Start this song: The Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen
Sip this drink: Anything on the cocktails menu at Analogue in Greenwich Village, NY.
Then read.

I hope some day you’ll join us
– John Lennon

In 1982 a remarkable book was published defining the 10 most powerful global trends transforming our lives. Megatrends, written by John Naisbitt, was a blowout sensation that sold over 14 million copies and dominated the NYT Bestseller list for over 2 years, mostly at the top.

1982 was still largely the analog era and too early for Naisbitt to foresee recent technology disruptions like Blockchain or the Internet of Things (although the dissolution of consolidated hierarchies was a key theme), but his #2 on the list should give us all great pause. He was uncomfortable with an emergent invasive technology push and predicted a trend towards human balance and technology pull based on users’ true needs. To Naisbitt, high touch technology recognized that science “cannot solve all problems or do away with the need for responsibility and discipline.”

Fast forward to 2019 and undisciplined technology push seems to have missed the bulletin. That we over-connect and hyper-share is our own undoing, but organizations happy to encourage and exploit these tendencies are at best calculating and self-serving, and at worst sinister. And in the first signs of blowback two related but independent waves are forming: awareness of the loss of human touch and anxiety over the loss of privacy.

No one is suggesting an end to digital media – that genie is well out of the bottle – but there is a growing awareness of the dangers lurking therein and a growing discomfort with blind faith in the masters of this domain. Analog is cool again and rebuilding its brand.

Human Touch

Ubiquitous connectivity is harming the sincerity of our human connections, and doesn’t that read strangely? How can it be that the easier it is to connect, the less we feel sincerely connected? It takes no more than a walk down any city sidewalk or repose in a popular café to observe that we are ignoring the friends at our elbow in favor of remote pals with whom we can text, or whose new picture streams need to be swiped through right now.

The local highschoolers sweeping down my street every weekday at noon chatter and goof with buddies at their sides while typing away distractedly on their phones. After school they’ll hook up with their typing targets for drinks, then ignore them while texting back to their lunchtime besties.

Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to eliminate the digital distance and revel in the camaraderie of the analog moment?

Pinging and getting pinged suggests that you have a very cool and dynamic social scene going on; I get that. So then not constantly tapping implies the opposite, that you’re a lonely loser? Teenagers cringe at that particular tarring and that’s fair enough, but shouldn’t age and maturity allow the rest of us to move beyond those particular insecurities?

Yes is the answer of course, and a growing pool of analog acolytes are emphasizing that realization with a hearty Hell Yes!

Data Privacy

That the titans of social media are poor shepherds of our personal data has been widely revealed. There is no need to spill more digital ink on that phenomenon here, but interested readers can refer to a newsletter just launched by the NYT called The Privacy Project. To quote a newsletter quote from Matt Cagle, ACLU attorney, “Privacy is really about being able to define for ourselves who we are for the world and on our own terms. That’s not a choice that belongs to an algorithm or data broker and definitely not to Facebook.”

Yet many of us are happy to make that deal: a stage to share our carefully crafted (and questionably authentic) self-images in return for the devil’s unfettered access to our personal data: interests and alliances, locations, browsing histories, and rolodex of contacts (whether or not they’ve agreed to the tradeoff).

I plead guilty but at least am not alone. And an emerging riptide is forming along the digital beach, tugging at those of us eager for that drag back to the analog sea. I’m all in.

Back to the Farm

So there is survivalist movement afoot; a back-to-the-farm redux for 2020. We can label it digital minimalism or going off the internet grid. It has nothing to do with mountain compounds or the hoarding of bullets and canned goods. It has everything to do with resistance, and who doesn’t love a good resistance movement?

As part of this nouveau vague the term analog has taken position front and center, a new cool. Just two examples include a NYT article that ran last week (I quote from it too often, but it’s one of the last truly great newspapers in America; consider subscribing) titled Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cure and a new hard cover publication called The Analog Sea Review, an offline (naturally) journal of poems, short stories and essays that can be found at your local bookstore, … and only at your local bookstore (sorry Amazon).

It’s small movement in early days, but gaining attention and it’s got mine. For the moment I’ll continue to publish my newsletters online because I want them easily found and read. And my music will remain available in Spotify and other media platforms, although compared to a CD (get yours here) the sound quality is horrible. But then isn’t that the sacrifice we make for our online social connections as well: a quality experience for casual convenience.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: The More Things Change, Bill Magill (from the Eskimo in the Sun album, 1996)
Suggested Drink: Fog Cutter cocktail: rum, gin, sherry, cognac, orange and lemon juice, orgeat syrup.

I want to thank the couple at the Hôtel Pullman, 5th Floor, Charles de Gaulle Airport, for getting my travel day started with the right spirit this past week. Their impressive exhibition of amorous congress, drapes pulled proudly wide, was a surprise distraction while lacing up my boots in the Ibis just opposite the courtyard. “This flight to San Francisco will either be totally f*cked or f*cking amazing” I thought, depending on their performance now. Allez, avec enthousiasme!

Dispatch #1 – Neighborhood Charms

San Francisco is a city of small villages, and that’s party of its intimate charm. Neighborhoods are defined by ethnicity (Chinatown), weather (the Sunset), sexual orientation (the Castro), affluence (Pacific Heights), or pharmaceutical proclivity (the Haight). It’s also a city of coffee culture and North Beach would be that tribe’s historic ground zero.

