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My Gift Vacation, Journal Conclusion

My Gift Vacation, 2

May 24, on the plane ride home:


I leave Hollywood not a star, but with memories of events and sights that have renewed my spirit's shining.

First and foremost: Seamus. The boy is a gem. He is holy. He is of course affected by the events of the past year, the appropriation by cancer of the 10th year of his life and likely much of the 11th. The tumor, the surgery, the long pull back from the resultant loss of speech and control of his right arm and leg, the healing, and then the repetitive series of chemotherapy and recuperation--serial attacks and recovery--bombarding his physical being. Jimmy showed me a picture of Seamus before his most recent round of chemo and since due to low blood numbers he had gone four weeks between treatments his hair was coming back in and he looked content and untroubled, and Jimmy said he was getting his voice and his walking gait back and then...the drugs were administered again and the voice returned to its little boyness, the gait again a little uncertain, hesitant, uneven. His first step out of the door on Friday morning, I watched him favor that leg and foot, thinking hard, being careful. That carefulness will serve him well in the months to come. His final chemotherapy takes place in August and then, all things equal, the real recovery can begin. I watch for it filled with the words on the rubber bracelet Jimmy gave me that says "SEAMUS MORRISON 24 LOVE*HOPE*FAITH."

Seamus is at times almost otherworldly, though of his parents deeply. Deep in a way that is sometimes uncanny, and in a way that reflects his father's introspective nature but can actually surpass it. Jimmy's mental muscles are informed by events, beliefs, relationships of his past. Seamus has far less of the world to draw upon but also far less of the world to get in the way. He thinks about and comments upon the essences of things. I am glad he is with us--discovered by the kind of people who make martyrs of golden souls, he might have been taken and capitalized upon. As it is, he is surrounded in his recovery by a rich community of creative, thoughtful, centered, and caring people (the adjectives could go on and go on) who will form the crucial scaffold that will enable his recovery. This awareness of his support system is the most valuable gift I bring home.

Here's a slideshow of the pics I took over the weekend:

This year has taken its toll on my much-loved brother-from-another-mother and his much-loved wife. Only now are they getting back to the amazing vital work of their film, "Showing Up: A Documentary About The Audition." I know "The" shouldn't be capitalized, but for this project I submit it should be. Mark my words: This movie will be an award winner. You can get a taste of the intensity of the work at

I left off the last post with the comment that I would be going to a recording studio on Friday night. Words can't really describe how much fun that experience was. I met Jonathan Baker, the charismatic producer and an artist in his own right, who welcomed us to his home right off Sunset Boulevard, shepherding us to the carriage house out back, where his tidy and fully packed recording studio, replete with grand piano, "just tuned today" sat awaiting the fingertips of Alan Okuye; and where Jimmy's record , as he put it later, was to be raised up to the next level. Jimmy's introspective and spot-on myopic (surprise) examinations of the human condition, originally accompanied only by clean and masterfully performed solo acoustic guitar, had already been stepped up into something else by drums and bass provided by Rich Mangicaro and Larry Taylor, respectively, of Don Henley and Canned Heat experience, respectively, and Jimmy was not sure just what he wanted, only that he wanted Alan. That proved fortuitous.

Suffice it to say that the session lasted from around 6:30 pm to straight up 2 in the morning, and that every minute was time well spent. Alan comes most recently from playing tour dates with former Men at Work front man Colin Hay. He's a quiet, unassuming, self-confident keyboard genius. And Jonathan, oh, Jonathan, is a bundle of creativity in his own right. Headsetted, bouncing barefoot in his office chair, he played ProTools like a virtuoso, asking for retakes, revisions, and re-imaginings that he will remix into magic by the time the project is complete. At some point, it is Jimmy and Jonathan who will decide that: The project is complete. Jimmy's record title may be "Your Name Cannot Be Blank" and it may be something else, but if you are thoughtful and appreciate brilliant musicianship--which is the "next level" Jimmy did not imagine but to which his music has now been taken--you will love it.

