Play this Song: This is the End, The Doors
Make this Drink: Negroni (to my friends suffering in Italy): Campari, vermouth, gin.
Now read

When traveling to intriguing places I enjoy writing real-time observations of the trip in short dispatches. My much-loved San Francisco is a guaranteed source of fascinating discoveries – always – and I’ve recorded them often in my Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom. When in Beirut last October I chronicled the fall of a government and pulse of the streets with a short series.

For this journey I’m at home – for an extended lockdown in France – and again facing an intriguing moment. We’re all facing moments of the unknown now. I am writing observations on a frequent basis for the next few weeks, mostly short, to provoke readers to share your own experiences. It is a healthy outlet in an unhealthy situation. … And if I don’t find something creative to vent my energy things could soon get ugly for the cat.

I’m posting these dispatches in a bubble-down system, latest essays posted at the top.

Winter’s End

spring has sprung on me
and it’s sweeping me off my feet

I saw my first oriole of the spring one sunny morning last week. Koiche Kunibe was standing in the center of a very deserted Place de Richelme enjoying a cigarette. He is the chef and owner of Naruto – my favorite Japanese restaurant in town – and let me know he’d be opening the doors for take-out the following day. Hallelujah.

Au Verre Levé in Aix selling gourmet coffee, wine, and fresh veggies from the street.

In the past week an increasing number of shop owners in Aix have been getting creative and offering services without violating the lockdown. Limited hours and doorway exchanges perhaps, but it’s a welcome sign of thaw in the winter ice. Wine caves and cheese shops, bookstores and magazine kiosks, fruit and vegetable stands, and a few restaurants like Naruto are back in limited business. My good friend Hervé had his butcher shop on rue d’Italie humming this morning for the first time in 5 weeks and a line was forming.

If you grew up in a cold weather climate then you understand the deep stir of spring fever, particularly as a teen. Euphoria is the word. The mercury breaks 60°, the coats come off, car windows down, radios on, girls on the street, the boys of summer in spring training. You spot that first red breasted oriole swooping through the yard. The build up of anticipation after a long winter freeze is overwhelming.

The shelter-in-place lockdown France lifts on May 11 and it’s easing elsewhere as well. Time will tell if the timing was right or wrong. But with temperatures climbing and the trees turning green, the pressure to be outside and enjoying some level of social reconnection is swelling.

My 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun was a paean to the ache for personal release. The song Come With Me, in particular, slipped off the winter shackles. The burning to do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. The fact is we all accept obligations and compromises, like lockdowns when plagues roam the land. But the freeze is melting, trickle by trickle, and we’ll be sharing a glass with friends over a socially-distanced table soon. Hang in there.

Be safe, be well.
April 30, 2020

Where Were You?

About a third of the world’s population is in some degree of lockdown because of the coronavirus. We are experiencing it globally through the news and locally through our various hellos to neighbors and friends. How we see it now, and how we remember it in the future will differ. While we are all impatient for a return to normalcy – whatever that means going forward – we’ll look back at this moment with selective memories of fondness and connection.

I’ve been through two natural catastrophes that upended life for days to weeks. In both cases the sights, sounds, and smells remain vivid, and the passion to share these memories with others who were there, then endures. Where were you?

Hurricane Agnes swept through the eastern seaboard of the US in 1972, killing 128 people and wreaking its heaviest damage in Pennsylvania, mostly through flooding. My hometown Newport, which slopes down to the normally languid Juniata River, experienced water levels into the second stories of houses. Carp and catfish were swimming through the windows and rotting days later on many a muddy living room carpet. It was a mess.

A few families took up residence in our large farmhouse, safe and dry on a ridge above the town. Dinners for 20 or more were common and I can still hear the kitchen full of moms making flood pudding and anything else delicious they could scrape together for this temporary encampment of Agnes refugees. Sharing their stories of escape. Troubled about what they were returning to.

Seventeen years later I was sitting in our apartment in San Francisco when my chair started to vibrate queerly, and then the building frame began to heave and rumble. The roar of an entire city in geophysical convulsion was deafening. From my 3rd story perch above Noe Valley the seismic waves rolling through town could be seen. Unnerving. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left 63 dead and caused $10 billion in damage.

