamic song vocally as it starts out very quiet and soft and gradually builds to a huge finish. This has soft vibrato, falsetto and belting at the end. Time to do what I came here to do. I have to try. Voice or no voice. I'm singing through most of the song, looking at the picture of my brother while I'm singing these words to him and I think it translates into the takes. I guess. I'm singing the song and as we progress into the bigger parts of the song, my voice clears and I'm able to hit notes that were absolutely impossible even the day before. Through the distance of the vocal booth to the control room I can see Cooper, Alex and Brady jumping up and down with encouragement as I get to the huge finale of the song and I'm hitting the notes. I know this whole passage makes me sound like an emotional basket case but it's just a huge experience for me to have these guys in my corner for some of the most personal and painful feelings of my life. I can't explain it. It's like being held tight and softly in some part of your soul that nobody can reach. We got it. 

 

I can't believe it's all over. We go through the songs top to bottom one last time and make production notes. Voice went flat here. Missed a note there. We still need to add saxophone and keys and figure out fade ins, fade outs, etc… I'm going back in late February with notes on what I hear when I get away from the project with fresh ears. We all say our goodbyes. Chris. Coty. LaShana earlier that day. But Brady says that he's coming to our hotel in the morning and that this is not our goodbye. Oh, I forgot to mention that this whole time Brady was dealing with an excruciating infected tooth and had to juggle taking care of his kids as his wife was traveling during our sessions. Even with all that, he made us feel like we were a big priority and he made his time there count. We're packing up our gear and we're saying goodbye to Blade Studios. It was a good feeling but sad. Very sad. 

 

Alex, Cooper, David and I get some crappy casino diner food and listen to the album when we get to our rooms. I feel like we just climbed Everest together. Months of planning, care, bumps and mishaps but we stuck together and we did it.

 

The following morning we checked out of the hotel and up pulled Brady to shoot the shit with us one last time and it was great to hear his infectious laugh one last time before the long road home. Cooper, Alex and David hopped into Cooper's van and we all parted ways. We each left with a rough mix copy of what we did that week. It's enough to be proud of as we can hear where it's going and there's plenty that shines on it. My guys did such a great job. They did such a great job. The long ride home was a tearful one at times. In the passenger seat was the picture of Doug and I was listening to the bulk of what I've been working so hard for all this time. For him. For me. For you. Brady, Chris and Coty will never understand what this week meant to me and I've spent lots of time trying to tell my guys how much it's meant that they really stepped up and killed their performances but they're probably tired of hearing it as I must sound like a crazy person past a point. It was a joyful but sad ride home. The catharsis has begun and the hope of the future is ringing in these six tracks. 

A Champion of Hope 

 A Champion of Hope

 

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It was Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta about 4 years back when I met Marti. She was a former radio personality and I was a new kid in town not knowing a ton of people in my new city at the time. I snuck my way into a music conference taking place at Smith’s to try to make new friends and get my name out there and Marti was on the hunt for more radio gigs on a trip to ATL from Auburn Alabama. We met eyes and struck up a convo. I suppose we could both read each others’ eyes that neither one of knew what we were doing exactly but that we were hungry to meet people. We talked for a while and connected quite a bit. Mostly joked around and felt better about not really knowing anyone but it was a bonding experience.

 

  We kept in touch and she later told me about a new philanthropy that her sister Sandi started with some of her friends to raise money and awareness for the Southeast Alabama Medical Center Foundation. Sandi had been battling cancer for some time at this point. She said they couldn’t pay me to come down to play for the event but that they’d be willing to put me up for the night before the 6am call time to play some fun, upbeat music before the race starts at 7am. I’m always down to help with philanthropies, cancer in particular because of how pervasive it is. That’s how I thought about cancer, but I didn’t really know anything. Yet. I’d also never been to Dothan or played in Alabama at all before and so I said I’d do it.

 Fast-forward to the evening I arrive and check-in to the Marriott in Dothan. Nice digs for my standards as far as spending the night somewhere is concerned. Very nice of them and up to that point I was talking with a pleasant woman named Valerie. So far, so good.

 I don’t really get any sleep as hotel pillows suck in general and I’ve since learned to ALWAYS bring my own for the head-tilt-ratio I’ve grown to depend on for good sleep. No worries, I’ve done far more on far less sleep so I hit the shower and headed down to the Southeast Alabama Medical Center, the site of the Champions of Hope 5k. I was met by friendly faces who guided me to the stage to set up my sound and start playing. It was at this point that I first met Sandi. She seemed like she was doing ok but you could see that “recovering from chemo therapy” hair-do. That was what she looked like physically. What she talked like and put out in the universe from the inside was gentle, soft, and honest with a powerful spirit for good. I was taken with her immediately. Her immediate and extended family were also gems. Her mother, Joyce, was a cheerful woman with a tremendous zest for life and people. I could tell immediately where Sandi got it from. She and I have shared many jokes and Johnny Cash sing-a-longs. Who knew they’d have great taste in music too ;) I finished setting up and started playing as the racers gathered.

 That year there were a few hundred people I believe. Honestly, I’ve lost track over the years, but I digress.

 The race ended and I was still playing, then they started the ceremonies. Thanking sponsors, racers, organizers and an acknowledgement of the selected Chairperson for the year’s event, presented with regal accoutrements. That year it was Sandi. What a fighter I realized she was. Able to take on an adversity with the tenacity and brutality that cancer has, meet it head on and pour your heart and soul into helping others. That’s character. That’s guts. That’s Sandi. I later met many like her, but she was the first for me to put it all in perspective.

 I thanked them for inviting me and they thanked me profusely for coming all the way from Atlanta to be a part of it. They think they benefited from me coming down there but it was only when I left that I realized that I felt I owed them. Valerie, Marti, Joyce (Mamasita, as I came to call her), Sandi and too many others too list.

 With a week to go before my most recent Champions of Hope appearance I got a disturbing message from Valerie saying that Sandi wasn’t doing too well and that I should be prepared when I see her. I kept that in mind as I made the trek down south.

 I arrived in Dothan with plenty of time to spare so, of course, I wanted to see the family clans associated with Sandi that I had grown so fond of so I swung by to see her. I swung by the Publix to grab some flowers for her as a clumsy token of affection and hopefully to bring a smile to her face. I was, as always, received with a smile, but I was not ready to see what I saw.

 If it weren’t for her generous smile and sparkling blue eyes, I would not have recognized her. She was completely bald, emaciated, both breasts gone with the chords of an oxygen machine attached to her nose. This was bad. This was really bad. I swallowed my overwhelming sympathy for her and anger at her condition that had almost taken me over completely and replaced it with giving her a big, but cautious, hug and saying my standard saying to her: “hello gorgeous”! She said how happy she was to see me and congratulated me on my recent appearances in Rolling Stone magazine as well as flattering things like “so you’re not too big to come to little ‘ol Dothan yet?” Like I said before, the pleasure is mine to be there with these people. There was talk of her not being able to make that evening’s Spaghetti Dinner to take place that night, the night before the actual race. I played it and she made it out. When I saw her at the event, she wore a cascading blonde wig, fabulous clothing (as is par for the course for Sandi) and doing her best to attend without oxygen but the cancer had different ideas. 

The event was a pleasure with the usual cast of characters I adore seeing in Dothan. True salt-of-the-earth people and genuine in their love and generosity. An oasis in a desert when dealing with the business I’m in sometimes. I went back to my hotel to ponder and I decided to run in the race the following morning since I was only playing the night before this time.

