Tom Petty: Like It Was Dreamville

tompetty_studio

The summer between 9th and 10th grades, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play the Cow Palace during their Hard Promises tour. It was June 1981, I was 15 years old and, little did I know, I would be forever changed. Besides my major schoolgirl crush, I was completely inspired and enchanted by his music. I’d already been taking guitar lessons for about 6 months, and from then on I would bring a new Tom Petty song in to learn at my weekly lessons at Dimond Music on Park Boulevard in Oakland. My teacher Gene definitely got a bit of a kick out of my passion and enthusiasm for all things Petty, and every day after school I would come straight home, go to my room, and practice my guitar.

At school, everyone knew I absolutely loved him. It could have been all the Tom Petty t-shirts and buttons I wore, the many stickers on my binder, or my tendency to talk quite often—OK, maybe every day—about how great his music was. In retrospect I imagine I was possibly a bit annoying about it all. In the yearbook my sophomore year, there was a little feature asking students what public figure they’d want to be like the most. My response was “Stevie Nicks. She’s pretty, has beautiful clothes, a beautiful voice, and gets to sing with Tom Petty.” To this day, anytime I see anyone from those years, they ask if I still like Tom Petty, and tell me they think of me every time they hear him.

In 1991 I lost my house and everything I owned in the Oakland Hills fire. One of my favorite possessions had been an autographed copy of Tom Petty’s “Long After Dark” album I’d won from a radio contest in 10th grade. After the fire, I called his management company and explained what had happened. They said they’d talk to Tom and see what he thought. A couple of weeks later, a package arrived in the mail. In it was a t-shirt, and personally autographed copies of “Into The Great Wide Open” CD and tour program. “For Tania, Tom Petty ’91” he wrote.

His generosity touched my life again In 2011 when I organized a benefit show called “Bands for Bunnies,” to raise funds for a small Bay Area rabbit rescue. I called his management company and asked whether they might be able to donate something for our silent auction. A few days later I got a phone call saying they would be sending an autographed “Runnin Down a Dream” movie poster, which was a huge part of being able to raise $1500 for the rescue group.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him play live, but some of the most memorable were two shows at the Fillmore during his 20 show run in 1997. At one of them, while I was waiting in line out on the sidewalk along Geary Street, two girls in front of me & I were talking about what we hoped he’d play, and what the show might be like. I told them I’d love to have one of his guitar picks. They laughed and said “…yeah, good luck with that!” Since I arrived so early, I was fortunate to be front row center. Lo, as the lights went down just after he finished playing “Free Fallin’,” I saw him flick his pick out into the audience. It seemed like slow motion as I put up my hand, and the white Fender medium pick bounced off my palm and onto the floor at my feet. Straight into my pocket it went, and to this day I still use it to play and practice.

By complete serendipity, I got to meet Tom Petty at the premiere of his “Runnin’ Down a Dream” documentary in Burbank in 2007. Some people say you should never meet your heroes, but he was as kind and gracious as I could have ever dreamed. I was able to tell him about bringing his songs to my guitar lessons every week as a teenager, which made him smile. I asked him what advice he’d give to musicians just starting out. His reply, “Constantly work on being a better songwriter, and always be true to yourself.” His last words to me on his way into the theater that night were “God bless you.”

I was so fortunate to be able to be at one of his last shows at the Hollywood Bowl. It was one of the most magical nights…one that felt timeless. As I enjoyed the music and Tom and the band’s obvious friendships and love for playing, I looked up at the sky. Two bright white spotlights crossed the sky from left and right above the Bowl as the constellations slowly moved by. He was happy and exuberant, loving the audience just as much as we loved him back. It felt like we were all in a magical, bright, colorful snow globe where, just for a little while, there was nothing but love, and all was well with the world.

Now, less than two weeks later, Tom Petty has unexpectedly passed away. My heart aches, and my sadness feels deep and profound, like I’ve lost part of my family. It’s said that nothing lasts forever, but oh how I wish it could. Thank you Tom for your music, kindness, generosity, wisdom, and humor. I wouldn’t be the same person without you. Your words have inspired, comforted, and given me hope during some of the brightest, as well as some of the most difficult times of my life. I’ll always, always carry you in my heart.

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Pixelated: Seeking Nirvana at the Altar of the Worldwide Web

Reading at LitCrawl, Samovar Tea Lounge, San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2014.

Reading at LitCrawl, Samovar Tea Lounge, San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2014.

In the late ’80s, I worked as a sales rep for a company called ComTech that sold cell phones and pagers. The phones weighed about 25 pounds and nobody wanted to buy them. It was such a frustrating struggle I couldn’t take it and quit after three weeks. From there, I’m trying to recall the very first time I heard that distinctive, booming voice of the AOL guy tell me, “YOU’VE GOT MAIL.” I can’t quite remember it specifically, but somehow, from that day on, everything changed. At this point, it feels like we’re all, in essence, praying to the great sacred temple of Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California countless times a day. I could be wrong, but I think the internet might be more popular than Jesus.

I have a love/hate relationship with technology. Not to be one of those people forever waxing poetic about the olden days, but I grew up during the time when our TV had rabbit-ears for antennae, and there were three main channels plus PBS. When I was really young, we had a rotary phone with no answering machine. I read books, played outside, and watched the Flintstones and the Brady Bunch after school everyday. If I needed to know about something, I looked it up in the encyclopedia, or went to the library and used the Dewey Decimal System. That was enough. I was happy, and times were simple. We got a color TV with a remote control when I was eight, and cable when I was 15. That was a huge deal, and super exciting, because I got to watch MTV around the clock, back when MTV actually ran music videos.

Whenever she interviews someone, Oprah always asks “what do you know for sure?” What I know for sure is that I’m very glad there was no such thing as the internet when I was a teenager. The world at large has been spared what would have likely been endless posts about how much I loved Tom Petty, what I was learning at my guitar lessons, and confessions of infatuation and devotion alternating with bitter gripes about Jesse, my boyfriend from high school who thought he was Billy Idol, came from a huge Mormon family, and was still seeing his old girlfriend on the side. I still remember how he used to freak out and tell me never to say “Oh my God” in front of his parents because it upset them.

Recently a friend and I were discussing how Facebook and social media can make people crazy and obsessive, and the fact that there’s always the somewhat constant looming question of what’s “enough.” Will you inadvertently offend and alienate everyone you’ve ever known with some random post or comment that you really hadn’t even thought much about to begin with? Will the things you find interesting slowly and quietly drive your friends and family off into obscurity? It’s oddly invasive that the ticker reports to the entire universe what your comment was on a friend’s post, what photos you like, and what you’re listening to on Spotify. You can also watch someone’s life implode like a slow motion trainwreck. How many “friends” sit and watch, like voyeurs behind the scenes gleefully witnessing what seems to be a tragic movie plot unfold in real time?

On a sociological level, it’s fascinating to see what people choose to share about their lives, how often they post, what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also how adamant some people are about sharing and defending their over-the-top religious and political views—their personal version of The Truth. I’m completely amazed at the amount of energy this must all take. Maybe there should be a law, “separation of church and web.”

I wonder…what if Jesus was on Facebook? What would he post? “Turned water into wine today,” “turned a stone into bread,” or “brought Lazarus back to life.” Instead of twelve apostles, maybe he would have twelve thousand. How many “likes” would he have on his posts, and would there be endless arguments and bickering in the comments? Without a doubt.

There are people who post ten times a day about how terrible Facebook is; how it is a complete waste of time, and invasion of privacy. If it’s so awful, really you should probably just quit Facebook. Apparently, it really isn’t cool anymore anyway, and hasn’t been for quite awhile because everyone’s parents, friends of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are on it, spying, being nosy, and getting into everyone’s business.

What was life like before social media? When you’re having an experience, how much time do you spend thinking about what kind of angle you’ll shoot the photo you plan to post? Then once you post it, how many times do you check to see how many people “liked” it, commented on it, acknowledged it? How sad are you if something you post goes totally ignored? Maybe you just don’t care. But then, maybe you do. How much joy does all that suck out of whatever the experience was in the first place?

Lately a lot of people have been posting videos all about how very sad it is that everyone is so busy staring down at their phones that they’re missing out on life and relationships happening around them. There are now actual organized movements like “99 Days of Freedom,” where people go offline for a 99-day social media/Facebook detox. As of this writing, according to their website, 37,056 people are “enjoying freedom.”

“ReStart,” the nation’s first real-life rehab center for technology addiction opened in 2009. At their Heavensfield Retreat Center in the State of Washington, you can get help for video game addiction, internet addiction, smart phone addiction, and tech addiction in general. They have a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google+ page. One of their taglines is “Social Media: Update Less, Connect More.”

The major cruise lines are spending millions to make wifi on their ships faster, and apparently this is a major selling point. I’m not a “cruise person,” but really, shouldn’t people just be enjoying themselves on vacation and not staring into the abyss of the interwebs, worrying about how fast their vacation photos are uploading for all their followers to see?

How far will technology go, and at what point will we have had enough? Do you really need a car that drives and parks itself? How many remotes do you really want to have to work your TV? And how high of resolution does your screen need to be able to enjoy a show or movie? Do you really need a curved TV screen? Is Google Glass really just creepy? At what point does everyone get a chip implanted in their brain at birth and we all just call it a day?

I refuse to own a Kindle. Recently there was a book I wanted to check out from the library which was only available as an e-book. I was so bummed, and thought to myself, “OH NO, here we go…it’s the beginning of the end.” Hopefully I will be long gone by the time they stop printing real books. If I’m reading, I want to hold a book in my hand. Turn the pages, feel the paper. I want to make notes in the margins if I feel like it, and physically flip the pages back to reread something. Somehow I feel like my brain absorbs information better seeing it in print.

I love handwritten letters, old printed programs, menus, brochures, and postcards. Somehow it feels like the humanity of our communication is getting lost. Generation X and their predecessors will keep boxes of old love letters…what will the young people of today keep? Will they print out their texts to save in a special box of mementos to be treasured and read in their later years?

Some things are just plain strange. Holograms of performances by Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain are especially bizarre, kind of like modern-day versions of Disneyland’s “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.” Are we all destined to be kept “alive” somehow with no personal control over whatever script or actions someone decides to assign to us in our post-earthly-life hologram form? Who owns the rights to us after we’re gone? There’s got to be a lawyer somewhere who specializes in this.

When the doors to communication and expression are open, they’re open to everyone with access to the internet. Perceived power can be intoxicating. Everyone has their own personal stage, their own personal soapbox. The internet tells us how to think, what to think, what to like, acknowledge, what’s cool and what’s uncool.

Too much to choose from can give a constant feeling of anxiety…of somehow being behind on everything. There’s even an official term for this: “FOMO,” or “Fear of Missing Out.” In the 80s, Bruce Springsteen had a song, “57 Channels and Nothing’s On.” Try 1,049 channels. There’s GOT to be something on. But mostly, there’s really not. Netflix binge watching has become an obsession. Entire seasons of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones in a single weekend.

It feels like we’re becoming a civilization obsessed with instant gratification, with everyone in a constant state of agitation over messages sent, received, status updates and photos acknowledged, liked, or not liked. We’re becoming desensitized to our current very public style of correspondence and communication—what used to be privately shared in e-mail or a phone conversation is now out for the world and everyone you’ve ever known to see.

Unfortunately anyone without e-mail, a computer, or cell phone nowadays is an instant hopeless dinosaur, sadly destined to be “out of it” forever. Staring into the glowing screen of an iPhone, iPad, laptop, or soon-to-be-antiquated desktop computer, we’re seeking love, validation, approval, identity. The gratification is instant and addictive, like a drug.

Sometimes it’s all just too much and I long for the sweet, simple days of three channels plus PBS and a rotary phone. My true moments of pure joy have nothing to do with technology. Sometimes I fantasize about dropping my computer and iPhone off a cliff—or rather, donating them to my local e-waste center—and going “off the grid,” as they say…living on a mountaintop somewhere for a year or maybe forever, communing with a spirit greater than myself, and writing about it all on an old Royal typewriter. Someday maybe I will.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to wonder how so many people are giving up their landline phones to rely solely on cell phones when the audio quality isn’t much better than the first-ever recording of Alexander Graham Bell from April 15th, 1885, preserved for posterity by Smithsonian researchers via optical technology:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/we-had-no-idea-what-alexander-graham-bell-sounded-like-until-now-37585123/?no-ist


Nothing & Everything: Lessons From The Fire

Barn’s burnt down —
now
I can see the moon.
          — Mizuta Masahide

As a little girl, leaving early in the morning for summer vacations with my parents, each time my Dad drove our brown 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass down Hiller Drive, I would always watch our house out the back window, mesmerized as it got smaller and smaller until it turned to a tiny dot and finally disappeared as he rounded the bend at the bottom of the hill. I don’t know why, but I always felt like I might never see it again. For some reason, the thought never crossed my mind on a daily basis, only when we left for vacation. Though October 20, 1991 was just an ordinary Sunday and no specific travel plans were on the horizon, my childhood premonition came true. I left my house in the morning, never to see it again. It was the house I grew up in. I was 25 years old.

My memories of that day now feel surrealistic and dream-like. I left the house around 10:30 a.m. to head over to my then-boyfriend Jamey’s apartment on Mariposa Street, just off Oakland Avenue. Looking out his living room window, I noticed the sky seemed to be getting overcast. Odd, I thought, for such a sunny warm fall day. Upon realizing the impending “cloud cover” was actually smoke, we turned on the news to find a reporter describing the fire location as “The Oakland Hills,” then “Hiller Highlands” — my neighborhood. At that moment I had no clue of the magnitude of what would unfold that day, and how my life would change.

Feeling certain that both my parents had gone out for the afternoon by then, I was instantly intent on getting up to the house to save our beloved blue budgie Kiwi. Jamey & I drove up Broadway as far as the police would allow, to the intersection of College & Broadway. We parked the car and ran, under the eerie light of the muted pinkish-orange sun, to the top of Broadway through thick gray smoke, scorching wind and flying embers. When the police wouldn’t let us go any further, we darted up a side-street to our right, Ocean View Drive, only to be met by a three-story house engulfed in a full wall of flames up to its rooftop, and a man walking quickly the opposite direction, warning that we better turn around and get out before the fire hit a gas line.

Reality set in. I was devastated not to be able to get up to our house, but still too shocked and numb to be emotional. I proceeded to check in at the Red Cross center and shelter at Oakland Tech High School where fire survivors were instructed to sign in to reconnect with their families. I found my Dad’s name on the list, and discovered he had gone to the home of his friend and fellow football coach Dan Shaughnessy in Albany where I headed to meet him. Despite numerous phone calls to the center throughout the afternoon and evening, we were repeatedly told they had no record of my Mom having checked in. It was 1991 — the virtual stone age of mainstream computer technology. There were no cell phones, no texting, no e-mail, and computers were still relatively rare. All of the lists at the Red Cross center were hand-written.

Not knowing whether my Mom had made it out of the house, my Dad & I spent a tearful, sleepless night in the Shaughnessys’ garden cottage. Early the next morning we drove to the Claremont Hotel where an outpost of firefighters and police officers were stationed to keep people out of the fire area, since there were still hot spots throughout the hills with danger of the fire reigniting.

We asked an officer whether he could drive by our house to check if there were any signs of a car — or what would have been left of one. The stark reality was that charred remnants of a vehicle would have meant that my Mom likely perished at the house, while no car would have meant she escaped. The ten minutes it took for him to return felt longer than a lifetime. Nothing has ever matched the rush of relief and joy that washed over my Dad & I when the officer came back to report there wasn’t any sign of a car.

My Mom had, in fact, survived, and we proceeded to find her later that morning, along with budgie Kiwi, safe at the home of her sister Vicki in the hills above Montclair. We learned that she had indeed checked in and put her name on the list at the Red Cross center the day of the fire, but had not found my or my Dad’s names. The shelter would not let her stay the night there with Kiwi because animals were not allowed so she’d spent the night in her car, in the parking lot of Oakland Tech, and had gone on to her sister’s in the morning.

Artifacts

I would like to create an art piece someday which will include many of my “artifacts,” as I like to call them — items I was able to dig out of the ashes a few days after the fire when I was allowed back up to where our house once stood: my charm bracelet still dangling with charms from childhood vacations, small ceramic bowls I’d made in elementary school, a pair of my Dad’s cuff links, jingle bells from christmas ornaments, a ceramic bird my cousin Darin brought me from a long-ago trip to Mexico, my grandmother Anthoula’s engagement ring. Most are charred blackish-gray, some so fragile they seem they could crumble to dust at any moment.

I took photos that day. Perhaps most striking was the signature feature of most of the 3,354 homes which burned in the hills of Oakland and Berkeley: the lonely still-standing brick fireplace, a sentinel surrounded by blackened ash-covered ruins. One image shows a large pile of white, singed but still usable pyrex pots sitting squarely where our kitchen once was. Some items were hauntingly stark in their beauty, even in their charred condition: the blackened skeleton frame of our grand piano which once rang bright and powerful with melodies of my Mom playing Chopin and Beethoven sonatas, my Dad’s big blue wheelbarrow he always used for carting weeds and soil up and down the hill and around his vegetable garden, still standing in the spot where he kept it in the former garage. The twisted remains of Kiwi’s wrought iron birdcage stand laying on its side amidst miscellaneous unrecognizable piles of ash. I will forever be grateful to my Mom for valiantly rescuing him, carrying his blanket-covered cage out to her car, along with four albums of my baby pictures, as well as her own and my Dad’s childhood and wedding albums, as huge blazing fireballs rapidly rolled down the hill behind our house, and flames engulfed our front yard and driveway.

Piano

Kitchen (note pile of pyrex pots at front center)

My Dad's wheelbarrow

The things I miss most of all aren’t things of great monetary value — my journals I’d kept since I was six years old, the reel-to-reel tapes my parents made of me as a baby learning to talk, super 8 movies of my childhood years, and all my photos from junior high through the time of the fire. I’ve had recurring dreams of walking into a library and seeing all my old journals lining the shelves. In my dreams, I pull them down and read them. I can still see my scrawly schoolgirl handwriting describing my latest crush, or some random funny thing that had happened in class.

My first post-fire retail expedition was to the old Payless at the corner of 51st and Broadway in Oakland the day after the fire. I stepped into the store and found myself standing frozen for a good long moment. I owned nothing in the world but the clothes I wore. What did I need? I hadn’t written a shopping list. Instinct and common sense led me first to the toothbrush aisle. I honestly forget where I went next, but wherever it was, it undoubtedly took me to what I needed. I survived. I had my life. Everything else was just details, and I’ve ultimately learned that all things eventually have a way of sorting themselves out.

My parents rebuilt the house and have since sold it, but I never lived there again. In the twenty years since that day, the way I look at the world gradually shifted. While I certainly wouldn’t wish the experience on anybody, I am grateful for having had it myself, and for the bigger lessons it taught me. In the days, months and years that followed, it woke me up to my life, my truth, and what is important to me. It woke me up to courage.

I wish I could tell every person who has lost their worldly possessions in a fire or similar catastrophe, that no matter how devastating it seems, to take heart. Let yourself deeply feel the pain of the loss, but find ways to stay hopeful. It may feel like you have nothing, but really you have everything. You are alive. You will heal. You will wake up tomorrow, and the next morning, and the morning after that. Your life will go on and what happened to you will become part of the fabric of who you are.

Inevitably, you will change. You may appreciate small things more and value material things less. You may learn to value experiences, family and true friendships more than anything you can buy in a store. You may become more forgiving and less judgmental. You may strive to live more authentically and commit to be more true to yourself rather than mindlessly conform and sleepwalk through what may traditionally be expected of you. You may come to realize that life is really very fragile and there are no guarantees. It can all be snuffed out in an instant, so if there is something you want to do, by all means do it even if it is one courageous tiny step towards some grander ultimate goal.

Finally, there is a good chance that, like me, wherever you live for the rest of your life, you will check and double check, sometimes even drive back home when you are miles away, to be sure you’ve turned off the stove and unplugged your hairstyling appliances.

Our house, circa 1972 on a rare day when it snowed in Oakland. Yes, that's me on the front steps in the pom pom hat.