The Muse

The Coconut Grove Hotel is still there, though it’s now a Courtyard by Marriott

E r, are you going out?” I asked.

Christmas, 1980. Miami. I was 12.

“We both are; dinner and dancing. Get dressed,” Mom said, plugging in the curling iron.

Aw crap…

Mom’d scrimped, saved, and strong-armed Dad into sponsoring a Caribbean cruise – no mean feat, as they were divorced, and he didn’t get an invitation. It also meant Mom decreed dancing lessons beforehand; foxtrot, waltz, samba, and, God help us, the jive.

Horatio’s, the rooftop dining room at The Coconut Grove Hotel, was dimly swank with a sort of church-hush, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was also very red. The carpet was red. The velvet curtains were red. The menus were red. The table cloths were red. The napkins were red. The waiter’s tie and cummerbunds were red, as were the eyes of the musicians in the band.

At first chance, Mom hoiked me up to a conspicuously empty dance floor, backed by a red stage sporting a mummified trio of piano, bass, and drums. They had the general aspect of a tuxedoed chain gang and didn’t bother with any of that pesky nonsense of trying to work a crowd (very shrewd, as there wasn’t any). They avoided eye contact, lowered their heads, and put in their time.

I camouflaged by turning red, set my jaw, and charged into it.

I can’t believe I found a photo of the actual dance floor!!! But I assure you those white tablecloths were strictly for that photo.

After quelling Mom’s pumphandling arm and her instinct to lead, it wasn’t as putrid as I’d feared. With no press of eyeballs on us, we loosened up and tried some more intricate moves. The drummer woke up the other two and called their attention to us, and as the song wheezed to a finish, the bass player asked for requests.

Mom shot me a ‘If you say Funkytown I’ll kill you’ look, and muttered “Bossa”.

“Could you do us a bossa?” I asked, ingratiatingly.

The drummer’s eyebrows shot up into his hairdo and the piano player launched into a coughing fit, but they shoved into it.

As we ‘slow, quick-quicked’, Mom asked me in gangster undertones if I had any cash.

“About five bucks, so if you’ve lost your money, I guess we’ll be washing dishes. On the plus side, it looks like we’ll only have ours to do.”

“Slide it into their tip jar and say we’re having a nice evening.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the gentleman, and that’s what’s done,” she said.

“But why does it have to be my $5?”

“Because, Schnook, it ruins the effect if I give it to you.”

As the song collapsed at the finish line, the band announced a quick break. I strode over, shot my cuffs, and slipped the fin into the tip jar.

“Hey kid, you’ve got some good moves,” the piano player said. “Nice, not too flashy. Smooth. And a tip! Very classy. Thank you, enjoy your evening, sir,” he said, bowing.

Back at our table, appetizers appeared. “Frog legs for the lady, and the gentleman’s escargot.”

We stared at our plates. This was fresh territory; I thought escargots were done in garlic-smothered mushroom caps, but this was a white puff pastry thing, and against the red of the tablecloth, it was rather blinding.

Mom prodded her frog’s legs.

“You first,” she said.

“Coward,” I said, whacking into the crust. The snails were suspended in a glaring white sauce, looking like pieces of chewed licorice gum stirred into vanilla pudding, then baked into a small pie.

“What is this?”

“It’s $11, so you’re eating it.” Mom said.

I gave it a go. Mom hooted and chuckled as I wrestled it down, clutching for my red drink.

“So?” she asked.

“I know why The Keg drowns them in garlic butter: it hides the taste of the snails. This looks like dessert, but tastes like a mud puddle,” I said. “How’s yours?”

“Meh, not bad,” she said, but her next forkful brought her face to face with the flippers. She blanched like my puff pastry.

“Point of order,” I said. “If you don’t finish those, there’s no way I’m finishing this muck.”


The band came back like a tubercular squadron of old propeller planes coming out of mothballs. There was instrumental sputtering, coughing, futile revving, stalls, and heaving starts. When they finally got going at the proper rpms, Mom hauled me back up to dance.

“I’m glad this isn’t too weird for you”, Mom said.

“Says who? I’m barely keeping it together here. I’m just hoping to save up points against future misdemeanours,” I said, executing a flawless turn.

Mom smiled. “You know, there are times when I genuinely enjoy your company – for its own sake.”

A postcard of the M/S Skyward, circa 1980

The next morning, we clattered up the gangplank of our ship, which differed from expectations gleaned from The Love Boat. For instance, there were no washed-up actors. The Cruise Director came off as a mix of Burt Reynolds crossed with an octopus. The bartender was churlish. And if you’re the type of person who gets excited by multitasking, then the stateroom on a 1980 cruise ship is just your bag. The ‘head’ is one of those places where the person on the go can shower, brush teeth, and use the thundermug all at the same time. Mom tried to get to the hint of bed, and we had to fall back on our dance training to pull it off.

“If we had a little more room, it’d be like living in a broom closet,” I said.

Wedged into the dining room on the M/S Skyward. Note Owen savaged by a horrendous perm by Grandma.

Mom retired after dinner, so I schmoozed around the tossing, windblown ship, inevitably hoving to at the empty Lido Deck bar as a band vamped on the “Ladies’ Night” riff. It was drums, bass, guitar, and a steel drum, and the heavily accented bass player welcomed the crowd (me) to The Lido Deck, and informed us (me) that we (I) were being entertained (you bet!) by the Mind, Body, and Soul Band from Kingston, Jamaica.

They stepped into the tune, and it was better than I’d expected. Much, much better. The steel drum covered the keyboard parts and the horn section, and he had some Big Choices to make. It was clever: he adapted the music to the situation. According to these guys, you could get the point across in different ways, not just what was on the record.

You can DO that?!?

It’s easy to forget that 12-year-olds don’t see much live entertainment. School concerts and ‘little old white lady’ churches where everyone claps on the wrong beat is a far cry from actual music. Music had always been a sanctified process accessed through speakers. It was something done by others, somewhere else. We enjoyed music, but others created it. Musicians were as disconnected from my day-to-day life as were politicians, weather girls, and millionaires.

Sitting on a windswept deck, watching four musicians play songs they’d rather not, to a barren gig, changed the entire course of my life. I could actually feel it happening, as it happened.

Like love at first sight.

And my new hero was the drummer, Basil. He was having the most fun and always smiled, like he knew the secrets.

Drumming. Hmm…

Unfortunately for The Mind, Body, and Soul Band from Kingston, Jamaica, their new number one fan made himself a fixture during their daily appearances. By mid-week they’d given up trying to ditch me, and extended the verboten privilege of sneaking below decks, taking meals with the crew, 3:00 am poker games, and soaking up the musician lifestyle.

Owen with his new hero, Basil Shirley.

And, you may ask, where the hell was Mom while I gallivanted below decks at all hours with complete strangers from foreign lands? Knowing how strict she was, none of my friends back home believed me until the pictures got developed.

Mom was sleeping. Again.

After the cruise, we made the customary pilgrimage of wadding up cash and throwing it at The Mouse, and Mom and I spent New Year’s Eve watching TV movies in our Orlando hotel room. At midnight, Mom kissed me Happy New Year, crawled back into her bed, and instantly fell asleep in that maddening way of hers.

I snuck out to the pop machine and heard music, which I followed to a ballroom, and was promptly tossed out. Surreptitiously, I crept into the kitchen and asked a matronly lady if she could help me listen to the music. Her face lit up and she stage-whispered something enthusiastic in Spanish, then slid me into the ballroom behind some buffet tables.

The vibe in the ballroom was odd, like a salesman convention. Loutish drunks, festooned in riotous pants and ties, danced what looked like The Twist mishmashed with The Bird Dance. Random people passed out in random places. A couple of streetwalker-clothed women argued over an elderly gent dozing in the corner.

But the music!

It was completely different from the relaxed Jamaican thing Basil and the fellas on the ship had; this was high energy stuff that moved.

It throbbed.

I came out in goosebumps.

The layers of rhythm did it; half note triplets, and The Clave – a rhythmical click of two fat sticks that rang out clear against the amplified instruments. I realized you didn’t have to play the beat, to feel the beat. Most dance stuff has the bass drum pounding quarter notes, but this left beats unplayed, or played on the opposite upbeat, but you could feel where it came down, and were moved accordingly.

Imply it. Point at it. You needn’t club it like Grandma clapping on the wrong beat.

I didn’t realize that I knew so much. I’d never really paid attention to rhythm before, but I guess the basics from school band were enough to get the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, and Mom had kept the Homestead sufficiently flowing with music that I felt the 1-2-3-4 counts instinctively.

Mom should be down here enjoying this too.

And the poor musicians! Why were they all playing to empty rooms, or drunks who didn’t care one way or the other?!

I leapt like a salmon as a horse bit me on the shoulder. At least it felt like a horse bite, but it was the doorman chucking me out.

I slunk back to the room and into bed.

“Have fun?” Mom asked, causing another leap.

I asked why we weren’t down there with the band.

“And get hit on by a bunch of drunks? No thanks. But I’m sorry that you feel you lost out, Honey. I didn’t think you liked dancing that much.”

“It’s not the dancing; it’s the music.”

I heard her sit up. “Music seems to be important to you.”

“I’m thinking about it a lot. And not just learning to play; I want to know how to live it. How do you create it? Why does the same song sound so different coming from different musicians? Why does some music give me goose bumps, or even make me cry?” I asked.

“Hmm. Why do you think?” she asked.

I thought about it for a long time. “Maybe that’s what music is supposed to do.”

“I think so. Art is supposed to be emotional. There’s probably more to it, but it’s clear enough to me. Happy, sad, angry, sexy, excited, anxious; I’ve felt all of it from music. And books. And movies. And pictures.”

“That’s so cool…”

“Goodnight Honey, Happy New Year” Mom said, and in the dark I could hear her roll over and the change in her breathing as she drifted into sleep.

And by age 14, I’d immersed myself in drumming. Provincial High School Honour Band for 3 years. By 18, I’d already been to Europe twice playing music. I took it in college and was a full-time musician for many years. TV shows, giant festivals, and chicken wire gigs. Even now, in my mid 50s, I’m the Drum Sargent in a pipe band, and I teach drumming to Air Cadets.

But Mom never heard me play. Not a note.

This was the last New Year’s Eve Mom would ever have.

She would be dead within the year.

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The Process of Drawing

First comes extensive research. No artsy-fartsy 'interpretation'; it has to be done right.  No guesswork.

Then comes 300-ish hours of painstaking, garment-rending, hair-pulling, hunched-over, aspirin and coffee-fueled toil at the drawing table before collapsing at the finish line.

"I've always felt that artists who gabble on about 'how relaxing art is for them' are full of crap.  I always thought Hemingway got it right: ' sit down at a typewriter and open a vein'.

You've gotta bleed a little"

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