 I ran the race, saw some of the people I’d grown accustom to seeing as well as making some new friends. Not hard to do when the folks are like they are there. Sandi was there too. T-shirt and jeans, sitting at the survivor’s booth, cables to her oxygen machine attached. It must have been very difficult for her to be there physically, but try shutting up the spirit she had. Just try. That would be a futile endeavor, dear reader.

The race was run and I didn’t suck toooooooooo bad with a time of 21min. Happy to have been able to be a part. I said my goodbyes to folks and planned to get together with Marti and the family after showering at the hotel. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d see Sandi alive. I would have had more ceremony or would have paid more attention to the nuances of the moment. Smelled the air. Hugged her a little longer. I don’t know what difference that would have made but I suppose it’s easy to feel a void in hindsight.

 So I showered and went to the house where she was asleep. The event really took it out of her poor body. I spent some quality time with the family and hit the road to Mobile, AL. My next tour stop.

  A couple of weeks went by and I was in my car on my way to Atlanta from my house to discuss my new plans of recording when I got a message on Facebook: “Sandi passed away today, I thought you should know”.

 I was in total shock. I froze for several minutes, then started saying “oh no… oh no…”, felt my lip quiver and couldn’t keep it together for at least an hour. Panicked, I texted and called around to confirm it with someone, anyone as I was in total disbelief. Valerie called me back and confirmed the worst. She was gone. 

 We were sad but taking comfort in that she was no longer in pain. The burial plans came gradually and there was no way I was going to miss her service. 

 Sunday morning I made my trek back to Dothan to be at her service in the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect. I don’t have a lot of practice in this field to date. 

 I pulled up to the funeral home and was met by the old men who ran the home and then Marti. We hugged for a few minutes, I expressed my condolences and talked a little. I then walked inside toward the casket where I saw the families standing. I made my way to it, with flowers again which was another clumsy gesture to add to my roster. I went to Mamasita and gave her a big hug. Many of the people there who were much closer to Sandi than I was were thanking me for coming and told me how much Sandi loved me and how happy she would be to know I was there. It was very generous of them to say.

 I then looked to my right and there she was. She looked beautiful, like a doll. She didn’t look real to me. Either that or I was in shock that that was Sandi and that she no longer had life in her. It was a shell that was deceptive in reflecting the content that was no longer there. I still, like always, turned to her and said out loud: “Hey gorgeous”. It was a perfectly natural reaction for me and it broke my heart a little that she couldn’t hear me. I made my way to the family members who were dealing with the whole thing quite well, considering, and seemed to take turns consoling others like myself who had just shown up to this sight. I guess selfless strength runs in all their genes. That, and I’m sure they’ve seen her suffer more than anyone and were partly happy that she was no longer in excruciating pain. I can’t imagine what she had been going through all these years. I don’t want to.

 The service went on and her friends and relatives spoke eloquently and emotionally about Sandi and her life. Laughter and tears. Tears and laughter. It was a packed house. There were people from all walks of life, of all ages and of all socio-economic statuses. It was clear that there was no shortage of people that Sandi touched with her message.

 As of this year’s Champions of Hope, over $250,000 has been raised to help cancer patients in need. What an amazing accomplishment for all of the hard working people involved. 

 She had touched so many lives and convinced so many people that one person can unequivocally have a huge effect on the world. I hope that her gracious modesty took leave momentarily toward the end so that she could absorb the credit that she so richly deserved for what she had accomplished. She achieved more in her life as it was painfully slipping away from her than most people do in perfect health throughout the course of their entire time on this earth. I always felt that I was the type to take advantage of my time here and to be joyous and thankful for what I have, but I learned a lot through Sandi.

 My involvement with cancer benefits started profoundly with Sandi but sure hasn’t ended there. Since meeting Sandi and encountering all of the folks I’ve known since her with cancer, it’s become a special cause for me to help with cancer research benefits where and when I can. Many of the people (women specifically) diagnosed with it have had tremendously positive attitudes. I’m so happy to see that. I’m sure, some day, we’ll have a cure for it.

 Whenever I feel like I’m tired or complacent or that I’ve done all that I can, I think of Sandi (as well as other survivors I’ve met) and I keep moving. She is a template of courage. She is a template of strength. She is the Champion of Hope.

  If there’s some life’s work that you’re fighting for or some wild obstacle that is tearing you from your life somehow, you can make it through. You can be better. You can do great things. You can make the world better than when you first got here. It’s always up to you what you do with your life. Have the strength to go for it.

  Rest in peace, gorgeous. Your work here is done.

What Now? 

  A year ago today I woke up to 5 or 6 missed calls from my mom, brother and sister with frantic voicemails in tears telling me that something's happened and that I needed to call them back and come home immediately. I remember calling my brother Bernard back first who was at home at the time and his voice was shaking and dire and he was telling me that he couldn't tell me what had happened over the phone. I had to hear it from him but I already knew in my heart what had happened. It took several tries of telling him that I won't come unless he tells me what had happened. Then it finally came out: "Doug died".

  It might sound strange but we all saw this coming for a long time. The subject of suicide had always been a cornerstone in our humor as a family. We use humor as a way to help deal with life as many people do. Thing is that, in Doug's case, he tried several times before to end it but was unsuccessful. His methods were generally in a round-about way. Trying to overdose on drugs or something. Never anything more direct like using a crash, weapon or medical overdose of some kind.

  He would "fall off the grid" as I called it. This happened in Korea when he was living and working there and it had happened in many places all over the world where he was suddenly unreachable by phone, email, Facebook and no one knew where he was. It's as though his signal would go dark for up to several days at a time. These were terrifying times for the family because we all knew in our hearts that he wanted to end it with some serious part of himself. Although we felt this to be his decision, we would all spring into action and begin to investigate, call all his friends, associates, coworkers, anybody we could think of to trace where he could be. Call local authorities, military or civilian and put the word out that he might be in personal danger. If he didn't want to be found, you would have a difficult time finding him. He knew many back alley people and establishments that most were not aware existed or, likely, didn't want to know existed. He prided himself on this. He sought out the truly damaged and lost as he found some curious kindred spirit and comfort in them. I think he secretly saw himself in them. Maybe even secretly to himself. 

  He would vanish but always resurface days later. Either the authorities would find him in some smoke filled room, on the floor of his apartment or he would just show up back on the grid of his own volition as though nothing happened. I remember one of the most terrifying instances of this was several years ago when he first truly vanished for days and he was in South Korea. My mother and I spearheaded the search and reached out to his commander (he was semi-military at the time) and even the Red Cross who might have had more authority to search farther than the military could. Nothing. No sign. No trace. Worry turned into panic. Where was he? What else could we do? Then, the call came from Mom that the Military Police found him back at his apartment. He was extremely drunk and had passed out but he was ok. Where he had been up until that point was anyone's guess. The sheer terror of the mystery of his whereabouts and the sharp flood of relief that he was ok was overwhelming. I began sobbing uncontrollably and collapsed in a ball on the kitchen floor. It was fear, happiness and sadness at the same time in a massive dose. I was so happy to know that he was ok and that he was alive. It was then that I realized that his playful death wish was, in fact, a terrifying reality I would have to accept. Maybe that's part of the reason, in retrospect, why I was so bulldozed by emotions. Maybe it was a dire telegraph to my brain that my heart wrote a long time ago that was finally received.

  This "falling off the grid" happened many more times when he moved back to the US. It was never an easy time for us when that would happen but later down the line, I began to feel a resentment that he could do that to us. I guess my fear gave way to that feeling in that I would be fairly confident that he would always resurface. I began to resent that a lot. The last time he disappeared and came back I was, of course, relieved. I was also angry. I thought to myself that I wanted to help. I mean, I spent hours on the phone with him over the years trying to convince him of his value and to try to help him. Tell him how truly loved he was. We got him professional help too. Nothing seemed to stick. In turn, to balance my resentment and possibly help, I decided to go the tough love route. I felt that he was always rewarded in a way by nobody telling him how shitty it is to subject the family to that behavior and that, perhaps, that would be a source of motivation to keep his act together better. We would all be so relieved that he came back that we would sweep the resentment under the rug. I decided to not go that route and I didn't speak to him as much for several months after the last time he fell off the grid. This is and will always be the most profound regret of my life.

  I remember for the first month or two after the last time not returning his phone calls that much. I was short with him and just plain didn't interact with him much. He knew why. I could tell and I could feel that he was sorry for it. I felt true resentment and I was starting to feel that this could be a good thing in a way since no other method had worked to date. Then came shaky times. His marriage was deteriorating and would soon result in a divorce. I wasn't around much for that. I didn't include myself. He had a tight group of friends he confided in more than me and I assumed that he was working it out. He got into a car accident and was briefly hospitalized as he broke his collar bone. Of course, I called and messaged him but then I felt a slight distance that had grown where once we talked a lot more. Not on his part, but on mine more. It's as though I felt that I was doing something good with the distance since no one else was taking this approach. Even as his birthday came, I messaged him to wish him a happy birthday but still we didn't talk much. 

  He was a couple of weeks out from moving as he got a new job in Virginia and we talked on the phone about that for a while and started talking more in general. Especially since I/we all thought that getting him out of El Paso, where he had lived for some time, would do him good. He would be around people he knew as we have a lot of friends in that area and he could start anew. It was his plan to drive from El Paso to Alexandria. He never made it to Virginia.

  His car was packed up and he left El Paso. We were all filled with hope that this move would be a good thing in his life. Then came the news. He shot himself in a motel in Memphis where he stopped for the night. What happened? Why couldn't he have held on just a little longer? 

  We were all forwarded a text from his best friend Al that said that he loved us and he was sorry but it had to be this way. My heart broke into thousands of pieces that I have yet to retrieve. He was alone. He was alone and somewhere where we who loved him dearly couldn't stop him. 

  Not only that, but I would forever have the feeling that I squandered our last months together. That my methodology was true in my heart but that the timing would condemn and punish me for all time. What if one of those calls I didn't return was to announce a timid breakthrough that needed coaxing? What if it was to apologize? What if it was to confide something in me that could help him? What if he just needed to talk? What if he needed me? I didn't answer that call. I failed him. I failed him. 

  There were times where this consumed me. Where air would barely make it into my lungs. It will always occupy some part of me and it's not my decision when it will come to haunt me; but I feel in my heart and understand in my mind that this was a long term decision of his that was made a long time ago. If he knew that I carried that feeling, it would break his heart. He wouldn't want that. I fight it and I win. Eventually. I just miss my brother. We did what we could for him. I did what I could for him. It's just a savage shame that my heart wouldn't let me sink to tough love maybe one episode later. It had to be this one. It had to be his last one. I will always carry that with me and it will never completely go away. 

  So it's been a year now. His birthday came and went a few weeks ago. The anniversary of that dark, dark day is here. What happens now? Am I any farther along? Are we? There have been a lot of changes in our family landscape since it happened but for the most part, it's brought us closer together. My siblings and I have a very close relationship now. We always loved each other a lot but were shaky about keeping in touch. Not the case anymore. We don't waste any time with absence and we stay in touch a lot more. We just congregated in Colorado, where one of my sisters lives now, to run a race in his honor. A celebration of life. A commitment to improving ourselves and helping each other. It's always been there but now it's a vigilant constant. I feel that over the past weeks I have been recoiling as though bracing myself for a blow. Tightening up and wincing like an unprepared kid fighting a monster. Trying to be brave but aware of the imbalance of the situation. Not sure if the blow will be blocked very well or even sure if he'll survive. I did. We did. We did it together.

  I have a small shrine in my home that is a picture of Doug and an ornate military show box that has his rank, name tag, a certificate and a folded american flag that was flown over the Pentagon for him. A dear family friend put that together and I have candles in front of that. 

  Now that it's come and gone, I am again convinced that I can and will survive. There are wounds that will never completely heal but there are lessons that I learned that will always guide me in the direction of my own happiness and priceless wisdom that comes with that. The most important one being that you should always treasure those you love and don't be shy about telling them. If you say you love them by telling them outright, then say it. If you say you love someone by doing something special for them, go do it. If you tell someone you love them by giving them a hard time, then go play a world class prank on them as soon as possible.

  Life is precious and it is to be explored fearlessly and protected fiercely. In the end, it's my decision to bandage the wounds and keep moving forward just like it was Doug's to cut his life short as his darkness was too great for him to bare. For people who see the light in things naturally, we have to stick together and be a beacon for others who might see it. For people who have a harder time seeing it, try to help them or at least make sure that they can feel your light for as long as you can or for as long as they'll let you. It's like explaining a sunset to a blind man. He can't see it, but he can feel it through your love. There's a comfort in that. Maybe that's where life is at it's purest. And remember it's possible that at that moment it's the only time he's felt it in his life. Don't be afraid to share it and hold on to the fact that, at least at some time, you did. 

Burning Man: Intro & Chapter One 



Intro
 
Where in the world do I even begin with this one... Well, for the person who's never heard of Burning Man it's one of two things depending on who's doing the observing:
"it's a place so filled with human kindness, acceptance and genuine intralpersonal curiosity that it may single handedly rejeuvenate your faith in the world and remind you that you're not alone in the world, no matter how cold it may seem at times"
 
or
 
"it's an excuse for a bunch of hippies, freaks and weirdos to get naked and do drugs for a week while rolling around in the desert" 
 
Both statements are true. The only thing that's different is that I doubt that anyone who's ever gone to Burning Man would ever say something negative about it. It's just too powerful and genuine an experience to not leave a positive impression on someone, I feel. Even with me categorically listing the events and experiences, you really can't understand it unless you go there. I'll be using metaphors a bit in this one I imagine and I'll start with this one:
 
Someone telling me that they understand the experience of Burning Man without having gone, especially in a negative way, would be like me saying that I know what it's like to have menstration pains. I've heard womens' descriptions and I've experienced stomach pain or discomfort before in my life so therefore I can imagine what's like to feel that discomfort. How many of my beloved female readers would fly into a rage at the prospect of a man saying that he understands the pain you experience during menstration? He cannot. That's silly. Let's not even go there.
 
So for the sake of argument, read this with an open mind. Some of this might sound strange to some, or possibly most, of you but do remember that this place is its own creature and it's based on the beauty of being human. 



 
Chapter One

The Playa, Lights, Graceland and the Broken-Hearted Aussie 
 
After waking up in the hotel in Reno, NV my copilot and dear dear friend (let's call her Raven) and I took what was undoubtedly to be the last shower for a few days. We drove the rental car to the grocery store. We stocked up on water. A lot of water. As well as food stuffs like bacon, jerky, energy drinks and whatever else we thought might make paleo eaters like us last about 5 days in the desert. Oh and booze. Lots of booze. We packed up the car with coolers filled with our wears then started our trek north. First through a highway, then took the scenic highway through Nixon, NV. Turn left there, pass  through tiny towns, past beauiful Pyramid Lake and finally through Gerlack, NV which is a speck on the regional map and the last stop for all civilization at that point. After about an hour and a half of driving you're there: Black Rock Desert. Burning Man.
 