I got up Saturday and took a jog, just as I had on Friday morning. Those of you who know me know that I've been step-machining nearly ever day since a physical about two years ago told me I needed intentional cardio, and since that little sucker is heavy, I could not pack it, so I decided to try running whilst in Hollywood. Well, not running. My knees and back are not in favor of running. Jogging. I know I look foolish, bouncing along with tiny stride, Nashville School of the Arts ball cap backwards on my head, headphones in (I listened to Rush the first morning, then to no one the second morning, then to our yoga lesson band--more on that in a bit--Monday morning, took a break on Sunday). After showering, I joined the Morrisons for an omelet and company.

At around 11:30 we packed up a bag of Jimmy's percussion instruments, my mandolin, and we took off for Yogaworks, where I would join Soul Katuu, his regular accompanists, for an hour and a half of the funnest improvisation it's been my pleasure to share in years. Jimmy teaches regular weekly classes there. I got barefoot, made my way through the large studio packed with students (the count was 54 in the class that day) to the far front corner, where Butch, Kalani, Noelle, and Rich were already stationed, drums and instruments sprawled about them. I introduced myself and thanked them for sharing the opportunity with me, then set up my own little station. I set out my old Dell Axim to record. Unfortunately it flaked out and stopped recording after only 36 minutes, but I did manage to pull out three pieces of the maybe 8 or 10 we improvised that morning. I plan to upload them to my webspace and share them soon. It's really nice stuff, and I am honored to have been accepted to play, though since as Kalani said, "Oh, you're James's brother," it may not have been possible for them to refuse the Master's request. In order from left to right, nearest to me to farthest away, I'll describe them briefly.

Butch Norton (you MUST see this youtube video) is drummer for one of the sexiest Americana singers on the planet, Lucinda Williams. He's burly and beautiful, cowboy hatted and bearded, and he is a master of beat. My favorite memory of the day is when I picked up a little percussive phrase he was laying down and pre-echoed it, repeatedly, and looked up to see him smiling and nodding. Jimmy recently quoted Neil Young as saying that he most enjoyed playing music with players who didn't care if other people thought they couldn't play, they just played anyway because they love to do it. I guess I'm one of those. Listening back, I realize that I missed the beat at times, and there's one horrible moment (in a piece I didn't render to .mp3) where I'm trying to figure out how a cobalt blue metal tube works. Turns out what I thought was a clapper is really a mallet. Go figure. But the noises I produced were not actually what you might call "musical" as I hung it out and let the mallet handle strike it. I'm a musical buffoon, but I am not afraid.

Kalani was gracious and at one point indicated from across the way that he'd like to see the blue tube, hence removing the offending tool from the hands of the stumbling apprentice. His work on ukelele forms the foundation for the string piece that I will always be proud of, where I played some beneath-the-bridge tinkly mandolin and found some nice little single string phrases that helped the momentum and color. I was playing single string only, and very tentatively, in part because one of my strings was slightly out of tune and so I favored the in tune ones. Kalani's wife Noelle, a beautiful brunette with a MacNally strumstick (I have one at home:), various percussive instruments, and the voice of an angel, sat next to him and they often vocalized enchanting harmonies that imparted a smooth spirtual vibe to the music.

Rich Ferguson sat on a stool farthest away with congas, and he played them sensitively and right out front, obviously comfortable with the little band and perceptive about the needs Master James harbored at various stages in the session. Rich is a Spoken Word artist with a vibrant career and also performs as a 5th grade teacher, known to his students as "Fergie," in the LA public school system.

We drove home, hung out a bit, saw some more of Riad's masterful cuts on Showing Up, then drove up to Sunset Boulevard to Amoeba, a huge record store, the Walmart of used vinyl and disk. We went back again on Sunday for a bit, since I hadn't gotten upstairs. To give some background, I have a modest vinyl record collection, a "complete" Beatles section and a couple hundred or so choice records that have informed the musical soundtrack of my my life. I truly think some of my Twitter followers are there not for my educator's credentials and track record, but in order to see what I'll be listening to next as I move through the unordered vinyl in my workout station day to day. I may listen to Madonna "I Can Dance" on Wednesday and be pumping cardio to Steve Goodman's "Unfinished Business" on Thursday. This collection is rejuvenated when I travel, as I make it a habit to visit used vinyl meccas in my travels. Last year in D.C., for example, I hit upon a rare Beatles vinyl issue of their Hollywood Bowl live performance, pressed in Japan, at Smash Records and added that to my collection. At Amoeba, I struck gold in a French issue of The Beatles, in a clear jacket with "Les Beatles" cover emblazoned on the record itself, and the album track info and credits likewise on the B side. I don't know that I'll even take that one out of its sleeve! The Fab Four on the cover are horseback, in a completely counter-intuitive and oddly unsettling depiction of English riding, something that may have seemed like just the right thing for the French record designers but which just freaks me out. Fun! I picked up an Aztec Two-Step record that I used to have but have lost or misplaced in my moving about and a couple Amoeba tee-shirts, one for Colin and one for me. I also got a fun Jethro Tull I haven't seen elsewhere.

We went out to dinner Saturday night to a local Greek place, le petit Greek, and the food was great, though the company was better. Seamus was charming and hungry, two of our favorite things for him, and his mirthful laughter as I insisted on calling his Orangina "Georgina" left me beaming with the pride of accomplishment.

Frozen yogurt after (laughter about the odd way the dark chocolate mint flavor issued constipatedly out of the self-serve pump), home, then cigars on the back porch. Jimmy and I dug deep, in a conversation that may have left an onlooker either confused or disdainful of our pretensions to understanding the meaning(s) of life. Good thing there were no onlookers. I had intended to get to bed early, but it was around 2 o'clock again when I finally turned off the light in the casita. I slept like a baby, just days before I was scheduled to leave my 50's and enter my 60's. Sheesh, time flies.

On Sunday morning I slept in until 8 or so and decided to give me old bod a break. No jogging today. My legs were sore from the repetition of impact running, even jogging, inflicts upon them. Nothing strained or broken, though, so I consider my jogging a success, as well as proof that I can follow that regime in Denver every morning before taking off on public transit to the ISTE Conference. I moseyed into the house to find Rich Ferguson at table with the biggest muffin I ever saw. He was there to tutor Seamus in academic skills. The boy has missed a bunch of school, and his parents are keenly aware that he needs help and finding the best support they can find to provide it. Seamus played "Blackbird" for us on the piano, and I made myself scarce to let the academic work proceed.

Later, after I had taken a righteous hour alone in their high-infrared sauna, we played Wii Beatles Rock Band. What FUN! I know what's going on my Christmas list. How cool to challenge yourself in fine motor response while immersing yourself in laughter and the Beatles' music. I was the weak link, of course, picking the "Easy" level every time, whether playing guitar or drums (didn't do vocals, because I was enjoying Seamus's renditions too much to even consider asking for a turn). I think our whole family could play that. After all there are 4 Merricks!

We went back up to Amoeba for a bit, then ordered and picked up pizza from Mario Batali's fabulous Mozza2go and brought it back home to eat. Jimmy had a script to begin reading so Seamus and I cuddled up on the oversized chair he bought for that very purpose and watched America's Funniest Home Videos before retiring. Jimmy and I sat on the back porch again, and I passed on another cigar, having had three this visit, a record for me. To bed, to sleep, to wake, to run again, to pack, to fly, to home. Lots of memories. Good ones.

I'm now 40 minutes out of Nashville, so I'll call this writing to an end. This vacation, a gift indeed, is one I'll remember with utmost fondness. Thanks to Lee Ann, and to Lee Ann's step-mom, Annemarie for her contribution/funding.

Among this trip's many rewards lay the fact that I chose not to drink beer or other alcohol since having a beer on the plane to L.A. I could've, but I chose not to. I'm such a creature of habit at home and sometimes I fear that this habit is one that I may be more or less addicted to. After three days I never once found myself on the floor in fetal position screaming for a drink. That feels good. I pronounce myself "less addicted." I enjoyed tea, water, and juice over the weekend, and I feel all the better for it.

Captain says we're 30 minutes out. Thanks for hearing me out, and hold dear to your loved ones. They're what we've got to help us through this, "whatever 'this' is."

4 pm Nashville time, Monday, May 24, 2010, my last day in my 50's.


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