Getting In Tune (formerly cursed by privilege)

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Street Cred

When he was six years old, Willie Nelson’s grandfather bought him a Stella guitar purchased from a Sears Catalog and he taught himself to play.  Music was a way of life in the Hill Country of Texas in 1940, and he was in good company.  His parents had split into different lives and left him on a farm with his grandparents.  In spite of family disruption and austere beginnings, Willie’s love of melodies, poetry and the fame that came with performing was the key to everything that mattered — a sense of belonging, a job, a belief in a higher power, and, importantly, chasing the girls who chased the guys on stage.

It’s all about the backstory. You say you’re writing a memoir? If you’re going to court those who would share your life, you must be quick to show them how unlikely it was that your name could ever famously grace the front of a book considering your early years. You must, they say, beat unbelievable odds to tell a compelling story that will sell.

Willie and so many other of our unlikely guitar heroes rose above mortal mediocrity with the simple act of picking up a guitar. Once they saw Elvis on TV and they made that vow, hell itself couldn’t stop ’em. A further example of improbable transcendence is the prodigious child who took to reading to escape family chaos. You know, the loser kid who would trudge daily to the library in the freezing rain to the kindly librarian who inspired him far beyond his means.  And lastly, of course, is the tale of growing up poor. Not just poor, but “dirt” poor.  Dirt poor with neglect, abuse, and family dysfunction sets the stage to any worthy biography.  Because you can’t have a rags to riches story without the rags.

Though I also got a Stella guitar from Sears, learned how to play four chords, and was peeking around the corner in my pajamas the night Elvis swung his hips in black and white, I never won any Grammys, or talent shows, or even for that matter, Employee of the Month. I read, but not neurotically. And I never grew up in poverty, ran away from home, was physically or deeply emotionally abused, possessed a life-changing deformity, stole food so we could eat, or moved from town to town to hide my shame. How then could I dare presume to write the life story of ‘despair to destiny’ without any despair?

The Childhood Less Traveled

I can’t. Memories of my youth and adolescence come with no regrets.  No implausibilities, resentments, scars, or warning labels. Two working parents, two younger brothers, one older sister. Nice schools, nice house, nice neighborhood. To use an ironic twist on the line from the rags-to-riches biographies:  “We were all quite well-off, but I was too young to know it, and too happy to care.”  My parents were a product of their times, and so were we children. Okay, the folks smoked and drank a lot. Maybe even fooled around. They argued fervently, and, depending on where addictions took them, they confused and ignored us. All true, but I  learned that I cannot change the past, only my thoughts of the past. And thus would I abide.

Because we were taught obedience, values and respect. And as we grew into the world we would learn critical thinking, balance and grace. Whether rich or poor, loved or unloved, most of our mid-century generation survived our circumstances and so-called childhood wounds. No blame, no shame. For when it came to parents, good or bad, we had one of each, and their failures were offset by their dedication to the cause as we all reached adulthood with an education only minimally bought with emotional scars. Sure enough and eventually, with some guidance and hope and time, I learned Forgiveness. More powerful than redemption, more sensible than regret, and easier and more attractive by far than victimhood. Forgiveness of myself, and thereby of others. It all starts with the knowing that once you surrender to your true self, you see that your past has nothing on you, and you had nothing to do with it. You are the cause and effect of your own experience. Forgiveness is the holy water in the church of true meaning.

Altared ConsciounessI

If I had a votive candle for every memoir author who took a shot at their days as a young Catholic, I could light up the night sky over the Vatican! Oh. My. God! How could a kid not be ruined for life? How is 17 years of going to weekly Mass and memorizing the catechism and fingering beads on aching knees not in itself a set up for prize-winning biography?! Fortunately, in truth, I never took the liturgical circus at all seriously. With my apologies to Scientologists, fringe Mormons and Christian cult survivors, I would suggest that the cartoons I watched on Saturday morning had the same lasting anguish as the one I prayed at on Sunday.

Being a mid-century Catholic was just something we kids did. Like staying out late on warm summer nights and throwing snowballs at police cars in the winter. There was mystery and magic, singing and ceremony, genuflecting, and fresh doughnuts in the church basement after Mass on First Friday morning from Wagner’s bakery across the street. I was baptized, confirmed, and confessed until I took to making things up. We loved having macaroni and cheese with fish sticks on Friday instead of meat. And although, like you, I have heard the stories of treachery, there were a lot of perks to being an altar boy. And perhaps, just perhaps, whatever values I hold could be among them.

