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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peeps of Paradise: “Brain Massage”

"It’s like a language. You learn the alphabet, which are the scales. You learn sentences, which are the chords. And then you talk extemporaneously with the horn. It’s a wonderful thing to speak extemporaneously, which is something I’ve never gotten the hang of. But musically I love to talk just off the top of my head. And that’s what jazz music is all about."
Stan Getz

… But I have to use words to communicate who Bert Jackson is. Chef. Restaurateur. Website developer. Jazz guitarist extraordinaire. This latest in my series on “Peeps of Paradise” introduces a driver of Cape Cod’s high-tech community, the host for several years of the monthly “Open Mic” evenings in the “art gallery town” of Wellfleet, and producer of the new CD from the Bert Jackson Quartet, titled Imaginary Journey.

Bert Jackson -- chef, restaurateur, web guru, jazz guitarist.

"One thing I like about jazz, kid, is that I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?"

A native of New Hampshire who grew up on the island of St. Thomas, Bert left off playing the piano when he embraced his first guitar and fell head over heels in love with it. He opened a sandwich and ice cream emporium called “Lickety Split,” grew it to three shops, then bought the “Sweet Life CafĂ©” vegan restaurant. He installed a sophisticated software program to help him run the restaurant and then began helping other restaurateurs use information technology in their establishments. He became proficient enough to open his own IT business on Cape Cod, where he moved in the early 1990s. But always – like a mistress -- there was the guitar.

"I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini."
Paul Desmond

Chef, restaurateur, technologist, musician – what’s the common denominator? Bert blames his “ADD mind.” He explains: “I’m very good at putting together disparate ideas, not necessarily in a logical way. In the restaurant, I was always trying new things – not just with recipes, but, say, putting on workshops about healthy foods. I don’t like to do things the same way other people do. I’m always asking, ‘What if.’”

"By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with."
Duke Ellington

So here’s my question. Jazz, like poetry, is not wildly popular. Why? Because it’s not melodic? Bert says it definitely is melodic, but the melodies are more unusual. The sound may be more dissonant because there is always tension and resolution. “People try to understand jazz, try to figure out what’s going on. You have to let it just happen, be in the moment, listening to each note. Each note is special.”

"You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!"
Art Tatum

But it’s improvisational, I say. How do you write a jazz composition if it’s supposed to be extemporaneous? Again I’m corrected. “It’s not completely improvisational. There’s a framework, like blues or pop -- but there’s more going on. Jazz is more complex – maybe 12 or 15 chords where blues has three or four. The hardest thing about being a jazz musician is getting out of the way and just letting it happen. The music manifests itself while you’re playing.“

"My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being. When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups. I want to speak to their souls."
John Coltrane

“Listening to jazz is like watching a movie for the second or third time,” Bert says. “Each time, you see something you didn’t notice before, and there are lots of 'aha' moments. When I listen to jazz, I feel like my brain is getting a massage.”

"Once you play the music, it's in the air. It's gone. But when you record it, it comes back to haunt you sometimes."

The Bert Jackson Quartet’s album, Imaginary Journey, is available at and at iTunes.

In my next blog, “Stealing Paradise”

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lonely or Alone

"The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled since 1980."
University of Chicago study

The familial celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us.

Cape Cod restaurants will record their busiest day of the year with visitors seeking to spend Thanksgiving in a place reminiscent of Pilgrims. In Vieques, Christmas week will see guest houses full up, premium high-season rates, and rental vehicles in short supply. At the same time, people forced into strained, pseudo celebration with extended family will find the coming weeks stressful if not downright excruciating.

It’s at this time of year that we are reminded of those among us who don’t enjoy trusted relationships in which affection can be given and returned.

These are not only alone. These are the lonely.

“Automat” by Edward Hopper, 1927

Edward Hopper, whose Cape Cod summer house is within sight of my home in Truro, was preoccupied with depicting loneliness. Almost every critic sees in his mature paintings solitude, alienation, loneliness and psychological tension.

As early as 1923, Hopper titled an etching The Lonely House. The composition includes two children, so the title suggests a larger kind of isolation – one that’s embedded in our society.

Then there’s Hopper’s Macomb's Dam Bridge in 1935. It depicts New York, a city of millions, with no people in it.

“It's probably a reflection of my own loneliness,” he commented. “It could be the whole human condition."

Not only did he show in his paintings melancholy solitary figures, but he also drew trains and highways -- metaphors for escape.

“To me the most important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling,” Hopper said.

So what is "loneliness"? Is a person who is alone also a person who is lonely?

Experts tell us that being alone is healthy when it is a choice. When it is the result of occurrences beyond our control -- bullying, empty-nesting, bereavement, unrequited love, loss of friends or loved ones -- being alone can become being lonely.

Existentialist philosopher Michele Carter has this take:

“Loneliness is not the experience of what one lacks, but rather the experience of what one is. In a culture deeply entrenched in the rhetoric of autonomy and rights, it is ironic how much of our freedom we expend on power -- on conquering death, disease, and decay, all the while concealing from each other our carefully buried loneliness, which, if shared, would deepen our understanding of each other."

Novelist Thomas Wolfe connects the intense loneliness of his own life to a universal aspect of humanity:

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

The University of Chicago study:

“Lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world as threatening, hold more negative expectations, and interpret and respond to ambiguous social behavior in a more negative, off-putting fashion, thereby confirming their construal of the world as threatening and beyond their control. These cognitions, in turn, activate neurobiological mechanisms that, with time, take a toll on health.”

And of “being alone”? Is it necessarily lonely?

Not for Sister Wendy Beckett, the Catholic nun we know from her PBS series on classic paintings. Even within her cloistered convent, she chooses to live, pray and write in solitude – as a hermit who occupies a trailer that sits apart from the nuns’ main building -- having no social intercourse with her sisters. 

“Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

That’s Paul Tillich, the theologian and philosopher whose writings inspired Martin Luther King. Tillich adds:

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself in spite of being unacceptable.”

Now there’s something to think about during this holiday season.

In my next blog, “Brain Massage”

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Where you were
before you were born,
and where you are
when you’re not anymore
might be very close.
Might be the same place …

These lines by Lia Purpura appear in the current issue of The New Yorker. But the idea was coined ages ago by the Celts. They used to say that heaven and earth are only three feet apart and that in the “thin places” the distance is even smaller.

I have to believe Stonehenge was one of the “thin places” they had in mind – their idea of a gateway to beyond.

There is also a “thin place” on the island of Vieques reminiscent of Stonehenge. 

A quarter-mile down a rutted dirt road into an isolated jungle area near the town of Esperanza, you can find a scene that stinks of spirituality. Boulders huger than houses rest in concentric circles – signaling a gateway that seems too perfectly drawn. To add to the mystery, at this crude site 4,000-year-old human remains were discovered and relocated to San Juan for safekeeping.

The Stonehenge of Vieques

These ancients might have intuited something modern physicists currently postulate. Parallel dimensions. Extra universes. Multiverses.

Physicists have detected the shapes of parallel dimensions by examining the influence these dimensions exert on the cosmic energy released in the Big Bang. The existence of parallel dimensions is a key element of string theory, which is the leading contender for a unified "theory of everything" – the idea that everything in the universe is made of tiny, vibrating strings of energy.

String theory suggests that the world we know is not complete. In addition to our four familiar dimensions -- three-dimensional space and time -- string theory predicts that additional, hidden spatial dimensions are curled in tiny geometric shapes at every single point in our universe. The “theory of everything” would unify quantum mechanics and gravity – but it would require extra dimensions of space.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton says that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” Unspoiled landscapes. Regal mountains, Sunsets and starry nights.

Like parallel universes, paradise is more intuited than seen.

Tourists, for example, abandon Cape Cod as winter approaches because they don’t see – nor even seek – the contours of paradise that are evident only in winter. Seals warming themselves on unpeopled beaches. Sea smoke rising off frigid waters in phantom silhouettes. Lake-effect snow off Cape Cod Bay drifting down from sunny skies.

Visitors to my other paradise, Vieques, avoid coming here during the autumn rainy season. As a result, they don’t get to see the electrically charged side of paradise – lightning storms that roll along the horizon in fearsome parades of energy. Thunder so hammering that you can actually feel what sound feels like.

Paradise can be found everywhere, alright. Because paradise is in the eye of the beholder.

In my next blog, “Lonely or Alone?” 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Miracle Swim Master of Sarasota, Part 2

When I studied Media Ecology under brilliant Neil Postman at NYU’s graduate school, he told us that by our very nature humans are teachers. It’s been my experience that this is not always so – at least when it comes to swimming.

When I was no more than nine years old, for example, I stood naked and shivering in nipple-high water at my hometown YMCA pool for my first swim lesson. The instructor, who must have been only high school age himself, demonstrated with a teaspoon that dense objects sink in water. I would not sink, he promised, because I wasn’t a spoon. To demonstrate how the water would hold me up, he told me to fall forward onto my face. The next day I came down with a cold and never went back.

Years later I tried again at another YMCA. My instructor, this one maybe college age, swore she could teach a rock to swim. We would begin by learning to tread water. She told me to swirl my legs like an eggbeater. No omelet.

Years later, there was Emma, an accomplished competitive swimmer in her youth and a specialist in conflict resolution among nations. After two summers with her, I could cross the pool using the breast stroke. But passing over the deep end terrified me because I thought I would sink if I stopped stroking.

Meanwhile, my wife had discovered Melon Dash and had left me in the dust, to strain a metaphor. Jo Anne was snorkeling far out into the bays while I watched from the beach. 

Miracle Swim Master Melon Dash.

So I re-set to zero and signed on with Melon’s Beginner class in Sarasota, immediately followed by her Next-Step class.

She opened the first session by introducing us to her visionary “Five Circles” teaching method and assured the eight or nine of us students that we were “born swimmers.” I didn’t believe her.

During classroom sessions followed by time in the pool, Melon helped us learn to swim in the same way children learn to walk: step by small step, naturally, without pressure or challenge, and having fun the whole time.

By the end of the two weeks of classes, I could breast stroke across the pool without fear. I could float vertically as long as I wanted to. I could leap into the deep end forwards -- and backwards – having fun the whole time.

Yes, I now was comfortable in deep water. But only in the calm of a pool, feet away from the safety of the side. I feared being out of control in the open ocean and being swept out to sea. I still didn’t feel like a born swimmer.

So off to Hawaii and Melon’s Snorkeling class.

A few days into the class, while floating face down in perhaps 15 feet of Pacific Ocean and admiring coral blooms as big as VW Beetles, I had my Aha! Moment. Sure, there was current and wave action, but I felt one with the water. The ocean wasn’t just holding me up, it was pushing me up. To accept this and to feel the truth of it took me about 60 years – and Melon Dash.

Finally, I’m at peace with the water.

I no longer watch longingly as my snorkeling wife wanders face down all around Vieques. Instead, she tells friends she can’t get me out of the water once I’m in.

Swimming is not about strokes, I learned. To swim means to be completely at peace in the water – whether it’s the seven-foot deep end of my Vieques pool or the 7,000 feet of ocean abyss over which I snorkeled in Grand Turk this summer.

Melon was right all along. I am a born swimmer.

In my next blog, “Gateways”

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Miracle Swim Master of Sarasota

Half the population admits to being afraid of deep water in pools. Still others – comfortable in a pool -- fear to venture into the open ocean. And of drownings, three-fourths are adults.

Melon Dash, founder of Miracle Swimming in Sarasota, teaches adults to overcome their fear of water. 

It’s been 30 years since she devised her swim instruction methodology – unique in the world. In that time, Melon has brought thousands of men and women from sheer terror of water to perfect comfort in both pools and the open ocean – including SCUBA certification.

Melon Dash, miracle worker.

Melon’s approach is like no other. Forget burying your face in the water and blowing bubbles. Forget learning strokes. Her students learn to be calm and comfortable in water -- of any depth.

She breaks instruction down to tiny, detailed steps. And students don’t move on to the next step until it sounds like fun to do so. It seems to be counter-intuitive, but it works -- for more than 4,000 adult students during Melon’s career.

No one feared water more than my wife. Jo Anne couldn’t even put her face under the shower.

But she wanted to learn. So she found Emma, an accomplished competitive swimmer on Cape Cod who assured Jo Anne that she could teach her.

Emma took it slow. In their initial class, the two women sat at the side of the pool and Jo Anne dripped cupped hands of water over her shoulders, arms and cheeks.

After two summers of weekly lessons, Jo Anne was able to float on her back with Emma’s hands inches beneath her.

Then Jo Anne found Melon’s week-long Beginner class.

The miracle began with Jo Anne bursting into tears because she couldn’t bring herself to put her face into the water. Melon said that she had done exactly the right thing by refusing to put her face into the water if it didn’t “sound like fun.” If Jo Anne had forced herself, she would have taken a step back, not forward.

That’s Melon’s style. Step by detailed step. No keeping up with the class. No pressure. Nothing forced. Everything fun. And it works miracles.

Jo Anne completed the Beginner class, then progressed through Next-Step and Freestyle classes.

During the Freestyle class, she came down with the flu and had to observe the learning process from poolside. Each evening she practiced on the bed in her hotel room what the other students had done that day in the pool. On the last day of the class, she felt healthy enough to enter the water -- and she did this:

From there it was the Beginning Snorkeling class in Hawaii and Next-step Snorkeling in Grand Turk, where she swam over to its famous “Wall” and peered into an abyss 7,000 feet deep.

Along her journey to freedom in water, Jo Anne was faced with emerging medical problems serious enough to warrant continuing treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center – with the attendant regimen of CT and Pet scans, oral and infused medications. 

Jo Anne, from fear to freedom.

Which explains why, during a recent chat with Melon, Jo Anne said of her love of snorkeling: 
“Nothing can get to me there. I feel safe. I watch the fish and forget everything else.”

“Did you hear what you just said?” Melon caught her. “You feel safe in the water.”

In my next blog: “The Miracle Swim Master of Sarasota, Part 2”