Don Skiles was my dad’s best friend. He died suddenly of a stroke at age 81 last May, and the whole world grew a little dimmer. He was an English professor, and author of one novel, poetry and 4 collections of short stories. I have looked on line for an obituary, but there’s nothing much out there, so I’ll write my own idea of one from my perspective, the kid of his best friend.
Don Moved to San Francisco for the final time, from Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1976, while I was living with my dad during the long school break. Don, his wife Marian and a friend of theirs named Tim who was also an aspiring writer, stayed at my dad’s house for a couple months that summer while they got settled. I must have been 13. That summer was a time of constant uproarious laughter. Don was a lover of words – not just for their meaning, but simply the way they sounded. A funny-sounding word would set him off & his laughter would infect the entire house. Once we were perusing a map of Europe, and he pointed out the town name of Smolensk, which his simply found to be hilarious to say. No reason, just a hilarious sounding word. It was not a surprise to me to see that place-name listed amongst others many years later, when i read this book.
I put on a Firesign theater album one day that he hadn’t head of before, & when they uttered the phrase “Trussrippers will be persecuted,” it put him on the floor gasping for air. I think we all ended up on the floor, laughing with him. I will always cherish this memory of a man who helped teach me to love words and language. Not only did he set an example for me as a writer, but he genuinely and uncritically encouraged me to write, and despite me being a kid, he never treated me like one. Inspired by him, I wrote some poems and character sketches, which he read with earnestness, and once said “I admire your writing.” His influence on me and my journey to create art is incalculable. I didn’t go on to write much, but everything I’ve ever put to paper has a bit of Don in it.
This book is about places, and his memories of them. Don has a simple way of telling you how it was, and transporting you there within a couple of paragraphs. I recall him being a massive fan of the Beats back in the 70’s – City Lights is his Sistine Chapel, and is mentioned reverently in a story here. There are also stories about his time in the Air Force in England, visits to Paris, his childhood & college years in Pennsylvania but it’s the stories about San Francisco that transport me in particular, because I was there & he gets them right. There’s obviously a lot of Brautigan in here – in fact, he name-checks him in this book twice. Don is a bit more matter-of-fact, though he possesses the same ability to write an entire novel in 2 pages. My dad turns up, too. He finishes off a story about his early job in SF in ’62 called On Foot with the final sentences Harry grinned, a grape posied between two fingers. “You fucking English Majors,” He said, and Popped The Grape into his mouth.
I was browsing through my book shelf a while back, and opened up my copy of the long out-of-print Miss America, Don’s first book, and found that he had left me a nice inscription that I had entirely forgotten about. II’ve been meaning to post this here for a while, and was finally motivated to do so by this nice MetaFilter post about used book stores.
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson
The last couple years, I’ve been keeping a book log on Twitter, but 280 characters isn’t that many, and hey, I need blog content, so here we go.I read 12 books last year, not a great showing. My to-be-read pile is longer than my arm.
This was published in 2000, just before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and Johnson accurately, if not specifically, predicts that in the first part of the book, where he lays out the underhanded dealings of the CIA, the coups, the propping up of puppet dictators, the training of foreign “elite” forces who then turned on their own populations… charges against America that politically astute people have understood for a while, though he puts some specifics to the problem and seeing them enumerated – Iran, Chile, El Salvador, is crazy-making. The American military & covert causes of blowback really stack up quick.
Interestingly though, the second half of the book pivots to Americas de-facto economic imperialism, specifically in the Pacific rim countries, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others. The blowback he talks about here is the hollowing out of American industry by offshoring jobs first to Japan then the chase of chap labor and capital around East Asia, and a financial collapse the region suffered in 1997 I knew nothing about. It was a weird pivot for the book, but the larger point was well presented. This section is a warning, a harbinger of the trade war we now seem to be entrenched in with China. I doubt I’m going to go off on an economics tangent, as a lot of this stuff was thick enough that I could only manage 8 or 10 pages a day, but I am now aware of how much I don’t know about east Asia in general. Despite the breadth of knowledge dumped here, my streak as a functional dilettante continues unabated. NEXT!
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I give it 4 stars because despite being dated, it utterly prescient.
24 years ago today, I had my last beer. It was a Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter, and it was good. Way too good. I’m not going to go into my drinking past too deeply here, but the long and short of it is, after 20 years of drinking, and at least 2 or 3 years of trying to stop almost weekly and failing, I finally picked up the phone and asked for help. The help I got came from AA. I know AA may not work for everybody, and I don’t discount the stories of the people for whom it didn’t, but when I walked through the door, defeated and out of hope, I had hope given to me by the members of the first club I joined, the Bouldin Group, in Austin, who cared enough to say “There’s a whole room full of people here who don’t want you to go out and drink today. Is that enough to get you back here sober tomorrow?” The answer was yes.
The thing on my mind as I write this is what keeps me sober today. There’s a certain amount of “never again” that gets invoked simply by taking into account the misery and destruction of my drinking and drugging years, (AMA I’m an open book) but there’s also the emotional growth that comes from a life that includes a modicum of self examination. I’m not going to stake any claim to guru-hood, but I have put in some work. Work done in the meeting rooms, with my sponsors, with new guys who show up looking for help, and certainly not least of all, with my wife, who is also sober, and a cornerstone of my sober life. The debts of gratitude are innumerable.
Lately during the pandemic, since attendance at meeting houses hasn’t seemed like a great idea, the bulk of my group work within the program has come from a group of men that my sponsor gathers once a month over Zoom. This is a private meeting that has been going on monthly for over 10 years at his house until lately, when we switched to virtual in March of 2020. It’s a group of mostly older guys around my age, who have a shared experience, and they have really propped me up just by being there and being honest as we discuss our journeys. Rather than just having an open meeting, a member will bring a topic on a rotating basis, and for the last couple years, we’ve been sending out prompts via email prior to the meeting so everyone could gather their thoughts on the topic. This has allowed me for additional time for reflection, and kept me a bit more on my emotional/spiritual path as I reflect on these things before, during and after the meetings. Last week, my sponsor sent out a prompt on the subject of unity, the core of AA’s first tradition. Recapped & condensed, this is what he sent out:
The intention of this prompt is to tie the reading for January 3rd from Daily Reflections to Tradition One, Unity.
“It is no coincidence that the very first step mentions powerlessness: An admission of personal powerlessness over alcohol is a cornerstone of the foundation of recovery. I’ve learned that I do not have the power and control I once thought I had. I am powerless over what people think about me. I am powerless over having just missed the bus. (I don’t particularly agree with this example). I am powerless over how other people work (or don’t work) the steps.
But I’ve also learned that I am not powerless over some things. I am not powerless over my attitudes. I am not powerless over my negativity. I am not powerless over assuming responsibility for my own recovery. I have the power (am empowered) to exert a positive influence on myself, my loved ones, and the world in which I live.”
Tradition One; “Our common welfare should come first, personal progress depends upon AA Unity”
In the context of being empowered to grow and live mature and sober lives, and in the context of our discussion of personalizing Tradition one, let’s paraphrase it as follows; “Our common welfare should come first. A healthy relationship with ourselves and those around us depends on Unity.”
The practice of the 12 steps puts our lives in order, but not necessarily our relationships. How to live successfully with others can be found in our traditions. They are the guidelines for our behaviors, behaviors being the patterns of our actions and our actions deriving from how we see ourselves and interact with those around us be it spouse, family, friends, work or otherwise.
In the context of self-evaluation and in the spirit of being empowered through your recovery and growth, take a review of the following questions and share your experience, strength and hope on how you’re doing with the practice of Unity in your personal life.
1. Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?
2. What effect do my actions have on the relationship(s) in my life? On my family?
3. Am I a giver or a taker?
4. Do I do unifying things? Or am I quick to criticize? Slow to praise?
5. Do I listen when my mate or friends or co-workers have something to say?
6. Do I admire and approve of my mate or friends or co-workers? Do they know that?
7. Am I a healing, mending, integrating force in my relationship(s) or am I divisive?
8. Am I a peacemaker? Or because of my own insecurity, is it critical to my ego that I be right? Can I be flexible?
9. What must people in my life do to accommodate my insecurities?
10. Do I spout platitudes about love while indulging in and secretly justifying behavior that bristles with hostility? Do I sneak around and do things that my mate, friends or co-workers won’t like or will violate my our or their values?
11. Do I try to be understanding when my mate, friends, or co-workers rub me the wrong way or do something that upsets me, or am I abrasive and rageful?
A portion of this apparently comes from some reading he’s been doing as a member of AlAnon, and I’ve got to say how much I appreciate his taking the time to put these thoughts together for us.
I digested this for a day or two, then started writing, which is unusual for me. I might jot down a note or two, but mostly just wing it in the meetings, but I had a reaction to the first question that I felt put me at odds with its whole notion.
1 Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?
My thoughts in response:
On question 1– “Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?”
The idea of unity makes this question a non sequitur. There is no sacrifice because my relationships are my life. When I’m thinking of myself instead of those around me and how I relate to them, it’s because I’ve gone off track and am not living in the spiritual side of the program- but through the steps, especially the fact that in sobriety, I have been given back the power of self-introspection, I can USUALLY catch this selfishness before I act.
When I have obviously acted hurtful or selfish, it becomes pretty glaringly obvious pretty quickly, and again, through the power of the 10th step, I am able to accept my errors and put things to right through honest amends This is a blessing, and not a sacrifice.
We are our actions- Vonnegut said “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” So even if I don’t feel it inwardly, if I find myself in pity, I remind myself to do the right thing anyway, because outwardly, the immediate consequences of my actions, good or bad, show up in my relationships, whether I’m considering the relationships or not. So it’s right thinking to consider the relationships -the common welfare, in my actions, and act accordingly.
Even if I want to get selfish about it, I have to take heed of the fact that the common welfare includes ME!
I would only be “sacrificing” in order to act in accordance with my relationships if I was not engaged in right thought- engaging in selfishness, greed, envy… the things that led me to drugs and alcohol, and the things from which I must remain ever vigilant against, and which every morning I give over to god in my morning prayer as I ask to do his will, not mine.
Looking at this, I see a different person from the one who finally put that pint bottle down on Jan 14th, 1998. The above is of course best-case and I often fall short of my lofty ideals for myself. The point is to be mindful of when that happens, or better yet, when it’s about to happen. It’s still a journey, but I’m glad to be on it and glad to be living life on life’s terms, as my sponsor likes to say with some frequency. I’m most of all grateful to the sober people around me who cared enough to hold me up until I could stand on my own, and I’m grateful for the rails they put up that keep me from careening off track. Life is weird, life is hard, but life is good. With a little blind luck, and a little bit of faith, I’ll wake up sober again tomorrow.
For 30 years, the only copy I had of Hurlo Thrumbo’s 2nd recording session was a very worn cassette copy that I digitized myself 15 years or so ago. Lots of warble and hiss, not much low end. But the songs were good. The band only existed for about 2 years. We made a 4-track cassette on a porta-studio in our practice room that we “released,” (100 copies?) soon after forming, but it really doesn’t sound good enough to put out there any more. Then there’s this one I’m posting here, which we also “released” as probably 100 copies or less, and a third great-sounding but never-finished 3 song session at Cedar Creek studios in the band’s later iteration that sits on my computer… alas. So these 3 songs are the only public record of the band.
When Jeri & I split in 1991, we didn’t undertake the most meticulous division of the archives, to say the least, we both moved several times, & stuff got scattered. We have stayed in touch though, and recently she was organizing some stuff at her studio in Llano & came across a second trove of tapes, which included this little guy. My old friend John Viehweg (who really is one of the best audio engineers in Austin) still had an ADAT player, & he did me the kindness of dusting it off and digitizing these songs for me a couple months ago. Amazingly, they transferred perfectly and sound great!
Well, as great as they did when we mixed them. I made some production choices that I would go back and fix if the multi-track tape could ever be found, but that seems to be a lost cause. I still feel pretty strongly that this was some of the best songwriting I ever did, and man, in a different world, I might have kept writing, but life happened. So these songs represent a turning point in my life, where I moved from dreamy but increasingly frustrated idealist to an actul adult who needed to get a career that paid money, and I settled down to have a family, start a business and take a break from the music business for a couple years. I returned in a cover band to recoup my losses and never tried the original songwriting thing again. These songs are mostly my music & Jeri’s lyrics, with a couple contributions from Fred Mitchim who was just over at the house one evening when I had the bass part to Shape Shifter rolling around, & Dennis Bruhn who is a pragmatist about arrangements.
And Now The Reveal!
A while back, I made aHurlo Thrumbo page for the Music portion of my website, with some history of the band and links to the cassette files from the Congress House session, for which I have the written date as March of 1990. The Quicktime embedded players had stopped working, & the tables are still barely holding it together, but I’m happy to note that today I updated it with the new audio files and figured out how to add HTML 5 widgets in Dreamweaver. The duct tape around the images & text is still working (good old web 1.0) and I’m glad to have these files up at last for public consumption. You can listen, download and read more there.
Way back in 1993 or so, I stopped at the Leakey cemetery and took a few pics of the old gravestones. I’ve always found it easier to take pictures of things that hold still, & it turns out that monuments, headstones, grave markers, whatever you may call them, are very good at holding still, unlike birds, people, or even plants, if it’s windy.
I drove by Austin’s Oakwood cemetery every day for about 4 years on my way to work, thinking each time that I should stop in there one day and take some pics, then finally in 2018, I made a foray. I fell in love with the place, and have returned several times to shoot rolls of black and white, Velvia slide film & qute a few digitals.
In an increasingly crowded Austin, I’ve found cemeteries to be amongst the most tranquil places a person can go outdoors – there’s almost never anyone alive at Oakwood but me and the occasional jogger that runs through on the main road west to east, between I-35 & Comal. There’s a ton of dead people there but they’re very quiet, and very good company. As I was drawn back again and again, I tried to define the scope of what I was shooting and why, and while that remains a bit elusive, I am not out to make a comprehensive photo library of every headstone. My thinking became that I would at least thoroughly cover the entire cemetery on foot & take pictures of whatever was of interest to me, mostly from a standpoint of compositionally interesting photos that would stand up individually. I am shooting with 35mm film because it’s challenging and aesthetically pleasing, but also shooting some digital because there is So. Much. Ground. to cover, and occasionally for detail that I’m unable to catch with film. To date, I think I’ve walked a little over half of the grounds, and will probably start over again & catch everything in the afternoon, because I have primarily being going in the mornings, and the direction the headstones face seems to be haphazard, facing either east or west at whim, so a lot of the engravings are in shadow at one time of day or the other.
As I continued my visits, I began to get more interested in the history of the place & the people who were buried there — there’s a few famous ones, and quite a few unnamed graves, or illegible markers lost, as they say, to the ravages of time, but what about the ordinary citizens who lived & died in Austin in the 1800’s – what of their lives? Seeking a glimpse into their history, I found that the Austin History Center had digitized all the burial records, and had a searchable database organized by year & alphabetical order. I began to match up the names on the stones I was shooting to the database at A.H.C. & adding the links in the photo description on Flickr to bring a little more of the history to the photos.
I have a lot left to do – go through the majority of the pictures (305 on line at this point) and try to match them up to their respective database entries, and I have to go back and finish shooting the cemetery. This will be an ongoing project for quite some time, several years, I suppose.
I am trying to teach myself a little 6-string guitar. I chose an old Fabulous Thunderbirds song at random, because how hard can the blues be? Fuck me, it’s impossible. Anyway. This nice gentleman does a great breakdown of it, patiently, one note at a time. Working on it!