There's one road in and it's a good idea to plan around peak times as not to be swallowed by the immense clusterfuck of a 50,000 person exodus in either direction. Fortunately, we got there at an off-time and were only waiting for about 3 hours to be checked in at the gate with our tickets. We were surrounded by RV's, cars, SUV's, vans, all covered with bicycles, camping gear, colorful coverings, funny mounted statues and a dust that our car was now covered in. Black Rock Desert is so arid that there's virtually no life that lives out there. The dust there is so fine a powder that it gets into everything. I mean, everything. The people were characters. Normal people but letting their eccentricities out. Everyone around us started taking turns getting out of their vehicles to stretch, hit the bathroom and start making friends. That's the point, you know. I thought I understood but I had no idea. Yet.
 
So we finally get checked in line and the greeters at the gate that we entered were a band of high-energy, fun-loving peole who insisted that we get out of the car and hug them. When in Rome! I got out and hugged a very large woman with pig tails, another younger girl who was pretty and eager to hear about where we were from and a scrawny British guy with a scraggly beard and cheery disposition. They also asked if we had anything to drink. Raven offered them beers and they lit up. On my way in, I was warned that it's tradition to have anyone who's there for their first time get out and make "snow angels" in the dust among other fun, silly hazing things like that. Another friend who had gone warned me that this is fun but that you'd like it better to ease into the experience so I told a little white lie and said I was a Burning Man veteran. Shhh ;)
The entire camp is in the shape of a massive rainbow if you look at it from the sky and it's organized by "times" and letters. A sort of latitude and longitude system. Home sweet home was an RV waiting for us there at 8:30 G. Fortunately, Raven is an ACTUAL Burning Man veteran and somehow befriended the Native American tribe's wife and chief so they were able to have a functioning, furnished place waiting there. Burning Man is an organization but it's on a genuine Indian Reservation. In this world, it was an ancient RV but at Burning Man it was solid gold. 
 
We're there!
 
We settle in and start to walk around a bit. Right across from us is a bar/club called Pink Mammoth. There are lots of self-made clubs, bars and whatever else that motivated and organized people set up all over Burning Man. Some planned and executed every year while others are totally impromptu. Totally spontaneous at times. Everything is free there, too. The only things you pay for are ice (because most people run off of coolers for food) and coffee at Center Camp. People just give each other whatever. It's a self-run camp in that it's preached that you should clean up after yourself and the phrase used the most is "leave no trace". Great system and since everyone there pulls their own weight and brings their own materials there is no "bum" or anything like that. If somebody wants or needs something in this microcosm of Burning Man, give it to him or her because he or she would do the same for you. It's just not a big deal there. It's just what you do. More to come on that.
 
Pink Mammoth is basically a large square looking tent that is painted pink  and has a lot of gay men partying there too. Over-the-top, flaming gay men. They are hilarious. Men wearing huge heals, looking like members of the Village People with whips, ass-less chaps, you name it. This was freaky but nobody was doing anything strange, everyone was just dancing and talking. I, personally, couldn't give a shit less if someone is gay and it doesn't make me uncomfortable in the least being around a gay person or a lot of gay people. I'm adapting to the concept of widespread nudity in general at this point, as that's what's for dinner in a lot of ways. The entire festival is sexually ambiguous anyway in that nobody cares about sexual orientation at all. It's all about the character of the person and whether or not you are close-minded and uninterested in other people. One thing that is apparent is that there is an absurd ratio of extremely attractive people there. Literally, models both male and female walking around wearing little or nothing sometimes. The female aspect of this equation is also making itself apparent, which is good news for me. I'm still taking things in at this point. I'm in Rome, but I'm no Roman. Yet.
 
At this point it's starting to turn into evening and you can see the Playa surrounded by a deep blue sky, a bright moon (as it was a full moon that Friday), and the last glimmer of light reflecting from and off the the Calico Mountains that surrounded the desert.
 
Remember the whole camp of Burning Man is shaped like a rainbow? In the open center of the radius of that rainbow is a mile-wide open space called The Playa. It's also just a nickname for the desert and even Burning Man itself at times. In the center of the Playa is The Man. It's a 40-ish foot man built on top of what looks like a 5-story tall birthday cake all made of wood. A MASSIVE structure that you can walk in and the man glows at night and doubles as the North Star when you're out and about. Disorientation can happen easily, especially when your senses are compromised. More to come on that in later chapters, too ;)
 
Raven and I are walking around the Playa. She's mostly chuckling at my reactions, which are genuine and awestruck. "Holy shit, this is Burning Man!" "Oh my fuck, I'm at Burning Man!" These are some of the only phrases I remember in my heart bursting with excitement and wonder. 
 
There are huge "art cars" which are giant elaborate, illuminated vehicles. Gutted school buses made to look like pirate ships, disco balls, deep sea fish, you name it. Some as small as Miatas, others as big as a house. Literally. All on wheels, all unbelieveably filled with care, humor and detail. And people. And enormous sound systems pumping out dance music. That's another thing. Burning Man has basically because a massive Electronice Music festival as well. World class DJ's and many stars from the Bay Area or LA come out to play. That constant rhythm is everywhere at all times and is the soundtrack of the whole thing. 
Or at least for all but once.

I walk past a tent and I hear "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon playing straight through. The DJ is playing the ENTIRE album "Graceland". I freak out. "Homeless", "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes", "Crazy Love", etc. Or rather, I thought I freaked out before. By this point it was dark enough to see a blanket of stars across the tents and camps. It's at this point that he plays "Under African Skies" which is just one of the most beautiful songs I'm aware of in existence. I melt on the inside. What a spiritual thing to hear that at that moment when I'm feeling so full of life and being quickly humbled by my surroundings. To be given this treat in a most organic fashion. It was like a scene in a movie. It was one of many spiritual moments to come during my time at Burning Man. 
 
We duck into all sorts of little bars and start talking to people. We're fairly drunk at this point. Then, a gorgeous blonde Australian woman stops us at a quieter intersection in the camp area and asks us where we are, coordinates-wise. We take turns looking at each other in silence and then all start laughing. We're laughing because it's very easy to get disoriented. Especially when your senses are compromised.
 
She decides to walk with us at our invitation and then she starts spilling the beans about a huge fight she got into with her significant other just before she bumped into us. 3 hours and lots of drinks and fascinating surroundings later I know everything about this woman and her relationship. This was the very introduction to the Aussie and, indeed, to Burning Man. Strangers utterly unafraid to approach each other. Unafraid to share personal things, not knowing if you would have the answer, but certain that you would care. Genuinely. Either you would meet her half way and delve into relationships and who she really is or make a joke of the situation and try to pull her out of her funk. Either way, it's progress and levity you can count on from another person. A priceless gesture that speaks volumes is a passing conversation in this place. I'm starting to understand.
 
We party a bit longer with the Aussie and I end up walking her back to her RV which isn't too far from us. This would not be the last time I see her.
 
On my near 5am walk back to the RV, it was quiet but for the beat far in the distance and the occasional walker by. I saw a shooting star and I started taking inventory of the whole of where I was. I'm still working it out but I feel a great wave of freedom and appreciation. I take my time getting back but when I do I'm exhausted. Raven is already out cold. 
 
Day one, down.

 

Burning Man: Chapter 2: The Temple 

     

  

Chapter 2: The Temple


This was day two. Today, I wanted to see The Temple. 

There are two main structures that are essential to Burning Man: The Man and The Temple.

The Temple, as Raven explained to me, would be a powerful and extremely emotional experience. The Temple exists specifically as a solemn celebration and letting-go experience for people who have lost a loved one. It's also a place to be quiet and to be at peace. I was about to find out for myself the immense impact it would have.

Raven and I walk this time to take it all in and use our bicycles later. There are THOUSANDS of bicycles at Burning Man as there's so much ground to cover that it's an essential means of locomotion. We have two beat-up bikes that we ride in the bumpy desert on our way to see all that The Playa has to offer.

After passing by many art cars, art structures and people in various getups (some amusing at this point as I'm still getting acclimated), we arrive at The Temple.

There is a definite curtain of heavy silence that you feel suddenly. It's not the silence of fear of offending anyone, but more like a silence of deep reverence and respect for what you are walking into. The Temple itself is in the center of a courtyard like structure so you have to walk through a gate to get to the actual Temple. It's also made out of wood. As someone who's not much of a craftsman it seemed to me as though someone made the Taj Mahal out of popsicle sticks and toothpicks. It's that ornate and that mind boggling to me in terms of both size and beauty.

You walk in and all you can hear is gentle whispering outside the Temple and the sound of the desert breezes rustling through your hair. It's not haunting. It's just quiet. Walking into the Temple you hear a very different sound. The occasional whimper, sob, the soft fluttering notes of a steady wooden flute or the hum of a traditional sort of prayer that feels like it's older and deeper than the earth itself. Reverence. Pure human feeling and pain being drawn to the surface in a safe, warm place where humanity has such an obvious, profound value that you can almost feel the person's pain next to you. It's as though there's a sense of peace like an ancient song for the heart whose personal meaning is only decipherable by your own emotions at that moment. People were sobbing in this peace, while others were sleeping in this peace. The quiet, unassuming yet very real power of this place was more than I could handle in my dark despair that was bubbling just beneath the surface of my thinly laid vail of good humor. 

I found an unoccupied space of stair in the center of the Temple to sit on to take it all in. It was a large square room with two levels and in the center was a shrine covered in pictures, hand written letters, hand made jewelry, instruments, things that only had value between the person who passed and the person who put them there as a way of trying to let the spirit go while celebrating the memory. And to the person who placed it there, it's likely more valuable than any object in that person's life I'd say. I looked around in curious silence before the power of the experience made my own pain rush to the surface. It didn't take long. It started with a whimper but then I dipped my head between my legs and began sobbing uncontrollably. 

I felt at one point as though I was going to tip over sideways with lack of air. I was trying not to be too loud in my sobs, not because I was ashamed of my feelings but because I didn't want other people to lose their own somber connection to the moment that was theirs as much as this was mine. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a stranger's. Just a passing touch to remind me of the power of love, how we are all drawn to it and how we cannot live without it. We can't live without giving it either. 

I wiped the tears from my blurry eyes to see the faces of old men and women, twenty-somethings, what looked like a Military man, a tattoo-covered Harley type among many many others all taking turns letting little sobs out. Some more than others. A sort of flare shot out from a heart in trouble, having a commune with the universe and it's people in that very special place. A flare that would be answered, if not by a person then by the mere experience of being there.

On my way into the temple I noticed that there were pads of paper, pens, pencils and markers for people to write notes who didn't bring anything to leave at the altar but who may have wanted to leave something behind. I heard about this custom before I left for Burning Man and was very uncomfortable with the very suggestion of burning something of Doug's. Especially a picture. Remember, that everything gets burned to the ground by the end of Burning Man. Even this amazing Temple. Had I known then what I know now, I would have felt differently. I went outside and found myself a piece of paper and a pen. I started writing. I started writing a letter to Doug. 

The ink in the pen only came out of the pen every 3rd or 4th letter or at random but I kept writing anyway so to an onlooker it looked like I was trying to write in cursive code of some kind. But it didn't matter to me. This letter was not meant for eyes. He knows what I'm saying. The occasional tear dripped on the page too but only after I had semi-scribbled on it. The desert was dry but not dry enough in this place. 

It was mostly light hearted, saying silly inside jokes that I miss. He was a career Military/filing cabinet of a man so the notion of him roughing it in the desert with all these fucking hippies would amuse, yet intrigue, him to no end. I never admitted to him that I knew full well how much of a dirty hippie and lost hitchhiker he really was. I think he thought that was a hidden trait of his. I let him believe that I knew nothing of this. It was understood but jokingly cast it aside as a way of making more jokes. It was one of our band aids as well as one of our bonds. 

It was a heartbreaking experience. I smiled as I wrote furiously until I lost it again at the last line that wrote "I love you with all my heart, Doug and I'll see you again soon". Grim reality can be selective about the dosage of her presence but she's always there. 

I folded it very carefully and stepped quietly but efficiently through the crowd of crouching mourners up to the altar. I placed it neatly in its own place as not to disturb the memento that the person placed before I got there. I turned around, walked toward the Temple entrance, turned back to face the altar one last time and left.

I must have been there for a couple of hours. Raven came gently up behind me when I left the temple. She hugged me in silence and we left.

At one point in the temple, a passer-by shouted "it's good to be alive!" At first, I thought to myself "what an irreverent fuck head" considering the environment but then it settled in that he couldn't have been more correct and there couldn't have been a more uplifting time to exclaim that. I don't know who the man was or what he looked like even, but I did walk around the rest of the day with that reverberating through my mind and heart. And even though my immense sadness had not yet retreated back to a concealable level, I felt it profoundly. 

It's good to be alive.

Burning Man: Chapter 3: The Cast 

    

Burning Man: Chapter 3: The Cast

 

Just like most things in life, it's the people who leave the biggest impressions. Burning Man is no different.

The people you meet there are beautiful, crazy, interesting, deep and human in the highest order. I have several who left impressions on me in terms of lessons they taught me and a good way to TRY to encapsulate the gamut of people there. Here's the cast I have in mind that I will bullet point and they appear in no particular order. Remember that everyone has a "Playa Name" and I'm not even using the names that they used there to greatly protect identities:

Brad

Dr White & Divia

Jenna

The Drug Dealer

The Assassin (I'm serious)

The CEO

Hot Lesbian Couple (oh yeah)

The Aussies

Carl Cox

 

Brad:  Let's get started with Brad who was our neighbor. My first morning there while I was outside of our RV sitting under the overhang and playing guitar by myself, immediately to my left a figure emerges from his tent. The guy had about chin-length jet black hair, natural silky dark skin and a few tattoos covering a quarter of his torso. One of them was a dragon as I recall going up his side and back. It was beautiful. He was absolutely ripped. You could see every muscle move subtly with every movement. Not in a way that was too much but in a way that was like Bruce Lee: effortless and natural. How do I know all this? He was naked as the day he was born. This was still my first morning so I wasn't completely used to seeing people in the buff  as regularly as I will have by the end of it. We didn't speak at the time but we did later.

His name was Brad and he was a personal trainer in San Francisco. He specialized in natural medicine and roots. He introduced me to a couple that knocked out a vicious hangover that made both me and Raven believers.

At first his energy was a bit much but I soon found out his depth and how incredibly sharp he actually was. We talked about philosophy, medicine, exercise, the universe and chicks. Mostly chicks, in retrospect. There are scattered encounters with Brad as the week progresses but that's who that is.

 

Dr White & Divia:  This is one of the most fascinating couples I'd ever met. They would be eternal sources of conversation individually but together they were a circus of intellect and fun.

Dr White is a... um… well… I don't know what he does.... He didn't share very much about what he does but was an open book of ideas and personal traits. He's German, I do know that, and speaks perfect English. He has homes all over the world and travels constantly to visit his various girlfriends/semi-wives, all of whom are aware of each other. I met Dr White through Raven who had known him for years and could still not really tell you what he does. She says that he's a German professor in California but his tenure there seems to infrequent that it appears a cover for something. A few of his homes are in South America and Georgia (the country). Both Raven and I think that he's a spy. Literally. He is clearly massively intelligent and charismatic. He also walked around in camouflage from the German Army. That could be taken literally or as a joke out in the desert. You don't think "hmm, this guy could probably rip my throat out and never be seen again", in stead, you think "oh cool, camouflage". I also heard stories about how he would drive through war-torn countries in South America where he would pass through borders with no problems. Very casually. This is not par for the course in these regions my friends. He was very charming and he and I got along like peas and carrots. We spoke a little German in the beginning, I think mostly to see if I was full of shit, but then we talked about all kinds of things. He also had a wig on like Thing2 and Thing1 from a Dr Seuss book. He was hilarious and, just like a good comic, made you uninterested in the moment to delve deeper because of the fun you're having. Is he a spy? My vote: I don't know. Which means he's a very good one if that's the case.

One of his wives, Divia, is a professional Opera singer from Singapore. Her English was pretty solid as well and she had a natural flare for life. A charming, child-like curiosity and amazing sense of humor. Dr White hit on Raven the whole night and I flirted with Divia too. It's what you do out there, you know. Especially when one of the significant others is egging you on and basically asking you to hit on him/her. Anytime someone is said to have great skill in the Arts, I'm always the first to want to see/hear it. We were jokingly singing and I did belt some Mozart in an operatic way and she walked next to us and let out just a little, random belt of her own. Clearly not trying very hard but it rung out clearly, powerfully and beautifully like a songbird shooting over the tents. Holy shit. No more questions, she's legit. We wandered around all night drinking, chatting and checking out the art. Dr White constantly encouraged me to grab her ass. I did out of courtesy to the situation, of course ;) Everyone at Burning Man takes turns being the instigator. My turn comes later. 

 

Jenna:  This is an interesting one. She's one of Raven's friends who is pretty hot and totally insane. She has an excellent sense of humor and is just crass enough to seem funny, not quite abrasive. She had recently had a kid but you couldn't tell by looking at her. She is a white girl with blonde hair, dark eyes, tanned skin and not lacking in the booty department. Dare I say, the most important quality? She is known to party pretty hard and lives in LA. She's a Burning Man pro and since she's spent most of her life as a go go dancer she takes it all in and gets lost. She, to me, represents the damaged part of Burning Man. She is in the minority but there are definitely some people there who are disconnected from the philosophical importance of Burning Man and are just there to have fun. There's nothing wrong with that at all, but she does it in a most self-destructive way. She and I would have scattered encounters out there. 

 

The Drug Dealer:  So we go to meet some of Ravens friends on another side of the camp. This particular camp was bordered by two large, beautiful RVs. I soon discovered that one belonged to The Drug Dealer and other to The Assassin. Raven and I walk into this camp and she runs to hug one of her girlfriends she hasn't seen in a while. I'm hanging back and observing. Not far from the two gals is a huge black man who looks like a black version of Mr Clean. He's at least 6'2" and jacked. Both of his nipples were pierced and he was walking around shirtless with sweatpants eating a salad. A salad out here? That was a first. He was also beautiful, of course. We get to talking and he's a somewhat distant but nice guy. We talk about music, the world and how our experiences are going at Burning Man. He is clearly intelligent. He invites me into his RV but first he ushers in two of his girlfriends, who I get a better look at once I get aboard the RV. First I'm greeted by the big sign that says "take your shoes off before you come inside". I'd heed this sign regardless out of respect, but it also helps if the guy looks like he could bury you without a second thought. I ditch the kicks and climb inside. 

Holy shit. This "RV" is nicer than some apartments I've seen. It has an immaculate bathroom, very wide, two couches, a huge flatscreen TV, sleeping area and a kitchen. This is all highlighted by art gallery-like lights that are strategically places along the leather couches and seemingly marble hard surfaces. This is expensive. This is very expensive. I'm not super compromised at this point but we drink a tad more and the adventure continues.

 

The Assassin:  While the Drug Dealer and I are outside talking, he waves over an interesting character who would prove to be just that. I thought the Drug Dealer was intimidating but the Drug Dealer said that this other guy whom we are about to meet makes HIM nervous, although they're friends back on the West Coast. He's a white guy, about 5'8", decently built with a thick brown beard and dark eyes that are friendly (at the moment) but intense. I've seen this look before with men I've known from various Special Forces units. Some of the more hardcore characters I've ever met. I'm glad I can still read things like this. He's only wearing boxer briefs, laced up jump military-looking boots and a solid black floppy hat that you see soldiers wear in most Vietnam War movies. He came right over and we all chatted for a bit. All friendly conversation talking about all the crazy shit that is part of the magic of Burning Man. The Assassin then walked back to his RV and that's when the Drug Dealer told me more about this guy. Although the Drug Dealer lives in Las Vegas, he clearly has connections all over the West Coast. He told me the story of the first time he went to this guy's home to bring him some party favors. It goes like this: This guy has a mansion on a cliff in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Let's put this in perspective, if you owned a two-bedroom shack on that piece or real estate, you'd be looking at a fortune. Nevermind that this guy has a palace overlooking this coveted view. The drug deal goes inside and then after some chatting and after the hand-off the Assassin says "hey do you wanna see something cool"? The Drug Dealer says "sure!" The Assassin takes him to a room in the mansion and they approach a huge band vault door. Literally. There's an elaborate amount of security attached to this fortress and after a variety of combinations to enter, the door opens. Holy fuck. He explains that it's truly a vault as they enter. Huge. Inside he believes, with no exaggeration in his face, that there were AT LEAST a couple of hundred loaded guns varying from handguns to rifles to machine guns. On the floor he swears was about $1 million in cash. I imagine a drug dealer of his prowess could quantify a pile of money pretty quickly. He then explains that he goes on periodical "business trips" (he verbally used quotation marks, implying the silliness of the implication that these trips were for a civilian job) several times a year to see his clients who are all perpetually unidentified and are all in South America. He goes on to specify that of the few things he can confirm about this guy, the one thing that he knows for sure is that he was a Navy SEAL at one point. At some point in him telling me this story, I know that my eyes were huge and my mouth was hanging open. I just don't know how long. Then we both look over and the Assassin comes out of his RV and waves at us as he saunters off to go mingle with the rest of the BM crew. I don't see him again but I will never, ever forget. 

 

The CEO:  As if you need me to specify anymore, you never know who you're talking to out in the desert. Everyone looks like a cartoon, homeless, or a homeless cartoon, assuming they're wearing any clothes at all. Raven and I were walking around and visited a camp site where she had made friends over the years. In the tent were two gentlemen, one of whom she knew and the other she didn't. They were doing spray-on tattoos for free, as everything out there is for free, and I accepted when they offered to put one on me. The gentleman who Raven introduced me to was about my height, looked around 60 yrs old, wore glasses and had a scruffy faint beard. Not in a manicured way but in a "I'm living in a desert" kinda way. He wore a kilt with a leather vest and a dusty, abused top hat. He was very nice and was genuinely interested in talking with Raven and me. The other gentleman administered my tattoo while they talked. After I got the tattoo finished I went back to finish up the group convo before we all hugged and said good bye. Raven turned to me and said, "do you know who that was?" "No" i said. She went on to tell me the MAJOR corporation that he's the CEO of. I'm keeping the name of the company to myself but it's a BIG boy. I have no idea what this man makes but it cannot be less than $2 million a year. That's if they're short-changing him. Really. It's that stupid. He was very friendly and had no pretension about him at all. It's not about money out there, it's about the content of your character, and people who believe that that's the most important thing go to Burning Man. Who knew that this silly old homeless dude could buy and sell the entire festival with what he makes in a month. Fascinating and encouraging.

 

Hot Lesbian Couple:  One of the nights that Raven and I were out and about we went into a bar that was actually a large tent like something that an Arabian King would set up camp in. Beautiful. It had elaborate and seemingly expensive art, all the staff was over-the-top accommodating and wore full tuxedos. They went for it and nailed the luxury portion perfectly while the people coming in were dusty Playa fuckers like us. Really fun. Raven and I work out way through the crowd and find some real estate by the bar. There are two super hot girls sitting together and both are wearing very little. They kinda remind me of porno versions of Princess Leia from Star Wars. As they separate, I start talking to the one that got up to the bar. Shot down. Politely but she shut that shit down in a hurry. I turn around to see Raven chatting with the other. Raven is a SUPERIOR wing man for several reasons: she's hilarious, disarming, super intelligent and can size up a situation very quickly. AND she's a girl, of course ;) Nobody can help or destroy your chances with a girl like another girl can. The girls are all three talking now and then I'm brought into the group. It turns out that these girls are in a serious relationship and are disgustingly in love. They both live in Los Angeles and one is a famous artist who just did a huge mural piece in a very famous persons house whom I will be keeping anonymous ;) They're extremely pleasant and we all chat about all kinds of things for a while. This is the only time in my life that two smoking hot chicks in front of me making out is distracting. I'm not mad but we all get drunk and split. Still, that was pretty rad ;)

 

The Aussies:  As mentioned in the first installment of the Burning Man Blog, I met Ms Aussie the first night who was having troubles with Mr Aussie. She is a famous photographer in Australia and he is, what seems like, a successful business man. Raven, the Aussies and I spend hours talking. We have drinks together and they tell us all about their psychedelic experiences doing vision quest-like mushroom tea outings in various countries like Peru and India. Their camp mates were a couple from South Africa. The male was originally from Norway so he was tall, blonde and kinda looked like a blonde version of Bradley Cooper and his girlfriend was, of course, smoking hot. He and I connected right away. We did several shots back-to-back, as we all did, and he was wearing tight pants that looked like flames. Much like I was wearing. I called him Fire Pants in a broken imitation of a South African accent. He knew right away that it was because I found their accent charming that I wanted to connect with them. Fire Pants, Ms Fire Pants, the Aussies, Raven and I went to a huge club party at 4pm. There were at least 500 people jamming hard to techno music and we joined right in. I don't seek dancing and I'd typically rather sit and hang out. I'm more of a pub kinda guy. Sitting and talking is my jam, but when in Rome, get the fuck up and dance. That we did. That we did.

 

Carl Cox:  As I mentioned before, there is a huge electronic music element to Burning Man. It didn't start out that way, I don't think, but with such a huge celebration of art and life going on it's very difficult for a party not to erupt. Raven hung out with Carl Cox quite a bit the last time she was on the Playa. Carl Cox is a world-famous DJ. He's a big black man who wears glasses. I think he's from Barbados. I didn't get to meet him but Raven knew that he was going to be out in the desert this year and one fine afternoon while we were walking around on the Playa, a funny little vision happened. Zipping right past us was a small green soap box derby cart, powered, and in it were a large black man wearing jeans, a tshirt, a huge neon wig and sunglasses, and a white woman wearing what looked like a corset. She also had a huge bombastic wig on. Aside from people saying "sweet ride" I don't think they knew who that was. Raven did. I know people who would flip out if they saw this guy and here he is racing along, unmolested, looking ridiculous and enjoying life. Later that night, Raven and I were partying with some other people we met from San Francisco and we (all 2,000) of us were crammed into a small amphitheater watching Carl Cox do his thing until at least 2am. Lots of fun and he's the only celeb sighting I can tell you about. That I'm aware of that is ;)

 

As usual, Burning Man is a microcosm of what the world should be like, philosophically. You never know who you're talking to. Ever. It has zero pretension and is fearless in its approach to making life as cohabitational and as beautiful as possible. It's an amazing thing and these were some of the flag bearers I decided to write about. More to come. 

 

 

 

Barbados  

 When my dear friends Wendy and Adam asked me if I would come to their destination wedding in Barbados I thought to myself "how could I miss their special day". That plus I'd never been to a Caribbean island before. The beach bum in me was giddy with the thought of exploring a new frontier and so was the travel junkie. Time to save and time to plan.

The early flight from Atlanta to Miami is filled with familiar faces from the Wendy and Adam camp in Atlanta some that I know better than others but strangers quickly became friends. 

As the connecting flight we're on from Miami to Barbados is approaching the arrival time to the island set out on the itinerary, the clouds break slightly then more and more as the plane gradually dips in altitude to expose the deep blue rippling ocean beneath us. The deep blue becomes deeper and then a break in the pigment looks like to me as though God was meticulously painting this ocean when he accidentally spilled the most brilliant bright turquoise ink amidst the blues. Random in their shape but unmistakable in their majesty. Then came a lush green, tree spine arched landscape whose borders narrowly met amidst the brown sand and surf. Speckled with houses and gradually the bustle of commerce coming into focus. This is my first glimpse at Barbados. 

The plane landed and the palm trees became a too familiar outline of the edge of all views. Sparse and tall and everywhere. 

We exit the plane and the warm, humid, salty air is the first thing to greet you followed closely by the naturally polite, easy going people of Barbados. Being a scatterbrained, sleep deprived tourist I neglected to fill out the proper paperwork. I asked the lady working at customs what to fill out and then came my first encounter with the accent of Barbados. Somewhat Jamaican if I had to describe it but with a more British influence, I think. Slow and clear. Unique and utterly charming. 

We get our luggage and are met by our van driver for the resort we're all staying at and where the wedding ceremony is to be held. A cheerful character named Randy who smiles while carrying a full cooler of local liquor, beer, sodas and water. I may have forgotten to mention that Adam and Wendy are consummate, thoughtful hosts and really know how to get a party started.  We enjoy, hold a small meet and greet of attendees, embibe and are then herded onto the van and taken to the hotel. 

The roads are old and narrow and we're driving on the left side of the road as is a lingering testament to the British before it was handed over to the people of Barbados to become an independent nation not that long ago. Winding and walking the harmonious line between the old and the modern. Much like the buildings and the small houses lining the roads. It's not old in a necessarily run down way but more in a charming way that is steeped with history and tradition of a fundamental comfortability and confidence with itself. Unneeding of an upgrade if what it has is still perfectly operational. 

We arrive at the Fairmont hotel and draped on either side of the long driveway to the hotel itself is a naturally manicured path of greenery and palm trees. It looks like a military sabre team at a wedding posted on either side evenly except planted by nature, not man. How appropriate for what we all came here for. 

The Fairmont is right on the water and the bright pink adjoined buildings comprising the property are dazzling. The pool, the landscaping, the outdoor bar/restaurant dotted with large umbrellas to bring shade from the unrelenting sun. And there, nestled by it all,  is the true natural headliner of this performance: the ocean. Some of the most pristine water I have ever seen enveloping the coast like a cooling, crystal embrace. I stare at it for a while and look up and down either side of it, unsure if I'm actually seeing what I'm seeing with my own eyes. I then realize, I am. What a feeling. 