San Francisco was out of power for a few days, which meant cold meals, candle-lit nights, and a transistor radio. I had made a large batch of chili the day before, so at least my girlfriend (and later wife) Alexandra and I had plenty to eat, that with cold canned soup. The Dubliner Bar on 24th Street was open that first evening, the owner Vince Hogan making approximate change with cash out of a cigar box, and everyone eager to be with others and share their stories. Where were you?

With both disasters lives were disrupted for extended periods. Those hallmarks and comforts of daily life were thrown into serious disarray, and after the first few days of novelty people were eager to get back to normal routines. Irritations emerged, and longing for the way things had been before the big event.

I think back to those moments with fondness now. Conversations between long time residents of San Francisco often turn to, “were you here in ’89?” It creates a bond. Strangers love to share recollections of disastrous communal experiences like old warriors comparing battle scars.

I don’t want to minimize the scale of the Covid-19 epidemic and horrible impact it’s having on us all. Each day brings a new celebrity infirmity into the headlines and many of us know someone struggling with a positive diagnosis, or worse. But we will get through this. It will mark us. Each of us will be changed by this moment in ways big and small, expressed and suppressed. And for the rest of our lives we’ll be sharing our stories and eager to hear those of others. They will connect us; brothers and sisters in arms.  Where were you?

Be safe, be well.
April 18, 2020

 

Witness to a Punctuated Equilibrium
(or How 1 Simple Virus Changed 1 Big World Forever)

A landmark study on evolutionary biology was published in 1972 positing that Darwin was wrong about 1 big thing: Many species – particularly those in isolation – do not evolve slowly and gradually over long evolutionary periods. Rather, many species attain an order of invariable statis that extends over many eons until a single climatic event forces rapid transformations in their biological properties. This theory was called punctuated equilibrium.

We may bear witness to a period of punctuated equilibrium now; not biological, but behavioral. The catalytic event, of course, is the coronavirus.

If you were born in the 20th century you mostly likely adhere to the concepts of self-reliance, consumerism, egoism, and the pursuit of economic prosperity. One could argue that these traits are uniquely American. I would reflect that while they are truly American, most societies have tilted in the direction of open markets, wealth, and consumption as the enabler and primary measures of success (and happiness) in life. Capitalism won, communism lost, now go live it up.

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors
spread like viruses do.
Malcolm Gladwell, from “The Tipping Point”

Covid-19 is a climactic event causing sudden changes in our routines and habits. We can’t work, can’t spend, are asked to consider the welfare of others, and now rely on government direction and support. Will it also portend a sea change in our lifestyles and measures of happiness?

Prophesies (getting back to my biblical theme) are the works of wiser women and men than me, but this I have seen in the past 3 weeks:

  • Family and friends are getting more of our personal time. We are more aware of those relationships that truly matter (but too often consigned to when-I-get-the-time status) and connecting with Zoom calls regularly. The focus is a bit less on me, a bit more on us. That is a good thing.
  • Work is going virtual. My teaching at INSEAD and the IAU has gone online, and the many of us that can continue to work are getting it done outside the office. This trend is causing a stronger adoption of collaborative tools and investor interest in the companies that invent them. Better work-life balance and fewer cars on the road, and I believe a higher productivity per hour. These are good things.
  • Artists are creating content and sharing freely. Musicians –
    Chris Martin of Coldplay

    megastars and the lesser known – are holding concerts from their living rooms (check out the NPR list), painters and photographers are giving tips from their home ateliers, and everyone is taking a break from monetizing their art (which is the great destroyer of brave origination). This is a good thing.

  • The air is clearer. Cars are parked and planes are grounded. Mother earth is getting a sudden reprieve from the CO2 infusion. There is a growing awareness that at least from an ecological perspective, … this is a good thing.

Are these observations sustainable trends or temporary anomalies in our practices and priorities? It is too early to tell, but I’m rooting for possibility #1.  I’d love to hear about the positive changes you are adopting or observing in your part of the quarantined world.

As always, stay healthy.
April 4, 2020

People Get Ready

People get ready
There’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board

There is little good news out there. The fever seems to have broken in certain parts of Asia, but everyone is holding their collective breath. Italy continues its descent into hell, with Spain at its deadly heels. The rest of Europe is existing along a spectrum from the unnerving quiet-before-the-storm (Sweden) to full-on war footing (France). The US appears to be gliding along a rudderless spectrum of its own frightening path.

So what to do?