The Italians started arriving in San Francisco in the early 1900s and quickly planted their flag in this beautiful corner of the city. The young DiMaggio boys played stickball on these streets in the 40s, Beats claimed asylum in the ’50s, sleaze clubs took over Broadway in the ’60s, and the punk wave crawled out of the Mabuhay Gardens in the ’70s.

I arrived in San Francisco in the ’80s and spent my idle hours in the coffee shops and blues bars along Grant Avenue. Listening to opera singers who would casual in on Sunday afternoons at Café Trieste was always a solid backup plan, with a bottle or two of chianti and a close friend.

Focaccia sandwiches at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café, San Francisco

North Beach has resisted the techie invasion transforming many of the other San Francisco neighborhoods, sometimes for the better, more often not. And this gives me comfort. City Lights Bookstore is still thriving – it’s poetry collection on the second floor is unbeatable (no play on words) – and Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe on Columbus and Union remains safely in family hands.

We took up bar stools there yesterday and ordered hot focaccia sandwiches, with Mario’s young grandson Dario working the oven and his sister taking orders and running the till. It was a reassuring moment of escape from a world that never seems to stop losing its authenticity. Grazie, and another glass of that delicious red my friend. Now onward!

Dispatch #2 – Build It and They Will (Still) Come

I’m trying to imagine a San Francisco without illegals from south of the border. The slightest peek under the hood of this town’s booming economy shows the degree to which these crafty intruders have ingrained themselves into the gears. Build a wall, physical or virtual, and that finely tuned machine will grind to a very messy halt.

A morning stroll down 24th Street in Noe Valley means dodging prams of pale, blue-eyed babies guided by brown Aztec chicas: Illegals! Push through the swinging kitchen doors of any city restaurant – from Michelin star to burger joint – and who’s manning the burners and cleaning the plates? Illegals! (“The restaurant business as we know it , in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.” – Anthony Bourdain). Suffer the roar of (what sounds like) a million lawnmowers and leaf blowers buzzing through the grassy gardens of St. Francis Wood or Pacific Heights and who is making the racket? Illegals!

When I lived in San Francisco Valentin was our gardener, Rosa our cleaning lady, and Ana our Nanny. There is no family position requiring more trust than that woman helping with the babies. Ana was a gift from heaven. Short, wide, solid, gracious, and assured. Just let me do the diaper por favor, you got it all wrong Bill. She was part of the family but not. She joined on vacations, but rarely at our dinner table. We paid her well but not enough to escape the gang-ridden barrio of the Outer Mission. When mules arrived in Tijuana with her frail father, whom they had smuggled up from Guatemala, they demanded an additional $5,000 at the border to hand him over. When she pleaded that she didn’t have it Ana found a gun barrel at her temple.

The morning line at the Tartine Bakery.

We privileged gringos of San Francisco have first world problems: the line at Tartine Bakery was insufferable this morning, wifi was down on the Google bus, and now Hamilton is sold out! If the Illegals are dismayed by our sense of entitlement and lack of empathy they hide it well. Job security? Zero. Medical coverage? Ha! Still, they mow and clean and cook and raise our precious kids, all with a smile of gratitude. And still they come, … despite the absurdity of blame for stealing jobs that no one else wants, … and the humiliation of a wall.

I opened a new checking account at my Chase branch in West Portal yesterday. A young Gabriel Deluna was the Private Client Banker who helped me set it up, quickly and with coffee offered (how not French). It was his last day before a week’s vacation in Guadalajara. “Mexican,” I asked? Yes indeed, second generation. Did his father mow lawns? That I didn’t ask, maybe he was professor at Stanford. Somehow I doubt it. Chase, you have a star on your hands. Treat him well. Now wouldn’t that be a change? Onward!

Dispatch #3 – The Soundtrack of a City

The best cities come with a soundtrack. There’s an urban pulse and rhythm, a melodic energy that pulls us down the avenues and into old haunts, that guides us to new encounters. Our dearest memories might be triggered by old sites and smells, the childhood bedroom and mom’s kitchen aromas, but our most vivid recollections of the city sort are provoked by music.

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Paris.

San Francisco and Paris are two of my favorite towns. Feasts for the senses, cityscape museums, hip and romantic, captivating places where interesting people gather and cool shit happens, … and they have amazing soundtracks.

My Paris is Piaf, Brel, Aznavour, and Gainsbourg. When I explore the winding ruelles of Montmartre La Bohème is swimming in my head, and along the grand boulevards it is Je t’Aime, Moi Non Plus, with Jane Birkin’s erotic (okay, she’s about to have an orgasm) word play with bad boy Serge. I love this song so much I honored it with my own Linger With Me; Laëtitia Costechareyre invoking the breathy Birkin purr.

Carlos Santana in San Francisco.

San Francisco is a very different evocative jukebox. Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Huey Lewis, and Chris Isaak for starters. Janis and Credence are there too, and of course the Dead. Just as in Paris, the music is drawn from the neighbhorhood character. I was never much of a Deadhead or pot fan, but both are hard to avoid in certain quarters like the Haight. And when in Rome …

The best mode of transport in both scenic cities is by shoe leather. Down Boulevard Saint Germain, past Notre Dame, across the Seine and on to the Marais? That’s quite the hike but pas de problème, with Quand On a Que l’Amour in my imagination spilling from the cafés and animating the lovers sharing a glass en route. From the cablecar turnaround at Union Square, up through Chinatown and down Columbus Avenue to Mario’s for a sandwich in North Beach? Just another amazing walk when powered by Huey’s The Power of Love. (His brilliant trumpet player Marvin McFadden brings the brass on my 1996 release Dance Hall Girls.) These 2 songs of love couldn’t be more different; these 2 romantic cities couldn’t be more distinct.

Do you hear music too when skipping through your favorite town? Maybe you hear voices. I don’t know, I think we’re all a little crazy. And now I’m off to France. Homeward!

Bill Magill

Suggested Song: Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez
Suggested Drink: Green Ghost cocktail. Gin, Chartreuse, lime juice.

well I’ll be damned
here comes your ghost again
but that’s not unusual
it’s just that the moon is full
and you happened to call

Joan Baez performed at the Olympia in Paris last week on a stop through her final tour. Her voice was dynamic as ever, and touch with the guitar fluid and delicate. I went to the show thinking, “okay, she’s a legend so why not?” What I enjoyed was a concert of surprising grace and emotion, Baez introducing each song in flawless French, the audience reverent and hanging on every word and note. When she played Diamonds and Rust, her heartbroken dig at Dylan, it got me thinking about that particular ghost in her life; the ghosts we all suffer.

Our lives are inhabited by the otherworldly. They are spurred from memories to comfort or vex. Angels glide in when invited; our ghosts slip away only when ready.

Do they exist? They very much exist for those who very much believe. You can accept or deny their presence in your life, but cannot question this fundamental principal: we create our own realities, those versions of who we were and how we were loved, and the laws of the universe that govern our future. Did Dylan love Baez? I suspect that she was convinced yes in the early days, then a time she suspected no longer, and perhaps later doubted everything. So reality is conveniently pliant and the truth selective. Diamonds and Rust provides some hints to Baez’s own take.

It’s January in Paris and you are freezing.
I see you framed in a soft falling snow and feel warm.
How’s the weather?

I’ve started lighting a candle for my sister every evening. She’s with me instantly, glowing against the wax and flickering along the wick. She sits with me at the piano and I ask her advice over dinner. Cathy lifts my mood and lowers my tensions, like she always has. She calms and encourages, so she is real, as evident as my fingers on the keys, floating in on angel wings. And at the end of the night, when I blow out the candle, she lifts away on the last glimmer of flame until I call again.

Sometimes we confuse angels from ghosts. We doubt our memories and question emotions. We visit old haunts to call new spirits, we light candles and recite poems in the hopes of conjuring the angels of old. Sometimes they come. Other times we find nothing but phantoms and smoke.

Chambre 35 at the Hotel Emile, with its clawfoot baignoire and 3rd floor view down Rue du Roi de Sicile, is haunted. Not-yet-lovers soak in the steamy bath with rose petals and champagne. They tease and tempt and soap each other toes. He’s never seen a woman so enchanting, no moment so inviting, as her and now. Ever. He’ll do nothing to risk the spell, just lay back submerged in this sudsy bliss until she slowly floats over him, plants her kiss and smiles, “ce maintenant le lit, non?”

Have you been in moments like this, completely surrendered to the dream and memory? But when your eyes open you are alone. You had called an angel but conjured a ghost. The image dissipates like smoke from a blown out match and you wonder what was real, ever. Diamonds and rust Joan, just diamonds and rust.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Downtown Train, Tom Waits
Suggested Drink: Thurston Howl, rum, brandy, gin, pineapple and grapefruit juices. (to sooth those weathered pipes)

I’ve wanted to be rock star since I was young. I gave it the old college try as a teen, then surrendered to the odds and went off to college. But I never gave up on the dream. I kept on writing music and making bedroom demos through my 20s, and recorded a proper studio album in my 30s. It was a decent effort, but my voice just didn’t have that edgy rock n roll bark that I so loved hearing in the greats: Daltrey, Waits, Cobain, Bon Scott. I couldn’t find my howl.

A lot of us are inspired but mediocre at things we really love, particularly when we’re young. Passion and effort aren’t always enough, unfortunately. But there are plenty of examples of mediocrity flowering into something truly special in later years. Consider Czech composer Leos Janacek. He penned a respectable piece at 22 in the late 1800s, and then spent his next 30 years mostly doing folklore research. Janacek kept plugging away in his spare time but didn’t find real renown until 62, with the completion of his opera Janufa, to be followed by Sinfonietta and then many other classics.

Why his later-in-life bloom? Maybe he finally had time on his hands to immerse more deeply, or it was the continued honing of his talent, or the inspired provocation drawn from his ache for the beautiful Kamila, married and 35 years younger, for whom he took a hard tumble just about the time Janufa was in work. Love bloomed, he soared, the rest is for us to enjoy.

Another good example is Charles Bukowski. At 24 his “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” got published to some decent reviews. Then he went on a prolonged bender and deep dive into the seedier side of life. Like Janacek, Bukowski kept at his craft but had little to show for it. His real break through came at 51 with “Post Office,” which he wrote in 3 weeks after quitting the Postal Service in LA as a carrier. (I picked up a copy at City Lights in SF earlier this year. What a great read.)