So for me, there is no lingering doubt or spite, and no smoldering mental scars or guilt. I came to know that Grace is not something to be begged for from afar and above, it is our birthright. I have merely curious childhood memories from the joyous hypocrisy of that particular organized religion. Move on, folks, nothing to see here!  Maybe if I had been Jewish…

The Young, The Innocent, and The Tenth Street Hustle

After leaving Saint Michael School (Home of The Tykes) and departing the parochial life for junior high school, we former Tykes were all required to attend ‘Catholic classes’ on Wednesdays after dinner. That got old real fast. But I do remember discovering the more ‘enlightened’ public school girls. The name was Maria, no kidding, and she was a dark-eyed beauty who surely had come to sit next to me from the set of Westside Story. She looked at me until I gulped air. She then seduced me into an awkward kiss in the shadows behind the school gym after our “Love and Marriage for Young Catholics” session, which was referred to in whispers as “Virgin Class”.

That was the last formal religion course I attended. Maria scared me to death, and dad, to my relief, was tired of driving us there after bourbon and supper and a little more bourbon.  Besides, if I had really wanted to impress the girls, I would have worked harder at learning more guitar chords. Like Willie did. Or I might have starred on the football team instead of getting an after-school paper route. And so there you go: “Kinda well-read, sorta guitar-strumming, must be dirt-poor school kid has to work until dark to help support the family!”  Paid my dues, I did!    

Being Real

“Success, they say, always begins with the end of mind. But if that’s true, I’ve news for you:  We’re born to die, that’s what we do. Life is what we seek, not what we find…”

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Mazatlan, 1974

The driving directions I had gotten from the embassy office were difficult to follow.  I had written them down at the phone booth in the mostly abandoned beach side trailer park where we had been camping.  I held a crude map surrounded by scribbles from a broken pencil in a shaking hand. 

Somehow I found the dusty road that wound up the hill at the very back of town.  Tattered shacks came right up to the shoulders.  They appeared unlivable and vacant, but the dangling electrical wires, roaming chickens, and strong odor of garlic and cooking meat told me that some kind of life went on day to day.

Our old van swerved slowly to the top of the hill and broke above the crude cluttered neighborhood just as the Mexican sun peaked in the white hot sky.  We pulled over and parked next to the cemetery grounds at the edge of a sea of white crosses that haphazardly stretched off into the distance.  The proprietor of the mortuary greeted us with a solemn introduction and led David and I around the back of the building.  I could feel the radiating heat as I walked aside the chipped adobe wall.

My friend’s body lay face up under the sharp sun on a thick granite slab, just about shoulder level.  His lifeless form was bloated and chipped by fish bites suffered during the three days before he washed ashore on a remote beach up the coast.  Were it not for the blue swim trunks he wore, and his small mustache that once framed an often mischievous smile, I might have attempted to avoid confirming recognition.

I felt a strange awe that melted into a stranger peace as I stared at the sight.  This was not a memorial service, just an identification visit so the police could wrap up their work.  It was the first of a number of formal and unpleasant transactions that would be necessary before I could hope to leave the country, much less seek closure.

David and I stood with downcast eyes and nodded when the proprietor asked his question in Spanish.  “Tu amigo?”  I nodded, then somehow found the words to inquire if there had been a necklace on him when he was recovered, though I knew  the answer before his reply.  I was there when his girlfriend Paula had given him the solid gold eagle charm exactly one month ago.  She had said it would protect him until he returned home to her.  I felt a chill in the rising heat thinking that on some coming day, in another country, I would have to be the one to tell the tragic story and answer the questions.

El Camino del Gitano

It was the great getaway and every young man’s dream.  The trip down was to be one of those gypsy adventures we had heard about, and we were ready to test our freedom, courage, and manhood. A late autumn wander in a borrowed Ford Econoline window van with sleeping bags and cut-offs and no timetables or deadlines. We were a good team. My friend Kansas seemed to able to solve anything with his spirit, good looks and charm. I could read maps and was more mechanically and practically inclined. We left Bellingham, Washington in late October and drove east through Spokane, Missoula, then Yellowstone and into Denver where we hit a snowstorm, repaired a failing steering shaft, and replaced the brakes that we apparently had installed backwards. I also had carelessly cracked the window with my shoe, and someone forgot to fasten the oil drain bolt properly.

Once fit to fly, we then rolled eastward over the plain to Lawrence, Kansas. We stayed with my buddy’s folks for a few days where I got used to hearing him addressed as Bobby. My calling him his Pacific Northwest nickname would have only confused things. On leaving I promised his mom I would do my best to watch over their only son. We packed some leftover home cooking and pointed south, crossing Oklahoma, Texas and over the border into Mexico at El Paso. 

This is what a lot of kids were doing in the seventies.  It was either the San Francisco area, with its fading flowered counter-culture, a winter ski resort to wait tables for a season pass, or somewhere – a beach preferably – in México.  Laid back and lawless, mysterious and welcoming, we heard one could live for weeks on just a few dollars. That was the story anyway. Kansas temporarily traded his Camaro for a van to camp in, and I headed to the Triple-A office to get some maps.  We met at the Beaver Inn Tavern later, and between games of pool and dime-night beers, we settled on a route to Mazatlán.  Departing as soon as we saved some cash, quit our jobs, and the autumn nights began to turn cold. We left a girl or two behind, which of course added to the drama. No one promised to write.

Cultural Diversity

It was a long and carefree ride south from El Paso into the central plain.  We spoke no Spanish, but were blessedly naïve and had no fears.  All we needed to negotiate were gas stations, food stands and tiendas for beer and ice. When hungry, thirsty, or low on fuel, we just pointed.  Our auto club map showed the route. And we simply accepted the prevailing notion of the Mexican people as gentle, helpful, and non-threatening.  And so it came to be true, because we never presumed otherwise.

Two days of driving across the Chihuahuan Desert brought us to Ciudad Torreón.   Ahead rose the Sierra Madre range – wide, high, remote, and daunting.  A day later we arrived in Durango, and, as darkness fell, found a hotel just off the city square.  This was our first true taste of the authentic México we envisioned.  The México of sombrero and serape-wearing movie stereotypes. 

After dinner we walked about in the cool mountain air and joined the crowds in the brightly lit plaza. Packs of young men cruised in the backs of battered trucks, and like them we found the exotic dark-eyed girls strolling arm-in-arm particularly interesting.  My pal was approached by a smiling young fellow as we sat on the hotel steps.  He attempted to befriend us with his few words of English, but soon it became uncomfortably apparent he had an eye for Kansas and was hoping for a date. We escaped to the hotel room; our night was over.  When the guy later knocked on our door, Kansas completely freaked out and chased him away as I laughed uncontrollably.  The two of us knew as much about homosexuality as we knew of the Spanish language, which was near nada.

Life couldn’t have been better or showed more promise when we arrived on that secluded Mexican beach ten miles north of Mazatlán.  It was Sunday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving.  We spent the first evening immersing our youthful awe in the tropical surroundings. The next morning my best friend got caught in a rip tide and drowned.  On our first day there, a little ways down the shore, out in the high surf. He and some guys we met the night before went for a swim, and he just never made it back.

Header Photo Credit: @jeremybishop

The Elf

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‘Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.’

–Hermey the Elf, 1964

When I finally saw the animated Christmas program “Rudolph” thirty years after its production, I took notice of the quirky idea that one of Santa’s elves, Hermey, wanted to become, of all things, a dentist. He felt himself different, and questioned very earnestly in song why he didn’t fit in. Looking back on my life from its middle, I didn’t miss this ironic lesson. It was with reflective amusement I realized that ‘back in the day’, still made of clay, I was a dentist who wanted to be, of all things… elf.

The best part of dental school was when I wasn’t there. It wasn’t awful and I did very well as a student, but where I really came into my own and learned a thing or two was out in the real world. Weekends and summer breaks were not to be wasted. The world was delightfully crazy. Society was in a glorious upheaval, and it was a good time for a coming-of-age story. (If only I had.)