These days of plagues and pestilence have the feel of a biblical moment, whether your book is the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Mother Jones. I’d like to think that there’s a train a coming, rather than the death cart from the Black Plague. You’re probably going to be fine, … but just in case there is something to this rapture stuff, it might be wise to get your books in order, regardless of whether there is a golden ticket with your name on it or not.

There are the obvious steps, like preparing a will and naming an executor. But that’s a morose undertaking for times that are already plenty dark. I will suggest 5 more rewarding, but equally important, assignments that you can start while quarantined at home:

  • Prepare your top 10 list. These are the songs you want played at your funeral, wake, or rapture. My kids think I’m out of my mind when I bring this up. But are you ready to accept someone else choosing the music that will frame your life and set the tone for your remembrance? I sure as hell don’t and always keep my list updated. It’s a fun reminder of the artists I loved and the music that has so moved me. I won’t share my list here, but the drum cadence that kicks off the party when the doors close and the pews are full will be Don’t Worry Baby, the Beach Boys. Get your list together now.
  • Read great books. Most of us love to read and find so little time to do it. When I review lists of the best writers or top literature, I’m amazed at how poorly read I am. Blame it on the American public education system. French teens are pouring through Flaubert and Zola. In the past 2 years I’ve started a new regime of mixing one piece of respected literature for each piece of pulp I find entertaining. I like this list compiled by the New York Times, but google around and you’ll find plenty of other rankings. Start reading now.
  • Listen to great music. When it comes to music, ditto to the previous bullet. How many times has someone mentioned a band or song and you think, now I haven’t listened to them or that album in a long, long time? There are some artists that need to be heard or your life isn’t complete. Right? Can you pass through the pearlies without having been haunted by Schubert’s Ave Maria or mystified by the Beatles A Day in the Life? Your list will depend on what you love, be it the classics, or jazz, or perhaps African funk or rap. Spotify makes it effortless. If rock is your thing then a good place to start is Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a bit dated (2003), so you can throw in your own favorites from the past few years. Start listening now.
  • Plan your travel. With the beast at our doorsteps, our days, months, or years left to explore may be more limited than previously assumed. Review your bucket list of destinations now, while sitting at home bored, and make a loose calendar of when and where to go. Maybe your interests are international and exotic, or perhaps more local or regional. There is no magic list. When prodded about taking a trip to some far off destination my dad used to respond, why would I want to go there when I haven’t been out to the western corner of Perry County in years? Everyone has their own horizons. Start planning yours now.
  • Cover your love list. Most of us are negligent at letting our loved ones know that they fall into that category. We often put off telling those people most important in our lives that we love them until it’s too late. It’s a good time to make calls or write letters. Sorry, but emails don’t pass the emotional grade. If you are uneasy with being emotionally open it is enough to just get in touch. They will appreciate the effort and know that is comes from a very warm place. Who’s on your list? Make it now and get started.

Okay, these should keep you busy as the next wine bottle is popped. As always, stay healthy.
March 25, 2020 

 

We are the Corona Generation

If you are reading this post then you are officially part of the Corona Generation. It will impact how you comport yourself and mingle with others for the rest of your life. It will help define us as a global cohort for future historians, although that definition – what it means to be part of Generation C – won’t be fully etched and understood for years to come.

My parents were part of the Great Depression Generation and it marked them for life. They weren’t miserly, but clearly tight and selective with their spending.

As an example, our summer family vacation was spent in Ocean City, Maryland each July. One of my most pleasurable and vivid life memories is that drive down Highway 50 leading to the Atlantic seaboard. The roused anticipation at the first sight of billboards advertising beachside hotels and seafood restaurants. The briny smell of the ocean wafting through the rolled-down car windows as we got within perhaps 20-30 miles of town.

The Surfside 8 Motel, Ocean City, Maryland

We always stayed at the Surfside 8 Motel on 8th Street. It was a fantastic central location for kids: turn left out of the parking lot and it was 3 flipflop blocks to the amazing boardwalk and beach. Two blocks to the right led to the 9th Street pier on the bay, where I would fish every afternoon with a bait box full of frozen squid or blood worms.

Our small efficiency apartment at the motel had a single bedroom with 2 queen beds, so my 3 sisters and mother commandeered that luxury space. My brother and dad took the pullout sofa and I, being the youngest and smallest, camped out on a rollaway cot. The official room limit was 6, so upon arriving in town I would be booted from the car about a block short of the parking lot and told to generally loiter for 30 minutes. And then I could meander confidently onto the property and someone on the balcony would discretely wave me in.

See what I mean? Tight.

How will the Corona Generation be marked by our common experience? Who knows truly? Obviously, a heightened attention to hygiene is being instilled into everyone now. Wash those hands and wipe down the counters. If this scare passed in a month or two it wouldn’t have time to take root in our psyche, but it’s not going to pass quickly and its going to take a toll on people we know and deeply care about. A vaccine is at least a year out and even if effective treatments are uncovered before then, it’s ability to turn lives upside down is going to keep us on edge and vigilant for a long, long time.

I’m an eternal optimist – please forgive me that – but I believe that the social distancing being forced on us now will bring us closer in the end. Board games may make a comeback, a return to touchstones of deep connection like letter writing and regular telephone calls, and we’ll be looking in on our neighbors and loved ones more regularly.

What changes to our routines and behaviours do you imagine – good or bad – as a result of this extended homebound interlude? The Great Depression was a horrific nightmare for families who struggled through, but left most of them stronger and more appreciative of authentic happiness as a result. This is our challenge now.

Stay healthy.
March 21, 2020

 

A Bit of Context, Please

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. … Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”
– Alia, 7 years old, on fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria.(Source: the Italian NGO Gruppo Aleimar.)

“They killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. They kidnapped nearly all of us (in my village), and killed all but 16 men. Children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes (to be trained for fighting) and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas, Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed.
– Rozina, a 22 year old Yazidi woman, recounting her escape from ISIS captivity after her mother, father, and 2 brothers were killed. (Source: Global Fund for Women.)

I made my escape down 7 rue Manuel this morning to the open air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Subdued would be a good word for the pulse of the plaza, with about half of the merchant stalls typically crammed into beautiful Place des Prêcheurs on a Thursday morning missing. But I was still in a land of plenty as I made my rounds, picking up green olives in garlic and basil and a beautiful block of aged cows milk cheese for my apéro late afternoon, 2 pork chops and a dozen spears of fresh asparagus for dinner (just coming into season now). The vegetable and fruits options remained bountiful, bronze chickens were crackling on their roasting racks, the poissonnieres still offering life from the sea of every sort and size.

I’ve never been so happy to linger in a line, soaking up the Provence sun and enjoying a short moment of a beautiful day that will be enjoyed mostly from my apartment window, in my airy 17th century flat with its impossibly high ceilings and terra cotta floor tiles colored in the sun burnt ocre of Provence clay. The internet is working, Netflix options are endless, my piano and guitars at the ready to ward off boredom. When I turn the tap I get fresh potable water, and hot when I want it to be. The fridge is keeping things cold. My bed is comfortable and the comforter clean and warm.

This virus is disrupting our lives and may get really frightening. Some of us will get sick and people we know may die. But let’s try to keep it all in context, okay?

Stay healthy, stay safe.
– March 19, 2020

One Sure Bet
(or, Where to Invest in Days of Plagues and Pestilence)

Before him went the pestilence,
and burning fever went forth at his feet.
Habakkuk 3:5

It’s mid-March and Covid-19 is sweeping the globe like a ravenous swarm of desert locusts. In the Horn of Africa billions of the real thing are turning day into night and leaving a trail of destruction unseen since the days of Moses.

Just across the Red Sea the world of oil is going bonkers as Saudi Arabia and Russia get into a Mexican standoff over production limits. Crude oil prices fell 30% in the course of just one morning recently, and are at their lowest levels in almost 20 years.

We still have the fire season to look forward and the US just experienced its warmest winter months since 1895. All this and more, to quote a 1977 punk epic from the Dead Boys.

Stock markets hate nothing more than uncertainty. It’s no surprise then that the indexes are lurching severely, plunging down one day and roaring back the next, sometimes over 10% in a single session. So where does one invest in times of plagues and pestilence, when all that is certain is that uncertainty will reign?

You are the best investment to be made in times of uncertainty. The asset of YOU (not a bad market ticker) and its condition are 100% under your control, and you suddenly have a lot of time to focus on enhancements. For starters think about your health, and that comes in 2 flavors. So here are some tips from Bill.

Physical health:

  • Work out. Find a regime today that fits your interest and home situation and do it regularly. I have a small apartment so a mix of yoga, an exercise wheel, and 2 dumbbells are all that’s possible but needed really to keep me in form, .. despite my beer tab. Toss in a daily walk or run if allowed out of the building. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
  • Eat well. With restaurants shut down it’s a great time to brush up on your kitchen confidence. Focus on seasonal recipes with locally-sourced ingredients and you can’t go wrong health-wise. And the cooking sacrament is a great stress reliever, so excellent for your mental health as well.

Emotional health:

  • Write: Few things feed the soul better than a letter written tenderly to someone you love or greatly appreciate. It’s even more enjoyable with a good fountain pen in hand, scribbling on high quality parchment paper. I’m blessed to be in France, where boutiques – papeteries – focus exclusively on the materials for this dying art. It’s all on Amazon as well.
  • Read: Now is the time to tackle that book stack that’s been growing by your bedside, or start building a new one. By the fireplace or propped against your pillows, is there anything more relaxing, … and more nourishing? I’m a supporter of the local bookstore, but in a crunch you have online options.
  • Pamper: Your budget has suddenly eased up on luxuries like restaurant tabs, bar bills, and travel reservations. Why not divulge in a few guilty pleasures with that new found trove? Go on, before the world collapses around us. High-end chocolate and a good bottle of wine are the low-hanging fruit for me. I’m sure you won’t have to think too hard about it.
  • Create: Art is a healthy release valve when bored or feeling anxious. Music, painting, drawing, writing: these are just the obvious possibilities. So many more options exist as well. Lost as to where to find inspiration? Just Google around; the options are endless.
  • Travel: Wait, what? You probably can’t leave town or even your apartment, but you can still explore the world through films, podcasts, and websites. There is an endless array of travel documentaries on Netflix and other streaming media, and this link to museums online has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Go exploring.
  • Meditate: It’s proven to calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Again, there are plenty of resources online if you don’t know where to start. Find a zen ritual that is natural for you, and 5-10 minute sessions are enough to get you quickly addicted.

I’m off to the grocery. At least that’s what I’ll tell the gendarmes should I be stopped. The truth is I’m just dying to get out for a bit. Stay healthy and add your own tips for staying sane. À bientôt.

– March 18, 2020

Suggested Song: Let It Be, The Beatles.
Suggested Drink: Champagne, your choice (it’s almost New Years!)

A brief aside

Few cities are more beautiful than Paris, and fewer still more magical than Paris during the winter holidays. I’m in Paris this week, with the Champs Elysees ablaze in holiday lights, the winding sidewalks through Montmartre strangely clear, tables at the trendy Marais restaurants available, and museum lines, … well there are no museum lines. Merci grévistes!

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
– Joseph Conrad

Holding on

I skated a lot as a kid on the lakes and streams of chilly Pennsylvania. My friends and I loved to play crack the whip out on the ice, forming a chain glove to glove and pulling a wide arc, the person on the far end holding on for dear life as the sweep of the line grew taut and picked up speed. To stay up on 2 blades as you careened around that bumpy winter glass took every bit of energy and concentration, slipping and scraping and fighting to keep your balance core. Exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.

I left some blood on the ice once, getting spun over a small damn on a frozen creek near home. You have to know when to let go and I held on just a moment too long. Six green stitches to the chin and I was lacing up the skates the next day after school.

I’ve had jobs that paid too much, girlfriends who looked too hot, and vices that felt too good to let go. They fed the ego and enabled myths about who I was and what I deserved. And then would come the realization that this brilliant sun around which I spun was instead an all-consuming black hole, and that great sucking sound was my authentic self being perverted by its massive gravity. More blood on the ice and stitches to the chin.

I find consolation in good company. Many of us suffer from this stubborn reluctance to let go of reckless situations. We know when we’re getting too far over our skates but don’t want the ride to end. As the sweep around whatever dark star is keeping us in orbit picks up speed and the inertial force pulls harder, we hold on even tighter. Ride ‘em cowboy.

The bad news is that we are ego-driven creatures prone to peril, if said ego gets a little tickle. It’s wholly unfair to blame the source: the situation, person, or vice that is wrenching us around. We step in harm’s way and convince ourselves that all is cool. Why the hell did you spin me so close to the dam god dammit? Well why the hell didn’t you just let go?