I was at a Chagall exhibit in Aix-en-Provence last week, at the beautiful Hôtel Caumont in the center of town. Chagall established himself as a transcendent and successful painter early in life, and unlike Janacek and Bukowski kept the acclaim rolling. But what I admire most about Chagall is his leap into distinctly different and challenging forms of art in his later years: ceramics and stone sculpture and stained glass, starting in his mid 60s. You think I’m this, but now I’m that. Allez allez, keep up!

Maybe you’re in your 50s or older and thinking that the window of passion possibilities has long closed. That comes down to the commitment you are ready to make and embarrassment you are willing to suffer. But who cares about embarrassment? No one will say at your funeral, yeah she was great at X but really embarrassed herself at that Y thing she so loved. No, a best friend or sibling or child will say that you had a real passion for Y and immersed yourself deeply in it. You will produce something authentic that people will either embrace or reject, but everyone will respect the effort.

I went back into the recording studio last year with a binder full of songs and a talented bunch of musicians. A new album after a 25-year pause, this was my Janacek moment in more ways than one.

Why now? My confidence was buoyed by the inspired material and quality of the crew, but more than that my voice had taken on, finally, enough gravel to sing what I wanted to hear. Age and more than a few Bukowski evenings had lined those silky pipes with a rough patina of smoky leather. It just wasn’t my time at 30. It might be now. I’ve found my howl.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Travellin’ Band, Credence Clearwater Revival
Suggested Drink: Fogcutter cocktail: rum, brandy, gin, orange and lemon juice, orgeat syrup, sherry

I’m sitting in 36D – center section aisle (mon préféré) – and after 12 hours on this United flight from Munich I admit to some ache. The pilot has just turned on the seat belt sign and provided an update on the cool, foggy San Francisco weather adding, “we should be on the ground shortly.” Blessings to an imminent touchdown.

I haven’t written a dispatch from San Francisco since my last trip here in February. I haven’t written anything since February, actually. Why the pause, my first writing laps in 8 years or so? Now that’s a question I’ve been pondering too. The well isn’t empty, but the motivation has been flagging. I’ve been stretched with other projects, but that’s nothing new. A mystery. Perhaps we just need a breather sometimes to rethink and resync.

Is there a better city than San Francisco for inspiration, to get that figurative pen back to paper, whatever one’s form of creative art? None that I’ve know of. So here’s to a refire of the creative flame. Let’s see what develops. We’ve just touched rubber to tarmac, … and off we go.

Dispatch #1 – A Sense of Place

Noe Valley is a beautiful family neighborhood in the sunny center of San Francisco. It’s a perennial locals’ favorite but never a trendsetter. While the must-live-here-now quarters like the Marina, Hayes Valley, and the Mission bloom and fade on the shifting whims of the hyper-paid, transient hip, Noe Valley remains a priority destination for those seeking longer-term permanence in this city by the bay.

It hasn’t escaped the gentrification wave and real estate bubble burning through the city. There is a scattering of all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars and quirky concept stores in the neighborhood now, but many of the boutiques along its 24th Street core remain in family hands after 30 years or more. Haystack Pizza, 24th Street Cheese, the Dubliner bar; I was a regular at all when Noe Valley was my first San Francisco home so way back when – the late ‘80s while studying at SFSU. I’m back in Noe Valley again this week, back to my morning buzz at Martha’s Coffee, my evening beer at the Dubliner.

Place plays an elemental role in life. It frames our quotidian and colors that community of friends and strangers who fill our days. When I take a pulse on how things are going – as I am this year – it’s the what I do, whom I love, and where I live that get the most critical reflection. Getting the where right is so important.

At 60 I’m ready for at least 1 more grand adventure, one more lifting of the anchor for parts unknown. This new course doesn’t have to be geocentric. It might just be the what or with whom. It is certainly not guided by a quest for more cash or greater security, which often fuels the flight in younger years. The eternal wanderlust for personal growth and new experiences, the adrenaline rush from knowing you’ll likely fail spectacularly … but what if not?, … that stubborn unwillingness to accept that this is it at any age; yep, this is the propellant.

I’ve rambled a bit through the years, living here and there in the States and now in France. A few of these places have left their mark, have spoken to something inside that is authentically Bill. Aix-en-Provence, where I’m living now, moves me at a deep level, and San Francisco as well. If I believed in past lives I’d say that I have wandered those streets before. And whenever I’m in the magic kingdom – Bagdad by the Bay, as the great columnist Herb Caen used to say – there’s no neighborhood that I love more than Noe Valley. Now off I go to Martha’s for the morning cup. Onward!

June 7, 2018

Dispatch #2 – Graduation Day

The motivation for this trip west was the high school graduation ceremony for my daughter Stella. One of those big life moments for her and for her proud parents as well. The wave of emotion that swept over me as she first appeared in the auditorium wasn’t a surprise – I knew what was coming the moment I’d see her in that purple cap and gown – but it was still a struggle to keep my pride in check. I’m a teary guy, what can I say?

Stoicism is a guy thing, maybe even more so an American guy thing, I’m not sure. We imagine ourselves as cowboys carved from some noble stone. What me cry? Never! Nothing stirs me more than music and certain songs can put a fine crack in the cool façade. Stella’s mother used to tease me for that vulnerability. When the Beach Boys Don’t Worry Baby came on the AM radio of my treasured ’66 Mustang, sitting behind the wheel and a warm California breeze chasing us down some coastal highway, well lets just say things would get a bit misty. I’m even moved as I write this now, hearing that brilliant third verse in my head:

she told me baby, when you race today
just take along my love with you
and if you know how much I loved you
baby nothing could go wrong with you
oh what she does to me
when she makes love to me
and she says don’t worry baby

I went to an Irma Thomas show last night at the San Francisco Jazz Center. She has a backstory that is as fascinating as the timbre and range of her voice. Doing studio work by 13, two marriages and 4 kids by 19, over 30 singles and 20 albums and a history of small victories, but always in the shadow of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and other better-known contemporaries.

Irma is 77 now and still brings it big. She had the committed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand, and for good reason. Her voice remains sure and strong and after 60 years in the business she knows how to command the stage. She had us on our feet for much of the night, white handkerchiefs waving New Orleans style as she worked through an endless string of requests from her long back catalog of hits.

We’ll all be lucky to still be bringing it at 77. Doing something we love, something so natural and sure that it seems destined. When I think about the kids graduating with Stella this week, about their futures and all of the questions and uncertainty they face in a world of rapid churn and change, I can offer just 1 piece of advice: never stop trying to find your reason for being alive. It’s rarely evident and you may keep asking the big questions well past midlife. But it’s that journey of discoveries and doubts that makes life as beautiful as a teary sing-along in a classic car or the sultry voice of an American soul queen. Sing on.

June 9, 2018

Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More

The average selling price of a family home in Noe Valley in April this year was a cool $2.5 million. For the monthly rent on a 2-bedroom flat prepare to fork over $4,300. Welcome to the new world of San Francisco economics.

It’s not just the lodging that hurts. A veggie sandwich at Dolores Park Cafe ran me $14 earlier this week and my chai tea at Bernie’s last night was a steep $3.50. When you remove their cost for the tea bag – about 10 cents wholesale according to my back-of-the-envelop calculation – that’s some pretty pricey boiled water. But imagining their rent along that prime spot on 24th Street, I get it.

It’s an unvirtuous upward cycle driving this madness. A surge in the tech industry is once again pulling in boatloads of high-paid software engineers and designers who are young and hip and want to live in uber-cool San Francisco, not the uber-uncool suburbs of San Jose. And with the average salary for a tech worker now hovering around $150,000 they can afford it (well okay, maybe with a roommate!).

To woo the best and brightest, many of the newly minted barons of tech like Twitter and Salesforce are setting up in downtown now, and those that remain in Silicon Valley are providing wi-fi’ed commute transport from the city and back, … which feeds the need for even more pricey condos and chai lattes and all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars in neighborhoods like Noe Valley. Sitting at Martha’s Coffee earlier this week, I counted 7 massive luxury buses in 14 minutes rolling down 24th Street, picking up riders for the hour drive south to Google, Apple, and other large corporate centers.

So where’s the problem? The techies are happy, their employers are happy, the city with its coffers full of higher tax revenues is happy. The problem is the loss of diversity, and that has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s unique color and flair. How does a cab driver or cellist or schoolteacher afford $14 sandwiches and $4,200 leases? They don’t.

I like tech workers okay and count a number of friends among them. I just don’t want to be limited by only their interests and sensibilities. There’s only so much bar talk about stock options and fundraising and blockchain that I can take before my attention disorder gets provoked. Yawn, pass the wine please, … and where do I set up my tent?

June 10, 2018

Suggested Song: The More Things Change, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: Anchor Steam Beer (brewed in SF since 1896)

I’m en route to San Francisco with just enough connection time in Munich for a cold lager and doughy pretzel.  The 11-hour leg into the magic kingdom will be long enough for a gourmet airline meal and glass of plunk wine, a couple of movies, and some typing on this first report. Perfect.

My last collection of dispatches was offered up just about one year ago. I was struck by the changes both good and bad resulting from the ongoing tech invasion, voyaged up to the wine country for a proper braising in hot, stinky mud, and went on safari for the perfect cheesecake. (That would be Zanze’s by the way, mission completed.)

What’s the plan for this trip? Well, aside from some music recording later in the week I’m keeping the expectations open and hopeful, which is how one should always approach San Francisco, this magical City by the Bay. Onward!

Dispatch #1 – All Colors of the Rainbow

I’m flying solo on this voyage so have accepted my ex’s invite to stay at the old homestead. It’s become quite the colorful residence, with ages ranging from 18 to 84, dinner debates in 3 languages, a grandma from Spain (no inglés, lo siento), our 3 French/American kids, one new boyfriend and a transgender girlfriend (both are second generation immigrants also fluent in Spanish, so that works for grandma!), and now Bill-the-former-husband sofa surfing for a week.

How my ex manages to manage this ever-entertaining circus while holding down a full time job, caring for her mother, helping with college apps, keeping the house from falling apart, and putting a dinner on the table every evening is a mystery to me.  It takes real perseverance, acceptance, a love of all things diverse, and a big heart, … and this is what makes it a truly San Francisco household.

This is a city of incredible diversity: ethnic, sexual, economic, and even meteorological (50s at the foggy beach, 80s in Dolores Park). It’s not a town for the intolerant or neophobic. If you’re uncomfortable with change or being around people of different shades, accents, or orientations of any fashion, best to avoid signing a long-term lease.