Party Parking Only

From June to September in the early seventies, I joined a rowdy band of wily mischief-makers working at the state park near Ocean Shores on the Washington coast.  Though it was summer, the sun rarely shown and the clammy damp would have made it a very grim place to earn $359 dollars a month cleaning restrooms and campsites, hauling garbage and registering visitors, were it not for the “side jobs” we picked up in our off hours. These included your usual gang-related activities such as goofing off, chasing girls, drinking, pranking the campers, stealing beer, and raising our own special brand of hell.

Each summer there were four to six of us college-kid delinquents who bunked in a noisy, moist, ant-infested garage. We were joined by a few young ladies who commuted from Aberdeen and several gifted local boys who were in their late teens to early twenties still struggling to graduate from the nearby rural high school so they could get the hell out of there.

It was quite the experience and I learned lessons there that go a long way to explaining the questionable life skills and character anomalies that are with me yet today. In spite of all the shirking and slacking, “work-arounds”, playing hooky, hiding from the boss in restrooms, and raiding the walk-in beer cooler in Patton’s Grocery down the road in Oyehut while patrolling the beach, we managed to get the necessary park work done. These were the days of federal ‘generosity’ in supporting employment opportunity, job training, and government social programs. The Great Society was throwing grants around like birdseed.  As a result, there were three of us for every one job, and everybody was happy.

One night, perhaps a bit bored and certainly a bit sideways, someone – I’m pretty sure it was Pete, who eventually went on to put in his thirty years as a state park ranger — had the brilliant idea to build pipe bombs. Oh, HELL, yes! The park shop had all the plumbing fixtures and tools, and the trunk under Brumley’s bed had black gunpowder for his antique rifle. We would sift off what we needed in small quantities, much like sneaking your dad’s whiskey and replacing it with water.  Packed powder in galvanized pipe, a firecracker for a fuse, and some fool to strike a match. Simple!

On the third volley we nearly decapitated a guy walking his dog up by the sewage lagoon. He wouldn’t have known what hit him. We told the head ranger it was Doug’s car backfiring. That broken window? It was always like that. Every time we lied and went on to almost destroy his park, I think he liked us all the more for being clever enough to get away with the shit I’m sure he wished he had done as a kid.

Fun While It Lasted

After four years I completed my dental education, and also managed to matriculate out of Ocean City State Park without getting arrested, married or maimed. I was single and highly degreed with friends in low, low places. I was succeeding in rejecting expected lifestyle and behavior, though in retrospect, all I was doing was choosing to be “different, like everybody else.”  But I did feel wonderfully liberated and unstoppable.  Naïve, self-centered, and arrogantly unpretentious.

I was so directed, or misdirected, I seriously thought about signing on for a fourth summer’s employment at the park after graduation. The wage had risen to $456 a month (!) and these were my people and this was my party. You can believe my poor father, who put me through eight years of college, was not at all happy. But he said little. Or I heard little. Receiving no direct orders, I was left free to project my choices onto him, and I justified those aberrant wishes in my favor. I’d like to say it all worked out in the end, but our relationship is another story.

This good young doctor was into country music and smoky taverns and sidelong looks from petite feral young women who had a taste for beer and the unknown. I had no commitments and no idea how to make them. The country western sound became part of my wannabe persona: simple, rough around the edges, and somtimes well-intentioned. No regrets, mind you. I was just full of myself. And you know what else. Acting like a grownup for-real dentist in the mid-seventies to me was like the rising sound of disco music – uncomfortably jerky, confusing, and too flashy for my style.

29th Birthday


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Catching Out

I jumped on in Spokane.  It was late December and the middle of the night.  The boxcar was dark, dirty, and damp, but empty. The south-facing door was half-open, which was enough for a view and for keeping out of sight.

This was my first go. I came to learn later that there is a diesel-stained esoteric code to this dim-witted activity, and ‘asking around’ might give you advice (however dubious and untested) about choosing cars, tracking routes, and trusting more than luck to keep from being maimed, killed or arrested.

Best to heed unwritten laws such as: jacking the door open with a board or pallet so you won’t lose dangling legs on a sudden stop, checking out the whole train before jumping on to see if there are indeed engines attached, and maybe even bringing along food, water, and sufficient boxcar-appropriate clothing to keep from ending this manly excitement as a smiling corpse in some far-flung sub-zero siding while the engineers keep warm a mile ahead sipping cheap wine and waiting on the midnight train to Omaha, now five hours late, to pass through. Absent such wisdom, however, I endured. And by 4 a.m., we were racing over the winter sagebrush landscape, headed west under a bright full moon that lit up the frosty land for miles around.

Catching On

I knew enough geography to place myself. The mainline tracks roughly parallel U.S. Highway 2, but I had no idea when or even if the freight would stop before the Cascade Mountains. At daybreak, around 7, we squealed down a long grade and soon banged across the Columbia River on an ancient steel bridge. I gathered up my blanket, pulled my stocking cap down tight and jumped off at the switch yard in Wenatchee. Somehow, I got around the back end of the train and managed to avoid attracting the attention of the bundled-up yard workers going about their business. With just enough money for breakfast at the old Owl Café near the tracks, I washed up and then devoured an order of ham and eggs – clearly a meal for a sure-enough gypsy tramp hobo, or whatever I was. I then found the highway to hitchhike back to school and my empty dorm.  I could do this.

The Tunnel of Death

In the years to come, I would take several more freight rides. Some of my friends, also eager to re-frame their stupidity as skillful impetuousness, would choose to sign on.  Pete and I almost got to the Canadian border late one night drinking whiskey and bellowing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with our feet dancing and waving over the boxcar’s edge.  We first had to change trains in Everett to keep from possibly suffocating in the Stevens Pass rail tunnel.  We were smart enough to know about the eight mile long passage but not enough to know if there was enough air to breathe during its passage.  We imagined a big pile of dead tramps on both sides of the track with open mouths and their eyes popping out of their head. When we jumped off to find a train north to Bellingham, a runaway teenager who had been standing by the tracks climbed aboard. He looked confused and not too bright and said he was going to go wherever the train took him.  We wished him luck, but looked at each other and shook our heads.

To our surprise we sped right through Bellingham that night.  We had been warned by the yard worker in Everett we ought not get caught when the mean and unforgiving Canadian customs agents go through all the boxcars at the international border, so we bailed out north of Ferndale as soon as the train slowed enough to allow the liquor to convince us it was safe to jump.  Clearly, the British Columbia immigration jails are full of booze-sotted fools singing old country western songs.

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Birthday Present

On my 29th birthday brother Terry, friend Scott and I rode an auto carrier car south on the Burlington Northern line from the Seattle Interbay yards to Tacoma. We rattled hell-bent down the valley through Duwamish, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Puyallup on a clear autumn day.  “Automotive Racks”, as these rail cars are properly called, are now all steel-sided to prevent vandalism, but back in the day you could climb the outside ladder at sixty or so swaying miles per hour to the top deck and get a hell of a view.  Just don’t try to stand up.

On that trip, two honest-to-god hobos got on as we waited by the old Kingdome.  Davey and “Loose.”  Loose carried a scented, well-traveled duffel bag.  Davey had a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread in a pair of crappy old boots slung over his shoulder.  I noticed one of the boots had a heel missing.  Davey said that those boots got him arrested in Colorado the past year as he was walking in circles and the cop hauled him off to jail for “weaving with the intent to fall over.”

We jumped off in Tacoma then took them out to the 24th Street Tavern across from the yards and bought them drinks. They sure could drink.  And they sure could tell stories – real goddamn hobo stories.  I bought a pack of Camel cigarettes for Davey, though from the way he coughed I was pretty sure he had tuberculosis.  Just our way of saying thanks.

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We phoned my friend Paul who lived in Spanaway. He came over and drove Terry, Scott and I back to my 29th birthday party in North Seattle where my girlfriend Sue was waiting somewhat impatiently. She was thankful in spite of my reeking and reckless condition that I was still alive.  A guy couldn’t ask for a nicer gift.  Some time later I became convinced that chicks dig idiots.  I’m in.  Life is good.

Cincuenta Años Pasados


The Olympic Summer Games were held in México City in 1968 – Fifty Years Ago.  It was an amazing time in history in the United States and throughout the western world.  A radical social change like no one had seen.  Everything became colorful, vivid, outrageous, unsettled and psychedelic overnight.  At these Olympics, the black power fist salute by two U.S. track athletes on the winners’ podium remains an indelible image for many of us now a half century later.  But this was the year our parents decided to take their three boys on a Christmas vacation in México.  At age twenty, it was my first journey out of the country.

Our mother Dorothy was a lady of some style; well-educated and well-read.  As I was growing up she brought me the classic library books such as “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” and “Heidi” (really!) that were must-reads for well-bred youngsters like she had been.  When I was older she apparently adopted a fascination for the currently trendy destinations far from her life as a wife and mother, and she convinced dad that we had to become cosmopolitan.  She then gave me a contemporary and engaging Mexico travel book to read in preparation for our trip, which I devoured with a born-gypsy’s fascination.  And the Devinys jet-setted south of the border.

We were four of us kids. Mike, the youngest, was a junior in high school.  Terry and I attended Gonzaga University which we left under a blanket of snow during what would end up being one of the most severe winters in state history.  Oldest child Kathie was not invited to join us as she had gotten married that year to the son of Stockton, California’s largest J. C. Penney’s store and became disenfranchised from family vacations.  She swept from a fairly uptight white-dress-and-tuxedo summer afternoon to the University of California Berkeley.  Flowers and beads, radical protests, the Free Speech Movement, and thoughtfully vague classes on the lawn where you were free to come and go as long as you wore sandals and hated the establishment.

Apollo 8 was circling the moon on our black and white Spanish-speaking TV as we moved into our vintage hotel on Alameda Square which was lit brightly for the season.  Rather than wait in suspense for the spacecraft to reappear from the dark side, I snuck out with my brother to explore the narrow backstreets of México City.  The blocks were poorly lighted but the air was warm and filled with glorious smells that could not be translated. My more timid sibling Terry watched me order a couple fish dinners and my first legally purchased cerveza. No I.D., no Spanish, no problem. We got somewhat lost but made our way back to the hotel. The next week I learned my very first foreign phrase as we departed the room.  I closed the door and read the attached card which said: “favor de no molestar”.  ‘Please don’t disturb me,’ I am out to conquer the country!

Dad was raised in the thirties and forties, and why he couldn’t master the stick shift on our rental car, I’ll never know. We ground our way south through Cuernavaca to Taxco for the night then motored into Acapulco where I became infected by the hot sands of December.  It’s a terminal condition that flares up as frequently as I let it.  We attended an amateur bullfight at the plaza out of town.  These were young kids and young bulls learning the craft.  I was captivated by the entire event, having read the details, history and culture around this beautiful dance.  The bullfighters would move on to higher levels of competition, perhaps someday to the Plaza de Toros in México City.  The bulls, sadly, not so much.

The 707 idled on the runway to take us home two days after New Years. (You thought 1968 was wild, wait’ll you see 1969!!)   As we waited to board, who comes sauntering through the first class gate but Dean Martin himself?!  Mother swooned as he cast a sleepy-eyed look her way, a cigarette dangling from his dulcet lips.  Dorothy’s cigarette dangled also, then flipped and bounced down the front of her white blouse as her jaw dropped.  She soon regained composure, snuffed out her Salem 100 on the boarding gate floor, and lit another as we walked onto the runway to head home.

Next: The Quaint Little Mexican Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.

About The Blog – Memoir In Progress

A brief note for those of you dropping by:

This WordPress Blog is where I am constructing the long-awaited personal narrative that tries too define and justify my intrusion into this world.  In the coming months I will have a reflection collection of twenty or so biographical vignettes taken from my experiences, steered by my emotions, flavored with my outlook, and inspired by my deeper observations.

Many of you don’t know, and fewer care, that I have produced a dozen homemade songs. These were to be the organizational framework of this life story; a longer chapter built upon each song title.  But that idea was killed by my ‘agent’ after hearing the dubious quality of my recordings.  He was not swayed by the brilliance of the deeply sensitive lyrics or the excuse that I’m no kinda musician.  He is me and me he, so I had to acquiesce.

The new title — A Picture. A Thousand Words. — will have a more visual format and shorter, more readable chapters.  When we go to publication next year, all will translate better to the page.  Every picture tells a story, and I may include some poetic lyrics and song links when no one is looking.  Until next time.  JD