Letting go

Exactly. The good news is that we’re not buckled in, we’re holding on. The moment we let go we spin off on a new trajectory of our own making, and it’s 100% up to us to decide when to release the grip. We are in total control of our next moment, next day, next year. Just … let … go.

When a lot of wild coiled up inertial energy is released into straight-line momentum, you are a radiant shooting star on a thrilling new direction. You are at the wheel, no one and nothing is tugging your chain, and a new bearing is completely in your hands. Few things in life are more invigorating than that realization.

So as the new year approaches let me ask you this: is that center of mass that keeps your life in orbit a bright shining star that lights the way and warms your heart, or something more troubling and ominous? If it’s #1 you are truly blessed and if it’s #2, .. well it’s time to let go. Just a little blood on the ice, nothing that a few stitches can’t heal.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Get Up Stand Up, Bob Marley
Suggested Drink: Almaza Pilsner beer (a popular Lebanese brand)

It would be a fine time to visit Beirut. With temperatures hovering in the high 70°s and nothing but blue skies in the forecast, 5 perfect days to explore this battered beauty. Lebanese discontent was blowing warm in the days before our arrival, but the street rallies calling for a new government were being lauded for their peace & love vibe. And then we touched down.

Microclimates in an Unstable City

My old hometown of San Francisco is a city of microclimates. It can be tanning weather – all sunshine and Coppertone – at Dolores Park and on the same afternoon a blanket of chilly wet fog crawling off the sea and over the Sunset District. Beirut was marked by microclimates this past week too, but as a measure of volatility, not weather.

There are neighborhoods to enjoy and those to avoid in a city on the edge; a city confused about its intentions, undecided about its methods, and uncertain about the opposition. For 4,000 years the Lebanese and their beautiful country have been pushed around and exploited by the latest jackboot in the neighborhood: the Romans and Persians, the Arabs and Turks and Crusaders, the French and Israelis and Iranians. They’ve had the shits of it and the corruption manifest by this outside influence. To the barricades they have come, incredibly diverse but rallying together.

Circles were drawn in sharpie on our hotel map of the city. News updates on street clashes that afternoon were not reassuring and the concierge was agitated with my need for a leg stretch after the 5-hour flight from Marseille, but if Monsieur Magill insisted on exploring le quartier, then he felt a responsibility to at least steer me clear of the hot zones. He hemmed me into a tight periphery of about 4 blocks to the west and south, and insisted that I not take a left when exiting their garden courtyard. Non monsieur, pas une bonne idée de toute! His face was tight and I accepted that he was not being over protective. I walked through the leafy hotel entrance and turned right.

Most shops pull their shutters in times of upheaval and our local neighborhood felt locked down. Not surprising then that the mall I was seeking out was closed for the day. This I was told by a young woman from whom I had asked directions on the street, but yes she could get me pointed towards a place with good Lebanese beer, which, if I am being honest, was the intention from the moment my Toms hit the crumbled Beirut sidewalk.

La Ménagerie, in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood.

The blocks that followed led me out of the sharpie circle of safety, but my guide felt assured that all would be cool in this part of town on this particular afternoon, and it was. I found my spot – La Ménagerie – and some fascinating conversation, because, well who doesn’t want to have a drink and share their particular episode of events with others also passing through a common catastrophe: the roll and shakes of a violent earthquake, for example, or the unnerving sense of doom when watching big planes fly into tall buildings.

On this day in this city it was the disintegration of a government – we watched the prime minister announce his resignation on TV that afternoon – and tensions swelling between the ever-pressing street demonstrators, heavily-armed Lebanese soldiers attempting crowd control, and Hezbollah militias on the prowl for outside agitators: zionists, CIA, whomever.

The climate downtown that day was hot and anxious, just past the army’s checkpoint a few blocks over. The climate by La Ménagerie was relaxed and convivial, everyone talking about what had came before and what needed to come next. While our neighbhorhood remained an oasis of calm, downtown saw its share of shattered storefronts, intimidating nightsticks, and confrontational graffiti:

 

If there is no justice for the people, let there be no justice for the government.
LGBT  Rights
Capitalism kills!
Legalize Hash

Given the powder keg of shifting agendas it was a tribute to all involved – the protestors, the government, its military, and the militias – that the situation remained nonviolent for the most part. A lot of venting, corralling, and jockeying for control, but no descent into anarchy. My weeklong love affair with Beirut had begun and still lingers, now back in Aix. Good beer, great people, and bearing witness to a defining moment in their history. I will be back.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

 

 

Suggest song: Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol
Suggested drink: Sex on the Beach cocktail. Vodka, peach schnapps, crème de cassis, orange and cranberry juices, maraschino cherry.

If you don’t engage with nature can you care about the environment?
If you don’t engage with people can you care about humanity?

Is the self-command of masturbation better than the uncontrolled abandon of sex? (Wait, what?)
Read on.

Disengaging From Nature

I’m a runner. It serves as equal parts fitness, therapy, and meditation, and my most profound breakthroughs arrive while under the morning skies, putting a few short kilometers on the Nikes. Out early in the world.

Our wild environment – rural or urban – is great inspiration for the creative mind. Sites, sounds, smells, the touch; these things all get our neurons firing, and an engaged brain is a powerful thing.

Distractions are the enemy, particularly of the digital variety. Ear buds and Spotify provide a comforting exile against the natural, unruly world when out in it. Zen epiphanies are blasted off the creative neurons when rock n roll is ringing the ears, as much as I love rock n roll. The lungs at work, a flock of birds against a pale dawn sky, the crunch of autumn leaves under foot, the smell of baking bread before opening hours at the boulangerie. This is real, this is analog, these sensations are stimulating and blissfully out of one’s control.

That we are losing the war against global warming should come as no surprise. Most of us would rather plug in and insulate against the unruly world than soak in its beauty, to fully immerse. When on my run this morning I kept a tally of the ear-budded versus unplugged; the other runners I encountered en route: 4 to 1. The pluggers rule the day; masturbation on the move preferred to a rolling intercourse with nature. And the less we truly appreciate something, the less motivated we are to preserve it.

Disengaging From People

I’m a talker. When I’m at a café and someone intriguing is at the next table I’ll feel an itch to engage. There have been awkward moments but mostly not. My antennae are pretty good at sensing who will welcome a question about that book in their hands or suggestion for a city I’ve overhead them discussing.

Chatty barflies like me are becoming a rarer breed. Heck, friends don’t even talk to the friends at their elbow any more. They busy themselves instead with Instagram photos and Facebook notifications. I’d like to blame the young, and they are the biggest violators of non-engagement, but this social virus has spread to all generations, sadly.

Witness cinema attendance. It’s down 9 percent to this point in 2019 over the same period last year (which was already at a 20+ year low) and Hollywood is hurting. The appeal of Netflix from the sofa is understandable, but the art of àpres-theater debates with friends is being lost. In my hometown of Aix-en-Provence there are a row of lively brasseries just across the large boulevard fronting the Renoir theatre. Le Grillon, La Belle Epoque, Nino’s Café, Les Deux Garçons. All are great options for a glass of wine and the so what did you think? kickoff. I can’t imagine enjoying a fascinating film without that follow-up.

It breaks my heart, this preference for human isolation, for social masturbation. The less we truly value something, the less motivated we are to preserve it. Recent articles in the Atlantic and elsewhere are confirming that interest in sex has fallen sharply amongst the young, in America and most everywhere the Internet is widely available. When we no longer prize intimate engagement, when a Facebook Story on a 5” screen is more satisfying than adventures shared over a couple of pints, when the sofa and remote have replaced a cinema seat and popcorn, … sex, like with someone else?

So what?

The downsides of disengagement can be best witnessed through the current leadership in Washington: Trump, Twiddler-in-Chief. He engages the world alone, through a controlled bubble that leaves him oblivious and dangerous. Nature is enjoyed through a limousine window and global warming a hoax. Friends and allies are dispensable and critical alliances dismissed with a midnight tweet. Sex is to be grabbed between the legs (“they let you do it!”), but it’s even better to master your own domain. Okay, he might not believe that, but my gut says he’s not seeing much of Melania in the president’s chamber these days. “Go grab your own thing, Donald.”

As president, Trump leads by example and a depressingly high number of Americans are still happy to follow. Twiddle Nation and isolation. What could possibly go wrong?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Aquarius, Let the Sunshine In. The 5th Dimension
Suggested Drink: Mystic Martini. Vodka, absinthe, olive brine, green olive

When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars

I bought tarot cards while in San Francisco recently. It was an undisciplined move for this disciple of science, but not an impulse buy. I was feeling blocked and sought a shift beyond the unusual to break through. The esoteric arts seemed just crazy enough, and the tarot was an option high on the wackiness scale. I found cards in the Haight (naturally), studied a few books over coffees or beer, started laying out simple readings at the kitchen table, and became enchanted. Here’s why.

Sciencism

I’m not naturally drawn to the mystical arts. I pursued physics in college and studied the theories of giants like Foucault, Einstein, and Bohr. I believe in the scientific method: imagination, observation, and verification built on empirical evidence. Yeah that sounds reasonable, now prove it.

Science does a pretty good job of explaining how things behave; tiny things like quirks and massive things like black holes. The arc of an arrow or locus of a sub-atomic particle? We got that, even when said particle is (almost mystically) in 2 places at once.

What do we do with this knowledge? A lot of good things and a few unimaginably horrible things that counter all best intentions. We heat the winters and cool the summers and tame nature at home while venturing beyond our garden of eden to uninhabitable worlds. We put men on a barren grey moon while burning our own  blue paradise to a crisp. We develop an unlimited source of renewable energy and then commit its stockpiles to assuring our own mutual destruction.

So the breathtaking sweep of scientific evolution, from the earliest mathematical foundations of Babylon and Maya to their extrapolations for modelling motion and mass by Newton and Galileo, and through Einstein’s impossibly elegant mathematical reduction that relates that mass to energy through the inviolable speed of light (in a vacuum) has led us to this: perhaps two generations remain before the planet is reduced to a bleached cliff notes version of its former verdant splendor, or we blow ourselves to smithereens first.

Earth is Melting, by RadillacVIII

So what is science worth if through its application we ominously degrade the quality of our existence or threaten that very existence itself? It’s a question worth considering.

Science: an astounding, evolving compendium of knowledge fundamental to making sense of the many mystifying dimensions of the world micro to massive: physical, chemical, and biological. As for providing the common sense and tools needed to harness this knowledge for the greatest benefit of everyone? Not so good. Some people lose their faith in the preeminence of religion. I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of science.

Mysticism

Unlike science, the mystic arts provide zero utility in understanding the physical world beyond; whether just beyond our touch or light years beyond our sight. They provide an interesting option to understanding the world within, however. Useless at explaining how things behave, but effective (for the open minded) for reflecting on why we behave in the crazy ways we do. And if we hold a clearer lens into our own behavior, perhaps we make better decisions about that behavior.

A stack of colorful cards is nothing more than that. In a vacuum (again with the vacuum) they offer no particular value beyond the pleasure of a game. But equipped with a good guide book, a glass of decent wine, and the help of a friendly ghost (now this is key for me) that stack of 78 cards comes alive in its many dimensions and possibilities.

The true power of the tarot is in its various facets and options for interpretation. Imagine gazing through a magic kaleidoscope that could clarify your past and foretell the future. Twisting the tube sent the many colors of varying shapes and dimensions into unpredictable spins; each shade, size, and trajectory open to interpretation. Now here’s the magic: that interpretation is unique to each viewer. There is no rigid set of scientific guidelines for analysis. Yes, there is a system to the tarot, but what you draw from the colors and spins will be different than what I draw, because our histories and expectations, and the burning questions in our lives are all wildly different.

Kings and queens, princesses and princes, knights and swords and cups and disks and wands, blues and reds and yellows and greys, fire and water, and then throw in the planets. These are just a few of the kaleidoscopic elements of the tarot that drive the meaning of the cards.

I have my own belief system and hope that you do too, … one that offers comfort and solid footing. I’ve mentioned in an earlier essay that I light a candle each evening for my sister and she is present in the moment. I fill her in on my day and invite Cathy to guide the cards that I select and lay out each evening. She has joined the conversation and I (want to) believe is giving the readings a mystical bump here and ethereal tug there, and from her side of the spiritual divide bringing order to the cards I’ve randomly pulled from the deck. If true then I’ve tapped into something powerful, and if not true than I’m just connecting with someone I miss and love. Either way it provides a fun system for pondering decisions about what’s around the corner; immediate or longer term.

Scientific? No. Spiritual? Kind of. Mystical? Definitely.

Some believe that Jesus healed the blind and others that Moses parted the sea. Maybe Mohammad did split the moon and one particle can exist in two places at the same time. I believe that my sister cuts the cards. We choose our miracles. I’m good with mine. What are yours?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

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