Perseverance and ambition have been the hallmarks of each wave of migrants who’ve managed to secure a foothold: the gold miners and railroaders, the Chinese and Italians and Irish and Mexicans, the gay community, the techies. You don’t come to San Francisco for a life of leisure by the sea. It’s a city of creative sweat and big energy, … and the possibilities of beautiful reward.

So here I am and being blessed with sunny blue skies. My walk this morning along West Portal Avenue for a coffee at Peet’s – a few days of adjustment will be needed for the American caffeine dosage – has left me sweating in my light pullover. It’s only 9 a.m. but I’m already thinking through neighborhood options for lunch: tacos, pasta, sushi, burgers, pizza, dim sum …. the options are endless, kinda like this town. Appetite peaked, let’s go!

February 17, 2018

Dispatch #2 – Strike Up the Band

It is an interesting twist that we immigrants to this garden paradise are proposing border walls to keep out its former owners. Mexicans were roaming these Pacific lands long before the gringos arrived in ships from Spain and wagons across the Sierras. Since then they have been driven out, then invited back to work the fruit and vegetable farms during WWI, bussed back out during the Depression, then begged back to the fields during WWII, and on and on. They are a resilient group, and despite current presidential claims to the contrary continue to play a vital, essential role in the economy and social color here in the magic kingdom.

In the studio with Eduardo Garcia and Adrian Arreguin of Nueva Generacion.

Mariachi music is distinctly Mexican. It is a festive mix of strumming guitars, brassy trumpets, sweeping violins, and nostalgic lyrics about life and love south of the border. These ensembles come large and small.  Bands of 10 or more in splendid mariachi regalia play weddings and parties, and small combos of 3 or 4 in their nicked up cowboy boots and hats wander the Mission District streets, popping into bars and restaurants for an hour of entertainment and tips before moving on.

La Rondalla was a special kind of restaurant cantina in the Mission that I frequented in my rowdier years. It had a long and dark serpentine bar, Christmas lights shaped like tiny chillies blinking year around, generous bartenders known to break into Spanish song, a crazy fun mix of patrons – from the local hispanics to city hipsters, gays and lesbians of every persuasion, punkers and college kids and anyone else out for an unpredictable night – and great mariachi music. There was a large house band and no stage. They would show up mid-evening, stand at one end of the bar and rip out song after song while the locals sang along with lyrics that most of us didn’t understand. It was a family ensemble, with dad leading up the group and his young sons and nephews and friends, some barely into double digits, playing along and learning the craft. Great energy, great fun.

I had more than a few interesting evenings at La Rondalla. One involved a close and charming friend that moved me to write Paralyzed, which is one of 14 songs being recorded now for my upcoming album. It begged for a festive arrangement, and so last year I sought out the best mariachi band in San Francisco to help adapt and play it. Nueva Generacion was the obvious choice, particularly after learning that its young leader Eduardo Garcia was one of those kids playing weekly at La Rondalla so many moons ago, most likely on the night that Paralyzed was inspired.

Life never ceases to amaze. It leads us across the paths of people from different tribes and ages, with different histories and hopes, and we make biased assumptions about them that only serve to disserve. I have to constantly remind myself: stop this! Not in my wildest imagination would I imagine that this young Mexican kid I used to watch playing violin in La Randalla would be collaborating with me on music so many years later. Thank you Eduardo! Just more magic in the magic kingdom.

February 26, 2018

 

Suggested Song: Wall of Death, Richard & Linda Thompson
Suggested Drink: a frothy pint of Guinness. Let the toasts begin.

I was in Nashville last week for a funeral and had been invited to say a few words on behalf of my family. This kind of duty can make people squirm. To be honest I don’t mind it. It provides a rare chance to reconnect with that soulful raconteur within, a genetic companion from my paternal grandfather, who was an Irish preacher of the good word.

Toasts spill out with ease, but eulogies can be tough to get right when the material is thin. This was not the case in Nashville. In fact my challenge was less what to say and more what to leave out. For my oldest sister had suddenly departed a life of beautiful breadth and depth. She was a traveler and seeker, a generous giver and curious student, strong when strength was needed, vulnerable when our own failings were being shared.

Life is short so enjoy it now.

This popular call to carpe diem always gets a good airing at funerals and wakes. It never quite hit the intended mark for me.

Life is short. Not necessarily. All that we know for sure is that none of us have any idea for sure. Children die unexpectedly and wrinkled up folks live past 100 and most of us get plunked down somewhere in between.

I never heard my grandmother Magill say life was short. For her, life was one long adventure. She escaped the crossroads of a Pennsylvania village and ventured off to college at the dawn of the Roosevelt era – Teddy that is – when a woman’s place was well understood: hands on the pot and babies on the hip. Work and wonder would carry her on to Puerto Rico, up to Manhattan (where a degree from Columbia was added), down to deep, deep Alabama, and then overseas to the Egyptian Sudan where she married my grandfather; the one and the same mentioned above.

Grammy lived to 100 and my sister to 67. I lost a close childhood friend at 19. We can’t waste time trying to size up our allotted sand in the hourglass. Life is unpredictable. Isn’t the key to get in a grand story worth sharing?

Enjoy it now. I don’t propose suffering now, but there is more to life than margaritas deck-side. If we want our eulogists’ writing assignment to be easy then we need lead lives worth retelling. And we’re all going to have someone retelling our stories, right? No one gets out of here alive.

So my point is this: go bold, go deep, do it now. Your remaining days may not be short. You may have decades left to create a magic that reflects all the best of your gifts and passions. Then again, you may have one more day. Be the author of the narrative you want delivered on that sunny day in the chapel, or it may fall to someone much less vested in making you sound amazing. Offer a highlight reel that can’t be cut and cropped; one that keeps everyone roused and laughing between tears.

Put a pint in my hand and I’ll stay full of barley-inspired toasts to you for many a round. But if you want deeper reflections on a life that truly mattered, that left everyone who knew and touched you in a better place, take the leap now. Uncover, develop, and share that bold gift as only you can.

Dedicated to J. Catherine. You made my job so easy sister.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 

 

Suggested Song: The Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen
Suggested Drink: Communion cocktail: vodka, creme de menthe, orange juice, grenadine syrup

It was billed as “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment,” and the local event was held in a large grassy park in my hometown of Aix-en-Provence. This is what happened. I arrived soon after lunch to find 3 dozen or so people already paired up, sitting on cushions and facing one another, relaxed and concentrating on their partner’s eyes, and not uttering a peep. This trance would hold for a few minutes, then after warm smiles and a short debrief they would part and seek out someone new, … someone like me.

Fixing on a stranger’s eyes for a sustained moment without conversing is an intense, slightly disconcerting experience at first. Nicolas was my initial victim. I’ve never fixed on another man’s eyes for 2 minutes in silence. What should I be expressing and how do I do that without uttering a sound? It’s the opposite of mindfulness. You’re not focused internally on breath and body, you’re connecting externally and personally, and there is an odd intimacy that is unavoidable. The mind searches for the appropriate decorum. How to convey empathy but not attraction with only my gaze?

Lily was next. She was a different person of course and the opposite gender, and I was now experienced (as Jimi would say). I was curious to see if that changed things, started to relax, and could lock eyes without overthinking my presence and demeanor. From Nicolas I received a gentle vibe of curiosity and outreach, and with Lily it was a simple acceptance. Here I am facing you. There is nothing more important at this very moment than our simple bond. We are going to just connect in silence and relax, … friendly smile.

I sat with a few more people before leaving. Each exchange was unique and quietly profound, and required a moment to reflect and recompose before moving on to someone new. The point of this event, held that day in dozens of cities across the globe, was to appreciate afresh the wonders of genuine human connection. Not through a carefully manicured iPhone photo or social media stream, but across a naked space of perhaps 3 feet, separating you from a stranger offering 100% of their attention, deeply, for a few minutes. Beautiful.

The Need for Speed

I have a few friends on Tinder. I’ve gotten the demo: the wow Bill, the check this one out, their swipe, the immediate response and plans for an evening dalliance. It’s an ultimate end to the trend in speed and effortlessness that has taken root these past many years. Why spend time in the kitchen when gourmet options are available in your frozen section? Why learn to play a guitar with real strings when you can be the next Slash with Guitar Hero? Why learn to commune with friends in person when you can socialize over the phone, still in your boxers at home? And why learn to love when sex is available with the ease of a swipe?

Am I showing my age when I say that this leaves me more than a little sad, … and confused? What don’t people get? The joy of cooking is more than a classic recipe book. Art offers even more to the creator than the consumer. The beauty of friendship is most deeply enjoyed elbow to elbow (and glass to glass!), … without ringtones. And love, well the gulf between sex and love is as wide as the ocean is deep. It’s like comparing a Big Mac to the Colours, Textures & Flavours course at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris.

Personally, I shoot for the human touch trifecta by inviting good friends for long dinners prepared throughout the afternoon in my modest kitchen. And for this they get a proper torturing after dessert with a few new songs on my trusty guitar or piano. Food, friends, music, perfecto!

Life is short. Why rush through it? Dive deep and linger over what you create, when you connect, and whom you love.

For more on the “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment” click here.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Mad, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: Caribbean cocktail: Bombarra rum, cointreau, fruit juice, grenadine syrup (for my island friends, who’ve just survived a date with Irma)

Madness is close to everybody.
Carol Rama

I decided to take a gap year when I reached 50, to rediscover the world around, to reassess the man within. That year bled into a decade of exploration, an end to a marriage, a change in career ambitions, and a move across the globe. I sought out alternative beliefs and states of being, how to create, how to eat, how to love, how to live. Those first 50 years had brought me security, certainty, and predictability; things that kept me well anchored in a safe harbour. That all changed.

I’ve gotten to know the stranger within much better these past years in Provence. I came looking for an authentic life, a daily quotidian more genuine and rich than I could afford in the tech and investments worlds of Silicon Valley. And by afford I don’t mean with money. You cannot buy genuine. All the treasure of Zuckerberg and Gates and Bezos cannot buy genuine. You find it in the people whom love you, the dreams that seduce you, and the enchanted places that complement your own rhythms and energy.

I’ve learned that Easy Street is not my address of envy. Passion Avenue is where I look to squat. This can be a difficult neighbourhood, noisy at times, unstable, brilliantly sunny then ominously dark, rarely dull. Unpredictable lovers, impossible dreams, and impractical locales are what arouse my emotions. And aren’t emotions fully aroused the essence of a rich life?

I also value a good drink with trusted friends.