The hotel staff is also very friendly and accommodating and you can feel that it's not in a service industry sense that they are. It's far more genuine than that as they'll laugh with you and are never shy about saying hello. Very Barbados. 

I'm not staying at the hotel this night as I decided to come a day early from my original booking, at Wendy's recommendation, to be a part of the catamaran trip the following morning. I would have missed it otherwise. We congregate and more and more people showed up from all over the world to share this experience with Wendy and Adam.

Getting to meet close and extended families and an even more diverse batch of friends from all over the globe, the calibre of the company remained at an exceptional level. Having the high regard for Wendy and Adam that I do, I assumed that the people they're close enough to to make this global trek would be stellar as well. I was incorrect. They were even better. Countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Trinidad and England were all well represented with this group of folks. 

We collect ourselves enough to be presentable and head out to a local restaurant for dinner. Most people at the large table I occupied with Wendy and Adam were strangers but, as is to be the theme of the trip, that didn't last long. All were kind, well traveled, educated, insightful and not a one lacking in a sense of humor. 

We ate our meals, exchanged stories and anecdotes from our lives and countries and headed back to the resort. 

As I said before, I wasn't booked to stay at the resort on this Thursday night of my arrival. Adam and Wendy made plans for me to stay with one of Adams close friends from the London named Jason. His parents have a home in Barbados. His father is from Barbados and his mother is British. Jason and I got to chat at dinner and got along splendidly. Excellent sense of humor, easy going and a very genuine person. He drives us to his family's island home. The driveway meets a house that is also brightly colored and adorned with palm trees and greenery. I was given my own room with a bed and air conditioning and sleep like a rock. 

The next morning I awake, make the bed and get myself together. I also meet Jason's parents. Lovely people who are gracious and kind. His mom makes me a stout cup of coffee, which is a sure way to my good graces. His father and I talk about world music after its known that I'm "Wendy's musician friend". He has dark skin with a head of white hair linked to an equally white beard, divided by a brilliant ivory smile that appears boldly with his infectious laugh and is accentuated by perpetually smiling eyes. A total pleasure to be in their presence and I'll see them to joke around again at the wedding. 

That day is the day of the catamaran tour. Essentially, we spend 6 hours circling the Caribbean side of the island, stopping to swim and snorkel on occasion. The Atlantic side has choppier water and a higher likelihood of sharks so we stay where the water is calm and clear and a predator is unlikely to appear. I'm fine with this. With the great company and pristine beauty, it could have been days that we were on the water and I wouldn't have noticed. There's also a full bar and they feed us. Again, I'm fine with this. 

During the snorkeling stop we join two other catamarans out in the water to look for marine life and we come across a sea turtle in the wild. It swam right by me twice and I reached out to pet it both times. It's leathery flippers were scaly and muscular and it's shell felt like the eggshell of a dinosaur, solid and impenetrable with a grainy texture atop the fortress. It's face was stoic and curious about all this commotion with all these humans in the water. Yet, it came to greet us and that was the highlight of the day for many of us. A rare treat to see this beautiful creature up close.

The next day is the wedding. The big day. The reason we've come all this way. I spend most of the day swimming in the crystal clear, smooth Caribbean waters and walking along the beach that, on occasion, has a large structure that I can't determine the use for jutting out that has been taken over by the sea. A now artificial reef that once had a human use but was turned over to the currents and surf and to time long ago. 

There's an occasional bridesmaid sighting and Adam and his groomsmen are having their photos taken amidst the picturesque beauty of the place. 

Then comes time for the wedding on the other side of the small resort I hadn't seen yet. 

The pathway hugging the edge of the hotel buildings leads to the beach and a sudden open view of the ocean upon turning a corner. There are two symmetrical groups of neatly aligned chairs on either side creating the walkway in the center that leads to the arch where Wendy and Adam are to share their vows. These are the human touches superimposed on a canvas backdrop of sheer natural majesty. This view is the postcard of all postcards and felt fortunate that my eyes were drinking this scene deeply in my physical reality. There are a few small clouds drifting through the bright blue sky and meeting somewhere in infinity with its sister, the deep blue ocean. The sun is hot but these strategically dotted clouds pop into position to provide a couple of cool breaks for the people in attendance. Adam is in his suit seeing to guests and clearly getting himself ready for the ceremony. The rest of the families and friends trickle in as we all take our seats. The family is walked in and the lovely bridesmaids are coupled with their dapper groomsmen counterparts. Many of these people were strangers just a day ago and I'm now beaming with pride for them as they take part in one of the most significant life events that two people can share together. 

All the cast members are in place next to the priest on both sides of the temporary altar. Then came the scene that a multi-million dollar movie studio could do no justice in duplicating: Wendy's entrance. 

The gentle music of the steel drum band began playing "Here Comes The Bride" and she slowly rounded the corner escorted by her father. The meeting of her natural elegance and beauty coupled with the joyous significance of the day made my eyes a little misty with happiness for her almost immediately. She looked like something out of an old storybook that young girls would talk about to each other with dreams in their eyes and sighing quietly to themselves that that might be them on their own wedding day. The highest standard of the institution, seemingly gliding over the sand past those of us lucky enough to be in attendance. 

 The ceremony began and the poignant delivery by the priest was full of gentle power and wisdom. Adam and Wendy's vows were both heartfelt, much like their own character. Seeing some of the bridesmaids and family and friends occasionally dab their eyes during the vows was a silent and subtle tribute to the wave of love and community enveloping that small corner of heaven on earth. 

The ceremony ended and the uproarious applause in celebration was genuine and continuous. We couldn't seem to cheer loud enough to satisfy the feeling it demanded. The celebratory evening to follow was filled with food, drinks, laughing, music and dancing for hours and hours. The dinner was right by the water's edge. Night fell like a satin curtain over the water as the shimmering specks of daylight slowly receded to make way for the army of stars and the moonlight. The bottom of the curtain collapsing on the earth is the occasional crashing surf along the beach and becomes the new soundtrack of the evening as one backs farther and farther away from the DJ and closer and closer to the rhythmic pulse of nature. 

The night ended with many of us jumping into the swimming pool in our underwear but my tenure there was brief as the sun and food and drink got to me and took me into a deep last nights sleep. A truly boring end to an otherwise glorious day. 

People came and went from the island on various times and days depending on their travel plans and where they call home. Many of us of the Atlanta crew who came on the same flight in were also leaving on the same flight out. The van for the airport left around noon and just before I boarded the van, word got out to the staff that I was a musician back in the US. A band was setting up to play and they asked me if I would sing a song with them. Being the loud mouth performer that I am, of course I said yes. I asked if they knew "Stand By Me" by Ben E King, one of my favorite songs, and of course they did. The band started up and I sang to the small crowd that had gathered there. Fortunately Adam and Wendy also happened along as this was going on and I was able to dedicate it to them. What a great way to punctuate an already perfect experience. 

Bags checked, passed security and climbing the stairs onto the plane from the ground I turned around to take one last look at my brief paradise home. The same view that greeted me 4 days ago is now bidding me farewell. The palm trees, the air and the smile that cracks so easily from the sides of the islanders' mouths in a ready state to say hello, fearless in their connection to humanity. 

I'll miss Barbados and will forever be grateful to Adam and Wendy for both the honor of the invitation and the new friends I have as a result of it.