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Entries in Ali Berlow (3)

Saturday
Jun042011

And then she is... stars (June 4, 2010)

Zelda. She had that way. She just did. Even in the end, she remained the ultimate monster of love (to borrow from Sparks). She felt the wind whipping into the car, sunk into the music, took it all in -- and dreamed.

The people at the vet's were just as unwrapped as Ali and I. There is never a moment sending doggies to heaven is easy. But some patients -- and Zelda was a baby they'd pulled through a couple big crisis. and she'd charmed them in her weakness just like she did everyone else -- are tougher than others.

But everyone tried to be brave, through their wired set jaws and their too veiled eyes. The inevitable is just that... just... time. And there's nothing you can do -- like water slipping through your fingers, it's just gone.

Zelda got quiet, too. She knew. Not quiet in a scared way, but in a "this is it" way, uncertain of the future... knowing, no doubt, they were going to stick her, because they always stuck her -- and just too tired to even know what to think about it.

Sarah, her very favorite office person, was there. She'd been dealing with a fairly upset me on the phone for the five months it had taken the spaniel's kidneys to fail. She is patience and kindness and knowing. Zelda was glad to see her...
And Dr. Stanland was there. Quiet, calm, gentle. She had done the same protocol on a Sunday 14 years prior as an emergency for Scott, Zelda's brother. She understands the way sorrow runs through your veins, permeates every fiber of your being, every breath taken.
"You ready?" she asked the poodle. Zelda looked up, so tired she could barely smile. She was. I wasn't, but the little girl was ready to fly, to romp, to be free -- of all pain, all exhaustion, all the nausea that had plagued her.
Dr Stanland explained the process. A sleeping medicine to let her drift off, then something to end her suffering -- before it was just too much. And, because Dr Ann thinks of everything, BABY FOOD! Something to nibble while the first injection was being given.
Never mind the plate of beef burgundy Zelda had just devoured. A new and delicious snack. The poodle was elated. Yummy! Yes! More... and she ate the entire jar, licking the spoon and smiling at Sarah.
"You can take her out to the car," my vet said, knowing -- as did everyone -- that was Zelda's most favorite place.
Zelda, so weak, she doesn't even think twice about walking. I scoop her up, and she melts into me. She just lets go and merges into my body as she did so many mornings when she wanted to keep me all for her.
Back in the car, there is more music. More petting that silky blond fur, kissing the top of her head. Trying not to cry, because as the orderly told me when my father was so ill with the cancer, "He don't need your tears... and your sadness... He needs to feel joy, and life... and love. You bring him THAT, and you leave your pain out there -- cause he's got enough of that."
She was wide, that orderly. Tough and big and brown. An old, honest Florida texture you don't see much anymore. She was right about Zelda, too.
Sarah came out to check on us. Took on look at Zelda, shook her head laughing. "She's not going to sleep. Of COURSE!"
Cars and Mommies and music and friends. How do you miss that? Certainly not for sleepy Zeldas, no. No!
Sarah petted Zelda, too. Talked about what a great spirit she had, what a big life... an even bigger personality. Zelda was nothing, if not a force of nature.
Eventually, her eyes started to be heavier than her will to rock. All the Allmans, the Patty Loveless, the Rodney Crowell and the Otis Redding couldn't keep Z from the land of Nod.
"She might be ready...," I half-asked.
Sarah nodded. "Yeah, she's asleep."
And so, once again, I scooped up my dream baby -- and rose out of the car. This time, people had tears in their eyes when we talked through the lobby, the satellite of fluff and silky shine tangled up in my bare arms, ready to go to heaven.
She was ready. It wouldn't hurt, but it would end the pain, the exhaustion, the nausea. This was an extraordinary little girl... and she laughed through all of it, but it had worn her down. It was time.
My friend Michael is a dog person. He'd lost his dear Sid Vicious suddenly. He had been a constant source of encouragement, of knowing when, of doing the right thing... He had all but held my head in a book called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, but even still he couldn't get me to read it.
On a flight after a very fraught trip to Austin, I had cracked it open, had finished it the next night in the lost hours in Woodstock, NY. A trip I'd taken because my beloved Hobbs had insisted I would be a better Mommy to Zelda if i got a break, got my head clear.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is written from the perspective of a man's best friend, the night before the doggie is to be put to sleep. It sounds sad, but it is triumphant. Enzo lives, runs, flies -- and returns in the most unlikely ways, as his good owner finds his own depths, altitudes and soars.
In this moment, with tears running down my face, I understand why it was so important to my friend to get me to read that book. Why my confession that I'd started and was being held hostage prompted an actual phone call from him... and that he knew what I couldn't until this very moment: it made me feel better.
Dr Stanland put the needle in, depressed the plunger. She offered comforting words, understanding, compassion. Ali brought her quiet strength and her bottomless love for the spaniel, too.
Zelda couldn't have been surrounded by more caring, more grace, more magic. She knew that. Her breathing slowed and slowed. My fingers gently laid on her rib cage, stroking her side so whether she was awake or not, she knew her Mommy was right there with her.
And then it stopped. Another tear fell.
But I knew something -- in spite of the giant tear and hollowness opening up inside me. I knew that Zelda was already on the wind, her ears flying behind her, laughing and marveling at how she was getting her sleek, strong, sexy superspaniel body back.
She was laughing. She was exultant. She was light, bright blinding white light -- shining, shimmering. She was free.

"Is she gone?" I croaked, knowing, but needing to be told.
Dr. Stanland nodded, smiled in the sad way of people who know it's the right have.
"Okay," I said. "Okay..."

Zelda was gone. There was only one thing to do: Get in the car and drive. Drive fast. Drive hard. Drive nowhere and everywhere -- just the way Zelda always liked. Windows down, music up, hands held out to the darkness, to touch everything that the early evening might hold.
From that point on, of course, the night holds the promise of a beautiful butter colored spaniel. Just as the indigo swallows the sunset, somewhere around 72 miles an hour... if you have the Stones or Jackson Browne, John Prine or Alex Bevan, "Dream On" or Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night"... you can feel the softness of Zelda's fur... Zelda's heart...
All you have to do is reach out and touch it. She's always there, laughing and urging you on. Roll down your windows -- and see.

Saturday
Jun042011

"Not A What..." {The Next Day} (June 3, 2009)

"Not a what?" Penny Lane asks, outside the back of the concert venue in San Diego.
William Miller knows no answer is going to work. Confessing "groupie" brings groans and derision... especially from the pretty blond who has that special something.

Zelda knows this movie well. Almost as well as her Mommy, who can talk along with it. Almost as famous -- in many circles -- as the "Almost Famous" promises in Cameron Crowe's Oscar-winning porject. It is the story of loving music and dreams and hope and potential. Zelda used to be snuck into the Green Hills 16 back when it was a theatrical release, back when my assistant and I used to close a little early a couple times a week to remind ourselves about what matters.

"Almost Famous" is whirring on the personal DVD player I've pulled into my bed. Yes, my bed: the sprawling antique French queem, carved with roses and made with good sheets and down pillows, a hippie quilt and a velvet blanket. It is a sleep cloud, very soft and firm enough to let you drift.
Tonight Zelda and I cling to each other, so I don't worry about her rolling and crashing to the floor -- or trying to take the stairs and tumbling to the bottom. No, she knows this is it. She wants her Mommy.
And after 5 weeks in the living room, I, too, am glad for my bed. Even as I don't really sleep. Instead stroker her soft, spft palomino fur, kissing the top of head, feeling her chest rise and heart beat. If this is it, I want it all.

And Zelda has had another big day. She has endured it and enjoyed it as only a queen can. A true regal who understands it's as much for those she bestows her four-pawed grace and dignity on as it is for her own entertainment.

She went to the beauty shop: Miss KItty's Bed & Bath. A wondrous place where she's boarded her entire life, with its snack time, play time, nap time, cuddle (for her) time, mean time and a staff who just loves dogs. Dogs and Zeldas, who is NOT -- she insists -- a dog.
Jeanette is a Clevelander, She and Zelda have that bond. She cries when the poodle comes in for that last groomie, but she knows the girl has to travel in style. She smiles into the cataracted eyes, and Zelda truly sees her.

Truly seeing is one of Zelda's gifts. She knows. She understands. She bores into a person -- and recognizes their essence, their fear, their dreams. She is unnerving to some, but mostly, she reminds people how liberating love without strings can be. Because Zelda doesn't want to "keep" you, she just wants to "see" you and celebrate that beauty.

When I go to pick her up, the groomer is in tears. Some of the people who've worked at Miss Kittys for years -- long enough to remember the three month illness that kept me from coming for her from Martha's Vineyard four years ago, others who rushed her to the vet nine years ago when blood came out of her backside and an immune disorder ravaged her little body -- wipe away tears, stroke her ears, whisper their good-byes.
It is heartbreaking. It is also a reminder to how powerful a special spirit can be.
Zelda looks at everyone deeply, smiles her Zelda smile, says "There is no good-bye"

Glen Rose, my dear friend, has offered to shoot her for me. He has shot so many people, form the Kings of Leon to baby artists I'm trying to help. He has a curiosity about people and a desire to reveal the essence. He and Zelda have known each other for years; they've always gotten along. It's that soul-sight that's given them common ground.
And Glen is ready. In that perfect photo studio across from Nashville's ancient City Cemetery down on 4th Street. With a light four times the size of the Wonderspaniel and his ability to see Zelda just as she truly is: something blazing with sweetness.
He and I laugh about all the common memories. Photo shoots in condemned buildings, outside abandoned strip clubs, on the road with Kenny Chesney. Zelda just keeps following the lense.
I am in some. Cuddling. Craddling. Trying to kiss her nose.
In her whole life, Zelda has only barked once -- when she thought Ali's son Eli was being eaten by a box. She has never licked my face or kiss me.
Suddenly, her pink little tongue is licking my lips. Is letting me know she loves me. Even if just this once, she will break with personal protocol. She will kiss me -- and leave prood.
But after a bit, she is tired. She gives and gives. Listens to the talk of magazines and moments. Has a few frames with Ali, who roasted her duck hearts and came to believe that some creatures are far more human than their physical being suggests.
And then...
It's a wrap.

Back home, there is more beef burgundy, a bit of white peach. She has some cinnamon rice cake -- the kind Krogers doesn't stock anymore -- and she savors every bite. She eats with wolfish enthusiasm, something she's not displayed in too long.
She knows this is the good stuff. She's gonna enjoy every taste, and lick the plate clean.
Then she curls up on the feather bed and dreams... maybe of what's next, maybe something more. But she sleeps, knowing there is strength needed, moments to soak in.

John Hobbs, an early riser who long after we were a "we" would come over in the morning to feed Zelda just to have time with her, had a gig. The Players -- Nashville's now "A Team." Zelda had never really heard him play the piano or B-3. He thought he could "get her in."
After all, Zelda had been getting in, wandered backstage hallways, enjoyed catering and ridden tour buses since she was 4. She knew "how to hang."
What better way to spend a final night then listening to truly great, inspired music.

But more importantly, there was Radnor Lake. Music City's version of Walden Pond, where the pretty girl had traversed the paved road and spillways for more than a decade and a half. With its trees and streams and smells, cool ground, sounds, air. This was the place Zelda was most in sync with her fauna self -- and where there was never a shortage of people to tell her how beautiful she was.
Radnor, where we walked two miles most days to keep her in shape. Because as long as she was in shape, getting older wouldn't register as easily -- and Zelda was not about anything but "let's go. let's see. let's dream."
Zelda'd walked more than a mile there ten days ago. Before the real failing began.
And so, we arrived, there on Otter Creek Road. Parked the car, did some business, tried to walk a bit. But the hips wiggled and circled and made it hard. I carried her most of the way... and confronted with a family of Canadian geese grooming near her favorite bench -- the one that afforded the Monet gaze across the water - Ali Berlow tested their aggressiveness, then played decoy so we could sneak to where we wanted to be.

Zelda's bench. Behind some tall grass, under a few emerald cloud trees. How many hours had she and i spent there? Doing nothing but watching the ripples on the water, the turtles sunning, the ducks lifting out of the lake and yes, even the deer coming down to the water to drink. It was her peaceful place. It was mine, too.
Draped across my lap, extra fluffy from her bath, Zelda listened and watched. She relaxed in a way she hasn't in weeks, not quite going limp, but letting the aches and the toxins and the tired go and just settling into my thighs, feeling safe, feeling whatever tranquil feels like in their most meditative state.
This was heaven. Well, here on Earth. She was going to be released, but this wasn't a bad place to be while she was waiting. She wouldn't have to wait long. She might as well enjoy the beauty of the moment and the love of her Mommy and Mrs. Berlow and everyone else who'd come into contact with the sprite on four paws with the long flowing silky ears.

It IS quiet here. Peaceful. The temperature falling. The slight moisture in the air.
It hits me. I open my phone: 7:19.
"She won't be here in 24 hours," I whipser. I want to die with her. I can't imagine. Yet, of course, it is so. And it is. Period.
Zelda continues regarding the horizon. She is unconcerned. Right now, the lake is beautiful. That's enough. She looks at me to say, "Don't cloud the beauty with your tears... This will be beautiful, too. I promise..."

And so, we sit a little longer. Decide to head back while the day is still dove gray. In that give them their dignity truth that I try to embrace, I snap the long fuschia web leash onto her pink skull and crossbones collar and lift her off the bench. Help her get centered: hips square over back legs, balance set.
Zelda wants to walk. On the wood chips and the gravel. Then down the road that leads out to the spillway. She goes slow, uses the guard-wall as a guide and as Peter Tosh would churn, "Walk and Don't Look Back."
Ali is worried about having enough time to get her fed, get us together, get to the club.
Zelda is slowing a little, weaving a bit. I think about picking her up, watching her from my lead dog positn out on the road. Zelda just keeps walking, but talks to me in that way she has since she was a puppy.
i KNOW what she's thinking. I've been translating for years. Tears come to my eyes.
I don't pick her up. We continue our glacial pace, moving down the blacktop, night air thickening around us and the bird songs getting louder.
Zelda has seen geese and turtles, a baby snack, fish jumping, an otter swimming. Now the birdies sing to her... They all want to see their little spaniel friend off.

When we reach the parking lot, I want to cry. Putting her in the car, I tell Ali.
"I couldn't pick her up. She said, 'It's my last walk. Let me have it.'"
We both cry.
Of course. Her last walk. Her last stroll. She wanted to enjoy it,, to feel it, to know the road under her paws and the way the curves and hills fall.
Zelda.

And there is a text. From Hobbs. That Ron, the nicest club owner in the world, would let the span in, have a table. Come on down.
We do. Arriving right before downbeat. The doorman winks, says, "Don't let her drink too much or get too wild."
I nod. Zelda talks in the place. A bar. Somewhere she's rarely been. Somewhere she clearly likes. Brent Mason comes over to say "hi." We explain why there's a spaniel at the Players gig. He clouds over. But he gets it. He has a big heart to go with that guitar blaze that's country and dexterity and soul and skill.
Michael Rhodes, the praying mantis bass player who brings the melodic sense of beat to Steve Winwood and Larry Carlton, takes the stage. He smiles at us, as does Hobbs.
Paul Franklin, a man who changed the steel guitar's possibility and shows golden retrievers, purses his lips. "Are you sure?" he asks, about being so close to his monitors.
"Oh, yeah," I say. "She loves it."
Zelda does, too. She follows the musicians about two measures behind. Her heart rate slows down and she returns to that state of blissful limp in my lap. She couldn't be happier, couldn't be more alive.
This, too, is heaven. To a spaniel. Well one of wildly refined taste.
"Since I Fell For You" and blistering instrumentals. And then...
"This... tonight...," says the bespectacled piano man, "is... for the wonderspaniel."
Puddles of notes, rising, descending, rippling emerge. They are progressions, transitions, minor key meditations and modulations. It is true jazz a la Bill Evans, evoking -- perhaps --"Waltz for Debbie."
Zelda watches raptly from her bed on my lap. Tries pushing up the sit "like a big girl."
Still the song swirls on. The other musicians fall into concentric circles, each soloing in a way that embroiders the motifs with a sense of passion. Passion for the music, for the talent, for a pretty girl about to fade away.
They all know it's Zelda's last show. They smile at her. They play for her. They make it burn slow and bright -- like the baby doll she is.
The song -- different from anything else the Players play, yet every bit as signature as the slamming stuff -- has been mentioned to me in far flung places in the oddest situations. Anyone who knows the Players knows "Holly's Song." It is one of those pieces of music.
But tonight, it is wholly Zelda Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason's providence, and she exults in it.

Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" follows. A still being cartographed variation on James Taylor's "You Make It Easy." More instrumentals. At almost the witching hour, the first set is done. Zelda is spent. It has been perfect. She can't believe how good they really are... the way Eddie Bayers holds the rhythm on his drums, the way Mason sings like he plays, the way Hobbs, her Hobbs, can coax sentiment from lines of music.
They all come to pay her court. To hug me. To say "hi" to Ali. To wish us well tomorrow.

Zelda takes it all in. Needs to get some air. But she's even too tired to potty.
John Hobbs had agreed to sing his Irish elegy "When They Lay Me Down," the most hopeful post-parting from the mortal coil song ever written. Zelda isn't going to make it that far.
She is in the tall grass, lying down, breathing the cool night air.
She wants to go home: to the good sheets and beef burgundy and full spaniel massage.
She knows enough to plenty and then some.
She is ready.

She is ready. Damn it. So much better at this -- like everything -- than I am.
She wants to go home. To lie down. To be stroked and whispered to. To sleep, perchance -- as Shakespeare offered -- to dream.

So we drive, turning the car towards Music Row. To take the long way home. Past all the places she's graced for nearly 17 years. Past the record companies, the management offices, BMI and ASCAP. By Carnival Music where she lay on a funky couch, watching Travis Hill and I pick through lines to find "Better As A Memory."
Soon Zelda will be that, too. And maybe -- or so i tell myself when Im trying to be adult -- she is better as a memory than as my pretty girl, so sick from renal failure, not able to jump into the big, big car, not hungry even for Kenny Chesney's special plain salmon in catering.
It is not for me to want to take hostages... Certainly not to watch my best friend suffer.
Maybe the memory is the kindest way to fix Zelda in forever.
Maybe I need to love her enough to let go.

Right now, though, Sapphire is talking about what it "means to be a fan... To love some band or some silly little piece of music... so much... that it hurts."
Zelda knows that feeling. Like me, it defined her -- and reminded me the potency of being a true believer, embracing the range of how it feels and finding dignity and a thrill in whatever you're handed.
She is soft. As soft as she's ever been. I pet her and she melts even deeper into me as the movie plays, the minutes pass and we wait for Dr. Scanlon at 6. This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done -- and yet somehow, somehow Zelda will find a way to make it all okay. It's what she's done always; my guess is it won't be any different now.

Sunday
Feb172008

New Friends, Old Loves, Reasons To Believe

Ronnie Dunn found a Jack of Clubs out there in the desert, where New Mexico rises into mesas and falls into chasms that spill into the Rio Grande River. A weathered card that promises good times and late nights, pitted by sand and wind and life -- and he smiles when he lifts it off the ground, forgotten by the person who brung it, turning it over and displaying the truth.It is a truth he knows by heart. Because while Dunn might be a country music king now, he spent years as a wild-eyed Jack -- sowing sparks and fire, neon and kerosene on the heart of Saturday night as a jukejoint, honky tonk flamestarter Stealth and not being so visible often the truest ally of those who would chase the night. Ali Berlow, mom, wife, NPR sensualist/food essayist, leans back into her seat on the plane lifting off the narrow, cracked runway at Martha's Vineyard Airport and closes her eyes. Her life lies below - and she's spinning into a new orbit for a few days. It's a place where the ponies run wild, the music is life's blood and the friendships form fast and hold fast, starting in the middle And there in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen holds a hushed and holy altar call for the blue collar faithful. He's a solitary man in his unbuttoned low black gypsy shirt, leather chord knotted around his neck, guitar slung low, too. He is handsome in a rugged way that says high plains drifter even if he's more Jersey shore refugee -- and that low flame dignity is what makes him the patron saint and embodiment of the working classes almost 30 years since Born To Run became a classic. Bruce Springsteen understands the dignity of the common schmuck, just as he's not afraid to walk through the valley of his humanity. And it's somewhere between those extremes, the valor of lives overlooked emerges, and it does. For not everyone is bold-faced, back-lit, air-brushed, fluffed and buffed and puffed to perfection. In a world of the real, it is the real who most often get ignored. Not because people aren't dying for it, but because it is so seemingly unexceptional, so common, so not worth noting. Yet in those moments that are the slightly dog-eared just like everybody else -- only maybe a little more distraught -- Bruce Springsteen brings it all back home. As Lester Bangs tells young aspiring writer William Miller in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock-crit flick "Almost Famous": "All you have to do is listen." Indeed. To the heartbeat, mocking you with the echoing of that great big empty chamber you can never quite fill.. To the roar of the room in the enveloping silence. To the way the sweat beads and collects in the moments of desperation from too much boredom and not enough prospects. Springsteen's world is where the ceilings are too low -- and the only freedom is the vast expanse between here and the horizon. Two lanes of tar covered ribbon tearing up what lies in front, orchestrating an escape, four bald tires gripping for everything they're worth, self-contained exit a matter of pressing the pedal and not looking back. Within it, though, are truths. Deep essential truths about who we are and how we live our lives. Truths about the scraped, bruised, dinged things that are more precious than rubies -- in part because they are the things we love, but just as importantly because they are within the realm of what can be attained. There are pipe dreams, and there are brass rings. One is just so much ether to make you high, make you forget, wake you up emptier than you started, mocked by an aspiration that was grounded in less than nothing. But the other, well, that is a whole other truth -- the ability to push one's limits, to seek something better, more -- and perhaps if the risk is weighed properly, a ship that could come in. Bruce Springsteen's losers have dreams that could wash up on the shore, that could slightly cracked, definitely chipped, certainly faded come true. As the scrawny, scraggly-headed Romeo pledged to Mary, the object of too many lost souls' desire, as he raged against the less than status quo he's being told to accept, "We're pulling out of here to win," it was about jettisoning the shackles and soaring on opportunities made with one's sweat, muscle and dreams, soaring on the thrilling power of what real love, true love -- the kind of love that lets you know you've truly been seen, seen as you are, not as they try to marginalize you -- embodies. Passion plays. Acts of faith. Ties that bind. Moments that make everything matter more. Revelations that drop illusions. All of it unnoticed, except for the ones caught under the weight of the experience -- or recognition. The people Bruce Springsteen sings about -- the rebels who refuse to die, who get home from work, wash up and go racing in the street. The ones for whom it's not about pink slips, so much as breaking the inertia that pulls you down, that holds you frozen until its beyond too late. And the crisis of faith turns into the clarity that forges steel wills and iron strength. The man in "The River," triumphantly laid back this night at the University of Pittsburgh is reborn of the eternal flame that burns when you see that life ain't a trap, it's a heroic thing if you'll let go of the side, let it wash you clean and feel the power of its smallest triumphs. This is a man who got captured by circumstances, served a meager fate and yet refused to now bow his head. In that eyes aloft pride, he becomes everything powerful about a man. Not that everything is such a test of mettle as that. "Two Hearts" serves as joyous a romp for the music man as the sobering reality that is "Matamoros Banks" illuminates the plain brutality that Springsteen sees as the migrants' fate, or "Youngstown," his moaning a portrait of a proud man who worked hard for the factory only to find that his time was up and his effort meant nothing -- in spite of the high water promises of the ones for whom he contributed to the prophet. But it's in the middles, the recognition that with every tie that binds, there is a knot that gets caught in one's throat, that we can relax and choke down, swallowing whatever comes with it, or merely set and let be what will be. How we choose to deal is as much an element of our priorities as the circumstances we're cast in. Active decisions, though, are where we define the way we live -- and even teetering on the brink only cashes the check The Bible promised, the one about an untested man being neither good, nor evil, but merely unproven. For it is in being decisive that we are defined. Say "Yes." Say "No." Say "When." He'd not yet played The Tunnel of Love's "One Step up," a song about how hard it is to keep the faith, to be married and present in the face of the inevitable erosion of real life -- but recognizing that as easy as it is to fall, it's a damn sight harder to pick up one's gaze after the fait accompli. Sure there's a girl at that bar who's looking single and a focal point narrator who ain't feeling too married -- but in the end, the ties will hold, the honor last, the temptation passes and, hopefully, he goes home to make it stronger. "This one's for Kenny," he says, cryptic, a reference no one understands. "Thanks for the card." The card. Another article of faith. A note about why Bruce Springsteen mattered to a kid from Luttrell, Tennessee who was the slowest running back in the history of Gibbs High School. It was a note that spoke volumes about the power of music to transform the unseen -- and also to validate the power of the connection the makers' of music have to the power of their music being recognized as it reflected their life and so many other's in the process.. The note was 4 years old. The power of its "what those songs mean" message held for a man who's beyond a legend. The power of "what those songs mean" held for everyone in the room, everyone who'd ever believed in a "Thunder Road" or "Mary Queen of Arkansas" or "Sandy" -- and Madame Marie, "Cadillac Ranch"es, floating up into "The Rising." At one point, I look over, and Ali Berlow is crying. She a grown woman of the world, an inhabiter of Africa, a windsurfer in Tobago, a mother of two, a lover of a font maker, a friend, a cook and a nurturer to a changing coterie of strays and fascinating fellow travelers of the world Ali Berlow is lovely -- falling somewhere between Emmylou Harris and Kim Bassinger, and she can teach you to taste things in a fleshy, juicy plum you never imagined existed. She is a pool of unruffled water, depths barely suggested from the surface, yet willing to whoop and dance in front of whomever might watch should the spirit rise. Ali Berlow is a woman so many wish to be. And she is a woman they hardly know. What simmers beyond the obvious is where her treasure truly lies. How many miss it, caught in the dazzle of that which is easily seen? And so Ali Berlow runs off for moments with the circus -- trapeze flyers, true believers, hungry hearts and lion tamers who beckon come on, hungry for the tranquility and the mothering she sows without even knowing, drinking up the thrills they take for granted every day. It's an even trade, this. But also a trade that makes each more. Not just more, so much more. More alive, more vital, more vibrant, more aware of everything around the other. It is more than a halo -- or an aura that is "so purple." It is a truth that makes you see how precious every moment is, every person, every look or smile or tear. It is the reason Ronnie Dunn, too successful for his own good, can find the kick inside and the exuberance of putting it down, pushing a sun-parched blue highway as hard as it can go with the Allman Brothers' Live At the Filmore East set on stun. It is yowling along with the abandon of being 14 and your parents not knowing you've got the car, the liberation of the speed and the sound and the communion of two voices -- one perfectly pitched, powerfully landing square on each note, inflection, intention there, the other person's slightly bent, just missing it by "this much," yet bringing so much heart to the table that accuracy doesn't matter. Ronnie Dunn, preternaturally cool, inscrutable behind those streamlined dark glasses, letting go of the "Ronnie Dunn," descending into the unfettered rapture of songs and moments and an exhilarated uncalibrated soul slung wide across the moment. He's come to Santa Fe to dissect hard truths for a tv camera -- the polemics and dichotomies of growing up in a church-anchored family driven by a truck-drivin', wild-cattin', honky tonk squalorin' father. Ronnie Dunn, who will shoot impossibly high end tequila with the mystical Western artist Bill Worrell at the 5 star Tudor Adobe hotel La Posada, eat eggs at a diner downtown where he knows every waitresses' name, visit the self-portrait of pioneering renegade Indian artist TC Cannon -- cast in blazing indigo and tangerine and lemon and crimson -- he now owns, and can't even believe his luck. Ronnie Dunn is the intersection of contradiction, a man who lives high and lives low with equal appreciation, and that is what makes his art stick. For whether you were a part of the strip mall honky tonk revolution -- with its loud, primary-color block-cut cowboy shirts and herky jerky line dancing -- or maybe didn't scan except as the dudes with attitude and cowboy hats on the Corn Flakes box all those years ago, Brooks & Dunn have been the sterno on the hotplate of country music's fast-forward evolution. Big guitars, bold sonics, crashing cymbals, throbbing bass -- they took everything rock & roll and brought it straight to the behind-chicken-wire beer joints where the jukeboxes bled neon for a hybrid that blew it up. But for all the propulsive throbbage of classic hillbilly music -- figure Waylon Jennings set to 11 with a back of Johnny Cash's thrompier moments -- it was about what Brooks & Dunn meant to the working people. Maybe not as eloquent as Springsteen, but every bit the rallying cry for hard work, American made domestic shoulder-down, sweat-soaked and bliss-within-it-all reality-based programming. Their 3 chord, a cloud of dust and the truth performances were a lot about taking the corner on two wheels, extensions of the F-or-fight club that's Hell on weekend nights, but also true believers in the power of one's own hands getting it done, taking care of one's family and bringing it all back home when the rubber meets the road. It's when you get to "Red Dirt Road," the last song the two both put their names on, that the higher elevations come together. It's the truth about what goes on in the flyover, the places where "I drank my first beer/ It's where I found Jesus/ It's where I wrecked my first car/ I tore it all to pieces" -- and it's also the place that couldn't be jettisoned fast enough only in a perfect siren's song of revenge drew the singer back with even deeper truths than that first motherlode of life, love and lessons. "Red Dirt Road" has a happy ending. The singer gets the girl he never should have lost in the first place. But he also comes to realize that salvation isn't "just for high achievers," a fact that means happiness is found along the way -- like the flowers that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. Not something that'll go for hothouse prices, but is even lovelier for the circumstances that they bloomed through. That's the thing about these true people truths: they work where they're realized. There is nothing fancy about arrival or awareness or delivery; it happens when and where it does, and you can't be the same after. It's the reality of not being able to not know once you know. Look at Springsteen. All these years later, still showing us the things most people miss; and in those shared visions, overlooked in the blur of getting by, we find out that what makes us similar, special, precious is not just attainable, it just is. And in those visions, seconds, connections, all the futility, invisibility that we feel fades away. In being a number, we become part of the tide of life. Invisible, yet seen by the larger frame condition. Indeed, listening to the Sacred Heart of the Stone Pony strumming that acoustic guitar with a resonance so grand it fills up the University of Pittsburgh's Events Center, it's the things that go unseen that become larger than life. The truth, though, that saves comes at the very end. After performing "Homestead" with the Iron City's troubadour rocker Joe Grushecky, Bruce dug back into the tautly brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town portfolio for "The Promised Land," a song that puts the power of a bankrupt American dream into the manifest destiny of the man witnessing it. "Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/ Ain't got the faith to stand it's own ground," he wails. The anti-hero of "The Promised Land" sees how bereft our way of life has become; recognizes it's barely scraps and getting by for so many factory-men and 9-to-5 women; sees the diminishing rewards for hard work, blue collar values, believing in the promise inherent to this nation. Even as he sees it, though, he's not going to give in. He won't accept what they're selling as the status quo. It is one of those John Steinbeck stark American awakenings. When the song's object raises his fist vocally to declare, "I'm no boy, no I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land," it is a profound coming of age. Not just for one young man in transition, but for a way of life that plants its truth in the ground -- and is willing to walk the walk of mattering. Because until we recognize and profess our own value, how can we expect anyone else to see it, or more importantly, treat it with the respect we ourselves have not imbued it with? That is the beauty and the brutality of the unseen. It exists beyond cognizance, every bit as precious and valuable, but it isn't worth anything at all, because no one even knows it's there. No, when we are willing to stand up and be counted -- not in insurrection, though that certainly is a truth that holds, but in celebration of all that we are -- we become that which matters. It is in seeing, recognizing, accepting the deepest grace, the proudest reality of our humanity, that our situation no longer defines us. No, we're not just a man, we're golden, we're light, we're everything good and weak and proud and profane about the human condition. In that moment, in that commitment to who we are and the greater commonality of the human truth, where we are is where we need to be. The promised land isn't just where we're standing or trying to get to, it's a state of arrival that is dignity in the downlow, heaven in the here and now and the deliverance of knowing where and what we are is enough -- and enough is more than plenty.

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