Madness

The weekends of my youth were spent with buddies wrenching on our cars, racing at the strip or on the streets. You had this keen and uneasy sense when your hopped-up, bored-out, over-torqued muscle motor was about to blow. It would roar down that last quarter mile run like a wild banshee, pushing your aggressive assemblage of custom painted steel and polished chrome seconds faster than ever before, gear after gear, eerily so. And then, in a scream of twisting rods and scorching valves, all of that mighty horsepower would explode in a crescendo of oil and fuel and flame.

You knew the risk but still pushed it hard. It was a mad drive to that wild edge. And at my point in life, again, … this is where I choose to live.

Time

Time is elemental. Quality time. Time spent with people who forgive (and perhaps even appreciate) your madness, doing things that define it, in places that provoke it. More time is more important than more possessions. Possessions are the enemy, actually. They require investment, maintenance, and energy; have to be placed or stored; and apply a brake on our ability to move quickly, to be fleet and flexible.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

Is there someone, something, or some place that you are mad enough about to pay for with time? Two years cropped from the end of your life for one more with them now, doing that, or living there? Four fewer final years for 2 now?  We would all pay for more time if we had the money, because money is a worthless, limitless currency. But time, now that’s a precious exchange in the extreme.

It’s a hypothetical question of course, but worth considering.  For if you have no one or nothing worth sacrificing your precious stores of time for, are you living a passionate life? Is it important to live a life of passion? I’m provoking, yes, but not leading with an answer. If you knew you would die in a year would you want the next 12 months to be mad and full of unpredictable passion, or choose comfort and security? It is very possible that you could die in year, in a month, or in week, so this particular question is not hypothetical. Right?

I want to know what my readers thinks about the merits of a mad life. I love to preach – my Scots-Irish grandfather was a fire and brimstone healer of the unholy, so please excuse the genetics – but I am sure of nothing except my own convictions. And I am immensely curious about your own.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Postscript: This essay is dedicated to a close friend who, at 64, has suddenly found himself unmoored and adrift in an unpredictable sea of life possibilities. Where he will be and what he will doing in the next months and years; it’s all green field territory. He is a true pirate and has provoked me to question much about my own priorities and ambitions over these past years. A toast to you, Dada. One of a mad kind.

Suggested Song: Hello, Goodbye, the Beatles
Suggested Drink: Memory Lane cocktail: rye whisky, shrub, bitters, lemon juice

Goodbyes can be hard and I’ve had an avalanche of them this year. Friends, kids, and lovers moving on, cherished apartments given up, and even my daily out-door market moved from the bottom of the street to across town. Now that really hurt. Adios.

This kind of churn wreaks havoc on the daily agenda. Whom I see when, where, and what it is we do together has been upended, and being a creature of habit I am off my game. The creative well is dusty, productivity down, and motivation flagging. My summer rosé pace remains robust and thank god for that. At least I can point to something that’s trending up.

It all started near year-end with that darn Sottak family. After holding court as provocateurs and organizers of all things social and immensely fun amongst our circle for the past 7 years, they decided to call it a French day and skedaddle back to the US. They were the glue and warm glow that pulled us all together for spontaneous apéros and long family dinners, group holidays to hither and tither, fun and frolic and generally irresponsible licentiousness. That they could not be replaced made their move even more unforgiveable.

Then over the Noel holidays my landlord sent a cryptic email that a dinner in January was welcome, … and needed. He needed to sell the apartment that was my welcome matt to Aix-en-Provence in 2010, a small but noble 17th century flat in the heart of this sun-touched, provincial city. So many memories between those walls: my 3 kids and their friends joyfully spread out amongst the cots and daybed and pullout; the communal meals and singing and supporting and debating and always one more bottle; mon amoure at my breakfast table, her perfume lingering for hours after departure. Another difficult goodbye.

More recently good friends of mine in Aix have decided to get divorced. They are managing it with all the love and respect that a beautiful 13-year marriage deserves, but it leaves me sad and deflated. My reaction is purely selfish of course, as they both seem fine and taking on the change with a positive, forward-facing attitude. I see a farewell to the many delicious memories we’ve shared these past 7 years, two of my closest friends imagined as forever a unit and couple.

I will continue to see them separately of course, but between their news and my own recent breakup, and my daughter packing up last week after a final long summer with Dad (growing up and college bound next year), and the Sottak departure, and the apartment move, … 2017 is becoming one long goodbye to an intimately warm and beautiful era.

Coping

Goodbye and Hello are funny words. One starts with a positive syllable but is often a distressing experience, while the other begins with a foreboding term but is typically hopeful and uplifting. Weird. Hello to new people in our lives, hello to new places.

The best we can do with empty space is to enjoy its serenity. Our daily lives are filled with turbulence, and a momentary calm can be soothing and restorative. An empty home is a clean slate, and an empty heart, once healed, open for new and beautiful souls to discover.

I’m keeping my hellos to a minimum through this transition, leaning toward the zen hermit mode and a few faithful friends. Stay busy and switch up the hours regularly. Avoid the routines that tug out warm memories. Run at dawn, write into the night, then write at dawn and run late. Travel on impulse, an evening in Italy or weekend in Paris. Keep the overnight bag at the ready. Staying off balance seems to offset the imbalance of these various goodbyes. I can’t explain why, but it’s working.

I’m hoping that all of your goodbyes are as warm and tender as mine. That doesn’t lessen the sting, but eases the recovery.

Enjoy the rest of the summer. It will be saying goodbye all too soon.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence