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: 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: Falling In Love, Elvis Presley
Suggested drink: Broken Heart cocktail: vodka, Chambord, orange juice, grenadine

A secret to happiness in our later years is through acts of creation; showing yourself and the world that you can still produce something amazing. Giants in the field of positive psychology like Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi have written about this extensively. Wind down and kick back and you’ll ossify right into a fossil of your former impressive self.

We are at our most creative when emotions are hot and high. I write my best music when provoked by something beautiful or terrible, something blissful or sad. I prefer inspirations of the beautiful and blissful varieties, but life doesn’t always let us choose.

heart_and_sea_by_onelifeoneartPainful experiences are also emotionally charging and nothing hurts more than a broken heart. The ache can collapse you in tears of distress and desperation. You want to wake up from this very bad dream, but it’s not a dream. Want to hear that they were only kidding, but they weren’t kidding. Your mind spins with memories of tender moments. And the plans you had dared imagine together singe black and curl like pages of a book thrown to the flame, the ash slowly drifting away.

They call it heartache because it truly aches in your heart. There is a physical pain in the center of your chest that feels like an iron grip around that precious organ, the same organ that fluttered and thumped when you used to think about her or him, the one that walked away.

All you can do when brokenhearted is treasure the times you shared and be grateful for having loved so richly. The more precious the memories and splendid the plans, the deeper the cut. If it feels fatal then you know it was good. It’s hard, but that’s the risk you take when opening your heart for the deep, deep dive.

I’m running on a very raw set of emotions as I write this piece tonight. I can’t curl up in a ball on the bed because my mind will flood with beautiful, painful memories. I can’t drink myself to sleep because I’ll wake up feeling even worse about things tomorrow. But I can be creative. I can grab my guitar or sit at the piano and turn this dark emotional burst into something beautiful, like a soulfully sad song. The cause for my pain was an experience so very, very beautiful. Why should its legacy be anything less?

Life is short. You can play it safe and just paddle around in the wading pool, or you can venture to the deep end. You can be reckless and foolish and if you’re lucky taste the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing life has to offer: to be in love. Now where’s my guitar?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence