Saturday, May 9, 2015

Trip back to Spring of 1967 - Courtesy of SiriusXM Channel 6

I often listen to Lou Simon's Satellite Survey on SiriusXM the weekend or the repeat Wednesday at 6 p.m. Lou recreates the top 40 from that week in a particular year. The best part is the bottom of the survey, where the songs live that, if they never rose into the top 10, rarely if ever get airplay.

Today, though, is different. Lou is playing 50 songs from the SPRING of 1967 - not just a week. That happens to be my most intense listening period, right when I turned 14 and got my first guitar (in photo). All great stuff, from the San Francisco Sound to British Invasion, Motown, one-hit wonders, and much more.

So, here I am in the future, 2015, with my Sony earbuds plugged into my laptop, listening to satellite radio streamed on the Internet, resuming my blogging.

Something about hearing old favorites brings back a special mood. And Lou is pulling out some real classics. Playing I Can't Seem to Make You Mine by the Seeds. How long since you've heard THAT one?

I actually play real music myself now, in my orchestra and Blues band - Tablues - which is a more fulfilling experience than just listening. But these classics evoke the feelings of adolescence, part of what made me who I am musically now. I guess the challenge is to enjoy this music and appreciate it while moving forward. I don't think I can feel the same about current music, but I have had some enjoyment from today's pop artists. These days, I listen to a lot of Jazz, which is my "adult" music. On an iPod, I can get the Beatles and Dave Brubeck in the same 10 minutes.

For today, though, it's two hours of classics--from my favorite part of my favorite year. Yes, I have to listen through Engelbert Humperdinck and Andy Williams, too, but that was what was on the radio the spring of my Freshman year of high school. But so was Ding Dong the Witch is Dead by the Fifth Estate and I was Kaiser Bill's Batman by Whistlin' Jack Smith!

And the fun continues.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Getting healthy!

When I started Test Driving Life in 2007, I just wanted a place where I could speak my mind. In 2011 I blogged daily as an experiment. By early 2014, I apparently had run out of gas, and so March 3 was the last post before this one.

I'll tell you where I've been. I've been on a crusade to avoid using blood pressure medication! The method was to lose 25 pounds by quitting eating sugar, supplemented by walking 5 miles a day. Let's hear it for the fantastic Fitbit for keeping me on track. You can see it below. I wear it all day long and it records my steps and extrapolates it to miles and "active minutes." The goal - 10,000 steps, 5 miles, 30 active minutes. I've found that I need 11,000 steps to get 5 miles.

In December, 2013, I weighed 190 pounds, my blood pressure was 160/100. Last week, I weighed 165 pounds and my blood pressure was 134/80. AND -- even better -- my cholesterol has gone down from 221 to 161 in that same six month period. I am now in 32-waist pants (from 34), and they're getting loose. I feel great.

This photo (I'm on the left in the white t-shirt and sun-protective hat) shows me at the top of Mission Peak, in Fremont, California, which I climbed with a group of hardy colleagues last month. It was the greatest day ever according to my Fitbit. I walked more than 10 miles (26,000 steps) that day. I made it without hurting myself, too!

I'll try to come here more often, if I'm not out walking.

Monday, March 3, 2014


I guess I take writing for granted. But today, a colleague asked me about it. She is eager to start writing, but doesn't know where to begin. I said, "You can start a blog in 10 minutes," but also went on to talk with her about what she wanted to write, and why.

What is writing, anyway? There is, of course, the physical act of stringing together words. We all learn this to get through school. I remember plenty of high school papers that I scratched out in longhand on the night before they were due after a cursory trip to the public library. Yes, this was before the Internet made research something you can do on your phone during dinner in a restaurant.

Writing can be a letter, where you are reaching out to a friend or loved one, or a beloved friend, when you use the good stationery and the nice pen you got for a graduation gift. You think about what you want the person to feel when he or she reads your note. It can be a sentence added to the preprinted words of a Hallmark greeting card or 17 pages of thoughts and feelings. If it's in longhand, chances are you're not going to be doing much editing, so it has to be stream of consciousness.

What about poetry? So few people actually write it and very few read it, but there are always a couple in the New Yorker. The most popular form of poetry these days is probably song lyrics, or perhaps advertising jingles. I've always thought that poems are for people who want to express something very specific and important who also want to struggle with the process to refine their writing into a polished gem. Some are more shiny and multifaceted than others, of course.

I wrote in 6 x 9 inch steno pads when I was a teenager, and a lot of my nearly illegible scratches were outrage at haircuts or sometimes, attempts at verse. I produced a batch of perfectly good songs when I was 16 to 19 or so, and even recorded some on tape, so they live on. I still have the notebooks, too. And--I still carry a small wire-bound notebook to this day, just in case I feel inspiration.

There's the writing we do for our jobs. If you're a technical writer, like me, you spend your day producing things that may not be of great significance to you personally, but they can be very interesting and complex. In this case, you want to be clear and helpful to your readers, but not convey any of your own personality. Folks aren't consulting online help to be entertained.

What inspires you? My thing for the last 22 years has been a weekly automotive review column. It's an easy process. On Monday, the latest test car arrives. On the weekend, I write the first draft of a story on the car two weeks previous, polishing the draft the next week while yet another new model takes its place in my driveway. It's routine, made meaningful by the variations in the cars. But after more than 1,000 articles, it is not difficult.

This blog is another example of writing. Although I started it in 2007, it wasn't until 2011 that I got serious, and wrote a blog a day for that entire year as an exercise. If you're reading this, you're in it--go look at the wonderful variety of subjects I covered in that fateful year. But things have tapered off, especially since I stopped running my car column in the blog (it's online plenty of other places).

It feels good to write. If sending a letter is meant for my close people, then a blog post or its more common cousin, the Facebook post, is meant for anyone and everyone. When you place your ideas and feelings into a post, it's like a message in a bottle sent from a desert island. While not craving rescue, I'm longing for some kind of connection. And, what I post will live forever, or at least as long as the powers at Google feel like saving it on their server.

You can get a blog from Google for free, and there are other places, too. So if you're hesitating to write, don't let the tool stop you. Just open a page and start typing. The bad first draft is a great pressure reliever. Get it down, then play with it. Cut things, move them around. Change adjectives. Say it more clearly. Use an interesting example. Thrown in similes and metaphors. I compare editing to trimming pots at the pottery studio. It's what makes it finished, and can be very meditative. Then, start another.

Now, you're a writer.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Beatles: My Musical Inspiration - 50 Years Later

This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s widely accepted that this performance changed the world of TV and music forever. Anyone old enough to remember it can recall that great moment on a Sunday night in February when 73 million people in the U.S. were introduced to the musical force called the Beatles. For me, it was the beginning of what I consider to be me today.

When Paul McCartney counted out the beginning of All My Loving that historic night, I was 10 years old, sitting on my parents’ bed in their room watching the TV. It was black-and-white, and had one small speaker. I was transfixed; from that time onward, I listened to the radio every minute I could. I had it on while I did my homework, or was just lying on my bed staring into space. 

I was hooked. And why not? To a boy approaching his 11th birthday, they were heroes – cool, powerful, and they seemed to be having a great time together. Besides that, the music was brilliant. Music critics started opining about their use of unusual chords and transitions, but it was those polished three-part harmonies, generous samplings of R & B classics from American artists, and especially, that youthful energy that captivated me, and millions of others.

For my 11th birthday, I received my own copy of Meet the Beatles, the first American album. My sitter, a teenage girl who watched us (I have two younger brothers), taught me some basic dance moves to that album for my 7th grade dance. I remember them playing Beatles songs at the dance, including someone’s joke parody called “I Want to Hold Your Feet.”

I continued to listen to the radio enthusiastically through 1964, 1965, and 1966, hearing Beatles songs as they came out, along with their British Invasion buddies: the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals, the Hollies, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Who, and on and on. But it was in 1967, after the Beatles retired from touring and released the mysterious Strawberry Fields Forever, that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band appeared. 

That June, my mother, for some reason, brought home a copy of the album. I listened to it over and over and over, as I’m sure millions of other Beatle fans did. I remember sitting directly in front of the Curtis-Mathes wood stereo cabinet and looking at the texture of the speaker grilles and studying the centerfold photo of the four guys with their mustaches. I decided I had to get wire-rimmed glasses like my hero, John Lennon, and by 1968, I had them. Wearing glasses was finally cool!

Sgt. Pepper’s was an experience, from the cough and murmuring of the crowd at the beginning to the long, extended multi-piano chord that concludes A Day in the Life. It was unique, exciting, and monumental. Before long, other bands inserted odd sections and instruments into their music, too.

I used to listen to the album and strum a badminton racquet that was lying around the house. I was a bored clarinetist at the back of the section in the school band. If mom, as an amateur cellist, was the musical inspiration and album bringer, my father was the one who brought the gear. He and mom had separated the previous fall, but one day, when he came to visit us, dad brought me an electric guitar and small amplifier that some guy at work was selling. This was as important, in its own way, as hearing the Beatles on TV in 1964. Suddenly, I could start to play the songs myself! This was a big deal.

 The next spring, I got an acoustic guitar, so I could easily sit in my bedroom and play Beatle songs as much as I wanted. My friend Lisa, who lived next door, was three years younger, but would sunbathe on the other side of the fence and listen to me play. Eventually, we would sing together. Our special song was, I Will, from the The Beatles (White Album).

The energy and amazing changes of 1964’s music lasted, for me, through the White Album in November of 1968, but by 1969, Beatle songs didn’t have the same impact, as times and tastes changed. The whole radio scene was changing. The sense of the four musicians being a unit had long disappeared, as they grew up and became more individuated. I grew up too, although I still played my guitar. I even started to write my own songs, emulating my heroes.

In 1969, I moved to Arizona, and took my guitars with me. In my loneliness, I wrote more songs, and also spent time with a particular girl, listening to Abbey Road, much in the way I had sat alone in front of that stereo in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper.  I tried to form a band with a couple of friends, but, despite acquiring a fantastic Fender amplifier (worth a fortune today, if I still had it), it went nowhere. Then, in the spring, the Beatles broke up, right as I graduated from high school. The world changed again.

Back in California in 1970 and 1971, I bought and listened to John, Paul, and George’s initial solo albums. There was some great material on there (Imagine, Maybe I’m Amazed, My Sweet Lord), but it wasn’t the same. I tried being a solo “Dylan understudy” in San Francisco clubs for a little while, but it was intimidating for an 18-year-old suburbanite, and I quickly let it go, instead pursuing music at San Francisco State University. That lasted one semester. “Sorry, no guitar majors.” I eventually became an English major and graduated, years later.

In 1972, I got the urge to play the electric bass. I’m not sure, looking back, why exactly, but I remember liking the sounds Paul made with his violin-style Hofner. I took the only thing I had of value, my coin collection, and traded it for a green Fender-style bass in a pawn shop in the Tenderloin. Who needed those old coins anyway? 

I didn’t even have an amplifier yet, but I took my new treasure home and plunked away on it, finger style, hoping for something to happen. It wasn’t long before someone broke into my ground-floor apartment and stole my beloved bass. That was the end of that experiment—before it had a chance to develop.
After that, I played guitar occasionally for fun. I recorded some of my songs in 1971 at a friend’s house, and that recording exists today. I took my acoustic guitar to Israel in 1974 and impressed the natives with my rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” and various Beatles tunes, but I left it there when I came home. It needed repairs.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I bought a nice, modestly priced acoustic guitar to replace the one I’d given away five years earlier. I played bluegrass mandolin in a Sunday pickup band in 1980. My first wife and I sang a few times together (she performs wonderfully with a Jazz trio today). But after that, it wasn’t until 2003, as I approached my 50th birthday, that I decided that it was time to get my bass.

Where do these ideas come from? My younger son was taking guitar lessons, so I was visiting the music store every week. My old longing was rekindled. But now, my coin collection long gone, I mentioned it to my beloved and supportive wife, who said, “Why don’t you just go buy one?” So, there you have it. Mom supplied Sgt. Pepper’s, dad the first guitar, my son inspired me with his guitar lessons, and now, my darling spouse gave me the OK to go get the instrument of my dreams.

I shopped, and found a lovely Fender bass. It has a sunburst finish, with aluminum pick guard, and combines the classic “Precision” body with a “Jazz” neck. Although I was already a guitar player, I decided to take a few bass lessons, to get up to speed. I started weekly lessons with Dennis, a guy about my age with a ponytail who had a lifetime of musical experience. We worked on a variety of songs that I picked, new and old, and I found that playing the bass felt natural. Dennis encouraged me to find other musicians to play with. I now understand the importance of this. Music is much more than lessons. It’s a living thing that happens when people play together.

Thanks to Dennis’ suggestion, and references from the music store, I found three other musicians, and we started our own band! After all these years, I was the bass player in a band. Red Paint lasted for six years, and although we didn’t get rich or famous, we played gigs and even recorded a CD! It was a dream come true. We duplicated the Beatles in being a foursome on guitars, bass and drums. We even played a few Beatles songs – I got to do my version of You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, a Lennon-penned favorite.

Once again, I don’t know exactly where this urge came from, but it had something to do with a little foldable list of recommended albums that featured the bass. Sgt. Pepper’s was on the list, but I also started listening to some music I hadn’t heard before, including some great Jazz recordings. I became aware of the rich tones of the upright bass on Jazz and some folk and bluegrass albums. Paul Chambers! Ray Brown! I found one of those old-fashioned advertisements on the wall of a music store, with little pull-off tabs at the bottom with the teacher’s name and phone number. I called and set up my first acoustic bass lesson in July of 2004.

Maybe having the cello around the house growing up helped, but I moved over to the upright bass pretty easily. After an enjoyable first lesson using his bass, Damon, my new teacher, took me to a fine old music store in downtown Oakland, where I rented my own big brown bass. What was I thinking? I started on the basic orange book—the Simandl method -- but also fooled around with some Jazz tunes. Damon was the right guy for me – young and helpful and he didn’t treat me like a beginner.

After a year or so of this, I took the summer off to think about it. I decided to continue, and at that point, I traded my loaner for a real bass of my own. It’s a beauty, hand-carved in China and I still play it almost every day.

There’s more still to this story. In 2006, I got to play in a Beatles cover band, Fab Fever. What could be better than that? I was still finding my way on the bass, but we did have a great time while it lasted. Although I left that group to focus my energies on Red Paint, today, I still play with one member of that group, Frank. We’re Two of Us, and as a duo, we run through a range of Beatles songs, and some other fine material. Hey—the Beatles played covers, too. Frank has a rich baritone, so we inevitably sing the Beatles’ songs in a lower key. I still have many friendships from the Fab Fever group, and we’ve played summer outdoor concerts affiliated with the Odd Fellows.

In late 2006, just around the time that my Red Paint group got started, I got a flyer in the mail for the local Adult School. In it, I saw a listing for a community orchestra. I hadn’t thought about that, but why not? I signed up.

On January 2, 2007, I hauled my upright bass to a rehearsal at a private home. It was a week before rehearsals would begin at the school. Not knowing a soul, I stood in the back and tried to play what was on the music. I hit a few notes, and despite my frustration and embarrassment, I enjoyed being with the group. I especially liked the conductor, Josh. With a smile, he came over to talk with me. I apologized for hitting so few notes, and he said, “Well, come on back next week and you can play some more!” I did, and that was the beginning of what’s now a seven-year position in the Castro Valley Adult School Chamber Orchestra. I’m the principal bassist there now. I’ve played three or four concerts a year of the greats – Beethoven, Dvorak, Mozart, and many others. 

From that orchestra connection, I’ve picked up chamber music, playing in small groups, including quarterly weekends locally and two one-week-long summertime visits to the fantastic Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop. There is not much better on this earth than living in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria with your fellow musicians, and playing beautiful music all day and all night. I came home both times from my “grown up music camp” inspired and energized.

Today? I’m a member of Tablues, a blues and R&B band. We played 20 gigs in the second half of last year, and we’ve recorded some nice demos. I’m still with the orchestra. I am playing a Beethoven Septet with a private chamber music group that found me last year to help them with Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which needs a bass! I’ve played the Trout often over the last few years, pleasing musicians who enjoy the deep sound. Most chamber music doesn’t include bass.

Thank you, John, Paul, George and Ringo, for starting me off on my musical path. And also, thanks to Mom, Dad, Cathy, Cameron, Joy, Dennis, Damon, Frank, Josh, Red Paint, Fab Fever, The Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra, Sycamore 129 Blues Band, Tablues, Kenneth, and all my other musical friends and colleagues, who’ve made it possible.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classical Afternoon with the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra

My wife just sent me an article about the decline in interest in Classical music. That may well be so, but that wasn't what I saw in Oakland, California today, when I attended a packed church to hear three renowned classical pieces.

I play in an orchestra myself, so I like to go hear this music performed whenever I can. I have several friends in the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra in Oakland, so when I found myself free today, off I went.

The orchestra is celebrating its 49th season, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Working through Merritt College, a local community college, it has grown and matured over the years to an ensemble of notable power and capability. Although the group rehearses at the college, performances are at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the scenic part of the city of Oakland, right by Lake Merritt.

I drove along Grand Avenue and located the church. The problem, of course, was parking, but with a few minutes to spare, I found a good spot two blocks away. I arrived just in time to walk through the large wooden doors and receive my nicely-designed and information-packed program.

As a bassist, I chose to sit where I could watch my fellows, selecting a spot on a hard wooden pew on the right side, a few rows back from the musicians. As the orchestra members assembled, I noted that the men were dressed in tuxedos, the women in black dresses. It was a formal occasion! Naturally, the audience was more casually attired, but there was the right sense of decorum but friendly excitement.

Classical music is better with some explanation, and we got an excellent preparation to hear each piece from Eric Hansen, the conductor and music director since 1997. Like Leonard Bernstein used to do, Hansen, with humor and insight, told us about the composers and the pieces we were about to hear.

Hansen's talk really helped with the first selection, Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. Ives, a greatly talented man who composed while working full-time in the insurance industry, was not well understood in his time, but has since become a significant figure in 20th-Century music. The Unanswered Question combines a very slow and subtle string part over which a Q and A takes place between solo trumpet and a group of woodwinds. In fact, the two parts are so different that Hansen brought in a second conductor to keep the strings moving slowly while the winds did their thing. It worked for the audience, who seemed to appreciate the work.

Moving then to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, the music became a little more familiar. Copland, a major 20th-Century figure during his long lifetime (1900-90), wrote music that sounds like the cowboy west (Marlboro Country) and reminded me too of Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme. Copland borrowed Folk and Jazz motifs and worked with great artists and dancers of the time. In fact, the Appalachian Spring Suite is subtitled Ballet for Martha, for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The 1945 piece went over well, and then, off we went to chat with some of the musicians and other listeners outside. By the way, Copland received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for this score.

After a brownie and some surprisingly good coffee, I found my seat and got ready for the main course. Antonin Dvorak's Concerto for Cello in B Minor Op. 104 is a grand and familiar piece. We got the special treat of hearing 16-year-old soloist Ila Shon, who won the Felix Khuner Young Artist Concerto Competition. The award, now in its 25th year, is named for violinist Felix Khuner, who retired from the San Francisco Symphony and played with the Prometheus. His son, Jonathan, later conducted the orchestra. This award goes to two deserving young musicians each year. The other musician in this year's competition will play at the next Prometheus concert on March 23rd.

Shon, who has already studied cello for ten of her 16 years, was a sensation, playing with feeling and exquisite precision. The way she brought her bow up with a flourish after a particularly lively solo passage was dramatic, and she seemed to be having a good time.

All too soon, the concert ended, and people filed out of the handsome, clerestoried church onto the street. The sun was just going down on an unseasonably warm January Sunday afternoon, and all seemed right with the world.

Classical music is here to stay, and there's plenty of it out there, if you know where to look and how to listen. The Prometheus Symphony Orchestra, by presenting five free concerts throughout the year, is doing a lot to keep it accessible. Although the concerts are free, you are encouraged to donate, during intermission and anytime. I did, and it was a deal!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Visit with Lowell's Zon Bass Guitar

Today, I went to visit visit one of my late friend Lowell's basses. It has been consigned with the fine musical instrument store, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in Palo Alto, CA.

Click the link, and you'll see a description and a bunch of photos of this lovely instrument. Zon is well regarded in the bass community for its fine products, and this surely was one of Lowell's favorites. I've heard bassist Michael Manring do incredible things with his Zon.

I located the store tucked into some mixed use space behind town, across from the Mercedes-Benz showroom. After finding a parking spot on the street alongside the nondescript building, I walked around the corner and entered.

Gryphon has desks and glass counters up front, but ranging to the side and back are rooms full of all kinds of acoustic guitars, dobros, banjos, and MORE guitars. There was a long wall covered with multicolored ukuleles. I discovered a collection of banjos in one room, a grouping of shiny dobros further in. Lowell's Zon Sonus Standard five-string bass, with its lovely burl face, was hanging in a short rack of several electric basses in a soundproof room. Derek See, who found it for me, wore a 1967-style paisley shirt, which I admired.

Once inside the room, plugged into a handy amp, it was just me and the bass. I said hi to it, and then held it close, thinking about Lowell playing it. I played some runs, and some patterns from the songs I do with Tablues, my band. I twiddled the knobs, changing the pickups and tone. It sounded  and felt great, as I expected.

I believe that basses are best when played with other instruments, so I invited in Oliver, who was sampling a 1941 Martin acoustic guitar in the main showroom. It had a price tag of $38,000. Oh MY. I might be scared to touch something that valuable! He played through a couple of fiddle tunes with me on the guitar before stepping back into the other room. It was a sublime moment.

I guess I hoped to channel Lowell or have some kind of cosmic experience while holding his bass, but I realized that this instrument, lovely as it was, was not going to serve as a magic conduit to my friend. The fact that Lowell owned it doesn't make it a better instrument, but I do feel that if I played it in shows and rehearsed with it, I'd remember my friend more often and share something special with him.

Sadly, at $1,275, the Zon is a little over my budget right now. I'd love to have a five-string bass someday, and this one would be perfect, but it looks like it'll have to wait.

I also was hoping to find another of Lowell's basses, a hollow-bodied Tacoma Thunderchief. With its single paisley sound hole, it was truly remarkable looking and sounding. I played it last year when I visited Lowell to bring him some dinner and hang out. Despite his illness, he was still able to pick up a guitar and we played several songs together. But the Tacoma already has a new home.

Lowell, as a Buddhist, might laugh at my attachment to material things. I continue to live here in the material world while he does not, and that's just the way it is. I like to think that even without possessing his instruments, I can use the memory of my friend to live a better life, filled with more of the humor, kindness, creativity and awareness that Lowell had in abundance in his life. I don't need a specific instrument to do that. But I do know that if I had the cash I would have a new member in my musical arsenal tonight.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Friend Lowell is Gone

I knew it was coming, but when Lowell Moulton died yesterday, I let out a big sigh and didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t long ago that we were playing music together in the congeniality of the Odd Fellows monthly blues jams.

We sometimes say, when someone dies, that they are finally at peace. In his brave, Zen-minded way, Lowell faced the end of his life with curiosity and patience, and was at peace before he died. He tried every medical treatment available, but when none would work, he courageously accepted his fatal condition and lived his remaining days with full consciousness. I can only hope that if my final days are spent with a terrible illness, that I can have his attitude.

I met Lowell in 2007, when he took over my bass slot in the Beatles tribute band, Fab Fever. With his high musical competence, fine ear, and ready smile, he always added so much to the music he performed. Although the iteration of Fab Fever containing Lowell didn’t last long, I got to play with him later during jam sessions, where he proved to be a capable blues lead guitar player. His Herd of Cats band showed his Jazz chops, too.

As in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you can measure the kind of life you’ve lived by the number and quality of friends you have at the end. By this calculation, Lowell was the richest man in town. As his illness progressed, many stepped forward to help him with his daily living, including meals, trips to appointments, yard clearing, and professional medical care. Using MealTrain, an online program that works like a gift registry, you could see what Lowell needed and sign up to provide it. Meal Train made sure that Lowell retained his independence at home but got adequate nutrition and could see his doctors. And, it kept the flow of visitors right for his schedule.

I had the privilege of preparing and bringing Lowell dinner one night, and we played some music together. On another occasion, I drove him to San Francisco for a medical appointment. I also was able to get in one last phone call a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know it would be the last time we spoke, but it ended with “I love you, Lowell.”

Because I have known that he was leaving us, I’ve thought about Lowell a lot, and mourned him in advance, even before his actual death yesterday. Now, I feel emptiness. When someone dies suddenly, it’s a shock, and it takes a while to absorb the news. But when your friend or family member declines, you can carry the knowledge of their imminent departure with you every day, and begin missing them before they’re gone. I feel like I will carry Lowell in my heart forever.

I have set his photo on my iPhone lock screen for the last couple of weeks. Whenever I open the phone to text or make a call, I see him standing on the stage at the Hayward Plunge, playing a blues solo in front of his friends. It was his final appearance in this summer music program. I also have a set of photos of him playing with Herd of Cats, at the Sycamore 129 Odd Fellows Lodge in Hayward. I’ll treasure them.

I’ve lost three people this year—one suddenly, but two after debilitating illnesses. The sudden loss, my cousin Tom, was a shock, out of nowhere. Because I didn’t know him well, it had little impact on my daily life. My real concern was for his parents, my aunt and uncle, who will feel this great loss for the rest of their lives.

For the two other losses, Barbara Garber in July and Lowell yesterday, I had time to say goodbye over time. Barbara, a feisty, red-headed standup comedian, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a few years ago and, despite gradually losing her speech and mobility, she continued to post hysterically funny jokes and comments on Facebook until very shortly before she died. Barbara found humor in a fatal disease! She stared ALS in the eye and told it that it couldn’t silence her—even when she couldn’t speak.

As a memorial, several comedian friends read some of Barbara’s Facebook posts out loud to an audience at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Even without Barbara’s unique voice and laugh, the jokes still had it. At Barbara’s “Celebration of Life” in August, the church was filled with the many people whom she had touched. They stood up, one after the other, to talk about Barbara. There were plenty of tears but lots of laughs, too.

Lowell was not a comedian, but he had a great sense of humor, and also a bright, positive view of life. He and I attended a Gordon Lightfoot concert together a couple of years ago and he was fun to hang with—and we enjoyed a great health food restaurant before the show. I treasure that time now—in the days when he was strong and healthy. But Lowell was always that way, until pancreatic cancer struck him down at a youthful 64 years old.

Barbara and Lowell didn’t do anything to deserve the way they were taken from us. The great story is how they both bravely and strongly remained true to themselves until the end. If there was any anger or bitterness, they kept it private. If you have to go, you can die with dignity.

I am bereft, but also inspired by their lives and their deaths.