Signs (or, how I went to Texas to pass a kidney stone)

I’m paying more attention to “signs” these days; God’s little omens that are offered up to us as forecasters about the road we’re on or about to go down. For instance: chopping a good chunk of my little finger off Tuesday morning while heading to the airport should have been a big ol’ neon one. Somehow I missed it. The story I’m about to tell you is true. It contains no embellishment, no hyperbole and/or exaggeration. It does however contain a multitude of signs. The “why” for these signs I still haven’t fully comprehended. But they were signs nonetheless. This is exactly what transpired. The timeline is as accurate as I can remember.

Tuesday, 6:30am

My flight wasn’t until 9:25am out of Burbank but I don’t like to be late for the airport so I arose early. The coffee was a little bitter but that’s because I didn’t add enough water to the coffeemaker the night before. The cats were overly rambunctious and demanding more food than usual but that was okay too. They’re good cats and are allowed to sometimes be…well…cats. Bottom-line is I recognized nothing extraordinary about this particular morning. I was heading to Chicago where MadTV star, Nicole Parker and I were going to debut her one-woman show at The Second City and all was going according to plan.

Tuesday, 7:45am

The suitcase wasn’t large and it wasn’t heavy. It was old. I had already decided that my natty blue carry-on was making its last voyage. In retrospect, the last trip should have been its last trip because on this morning the handle refused to do what it was designed to do, collapse. Upside down, downside-up, sideways, backwards, the damn thing wouldn’t go down and therefore would not fit in my trunk, let alone the overhead bin of an airplane. So, I did the manly thing. I hit it with a hammer. Unfortunately, I forgot to remove my other hand from the collapsing rod. It’s doesn’t look like a big chunk of meat missing from my pinky but trust me, if you’re a piano player, any skin, let alone fatty tissue, violently removed from your finger tip has a tendency to hamper your piano playing precision.

Tuesday, 8:30am

Because of the suitcase fiasco I was now running late for my 9:25am flight. I got to the airport and parked my car in the long-term parking lot located just off site of the airport and waited for the shuttle to pick me up. And waited. And waited. Finally, I asked the man in the kiosk where the shuttle was. He said it “broke” but was now “fixed” and would be arriving soon.

Tuesday, 9:00am

I think of myself as a very liberal (though I prefer the term progressive) person. I believe profiling is wrong – ala black people should not be pulled over by cops based upon the kind of car he or she is driving. Having said that let me say this: TSA employees are idiots. 80-year old grandmothers from Pasadena are not flying planes into buildings. Neither are 46-year old songwriters from Lake Balboa. As time clicked away, I, as well as the 80-year old grandmother from Pasadena, were practically strip-searched by the Burbank TSA draconian morons. This all happened, by and by, while guys with beards and camels were passing through security without a hitch. I tried bringing this issue up a while back at the Newark Airport. The TSA Neanderthal thought I was being a smart ass so he proceeded to teach me a little something about respect by instigating an even more thorough search. But that’s another story.

Tuesday, 9:22am

“I’m sorry, sir, but this flight is closed, we’ll have to rebook you on the next flight.” Now, had I been paying attention to the signs thus far I would have recognized this for the blessing it was instead of the catastrophe that I named it. Had I done that, the story would end here. I did not. Damn my powers of persuasion…she let me on the flight. Thus begins my walk through Dante’s seven portals of hell.

Tuesday, 12:00pm

You ever fly over a tornado? It’s really quite beautiful…for the first twenty minutes or so. After two and a half hours it loses its charm. That’s how long we circled Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Yes, my flight to Chicago was not direct and I had to change planes in Dallas.

Tuesday, 1:00pm

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the pilot came on, “this storm seems not to be moving so we think it might be a good idea for us to divert to Austin and pick up some fuel since we’re running a little low.” We all concurred. It would not be a good thing to run out of gas. We diverted to Austin.

Tuesday, 1:45pm

We landed in Austin, parked on the tarmac away from the terminal.

Tuesday, 2:30pm

All fueled up and ready to go. We then waited for clearance to take off.

Tuesday, 3:31pm

We’re still waiting.

Tuesday, 4:31pm

We’re still waiting.

Tuesday, 5:31pm

We’re still waiting.

Tuesday, 6:31pm

We’re still waiting.

Tuesday, 7:00pm

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Bad news. Dallas/Fort worth is closed.”

Tuesday, 8:30pm

It took another hour and half for a gate to open up at the terminal so we could deplane. We were instructed to stay close to the gate area because Dallas/Ft Worth could reopen at anytime and we’d be our way. I must say that I was proud of my fellow travelers, as well as myself. We’d been on that airplane for eleven hours and everyone remained in remarkably good-humor. No one was a jerk and even the young infant in the seat in front of me was well behaved.

Tuesday, 9:45pm

We were told that all flights were now officially canceled and that we should all proceed to the ticketing area for rebooking. I was beginning to get concerned. I had to be in Chicago by 2pm the next day for a rehearsal and a show at 8pm.

Tuesday, 9:55pm

I rushed to the ticketing area. My heart sank. I have been to Disneyland. I have bought Bruce Springsteen tickets. I have endured the LA post office a week before Christmas. But I had NEVER seen a line this long in my entire life. For the next two-plus hours, this is where I would stand.

Wednesday, 12:10am

The good-humor was now a memory. Everyone was tired, hungry and frustrated. While in line, I tried calling American Airlines on my cell. I was told that there was nothing out of Austin until 3pm and that I couldn’t get into Chicago until after 9pm. I was livid. “I’m not going to Kalamazoo, I’m going to Chicago!” There had to be something earlier. I finally got to the front of the line. Hope springs! The ticket agent was professional and efficient. She understood my problem and was determined to get me to Chicago before 2pm. At last, she found me a flight. She booked me on a Continental flight leaving Austin at 5:45am, change planes in Houston, land in Chicago at 10:30am. The bad news, she said, was that all the hotels around the airport were booked but that the American Red Cross had arrived and was setting-up cots downstairs for stranded passengers. Okay then. I can handle this.

Wednesday, 12:30am

16-hours earlier my suitcase’s handle would not collapse. I had no such problem with the cot I had staked out for myself. No matter how much I fiddled with it, every time I sat on it, it folded up with me – or on me to be more precise. Laughter started rippling through the baggage area. I was becoming the night’s entertainment for the other refugees.

Wednesday, 12:56am (this time is exact)

With the help of a Red Cross volunteer, my cot was now doing what it was supposed to do. I looked at my watch and said out loud, “Four and half hours and I’m out of here – I can do this.”

Wednesday, 1:15am

Do any of you know what it’s like to pass a kidney stone? Unfortunately, I had experienced the joy on several other occasions. That’s why when the special tingling started in my penis I knew exactly what was happening and more importantly what was to come.

Wednesday, 1:25am

I was standing outside the terminal throwing up in a garbage can. The pain was getting worse; fever, chills and my back felt like it was being pummeled by Joe Frazier.

Wednesday, 1:30am

I couldn’t take it anymore. I found a Red Cross worker and said as calmly as I could the following: “I don’t want to cause a scene but I need a doctor.”

Wednesday, 1:45am

I’m now B-role on local news in Austin, TX. The camera crew actually looked overjoyed that they had something other than people lying in cots to shoot. I was crying like a little girl as the EMS guys strapped me onto the gurney. The pain was now beyond excruciating. I was screaming and begging for sweet death to release me from my agony. Once in the ambulance, I was hooked up to electrodes, placed on oxygen and given an IV. I don’t know what they gave me but the pain, as well as my senses soon diminished.

Wednesday, 2:05am

I was lying in emergency at South Austin Hospital. The pain had returned and I was screaming again like I was giving birth – which in a sense I was. A nurse came in to get my info and take blood. I tried to be accommodating but frankly had a hard time uttering anything other than one-word answers.

Wednesday, 2:45am

Finally, a doctor arrived and confirmed my diagnosis; I was indeed passing a kidney stone. I begged him to give me something for the pain but to please keep me awake, I had a to catch a flight at 5:45am. I had to get to Chicago. I had a show.

Wednesday, 2:55am

It’s la la time again. Everything gets a little fuzzy at this point but I do remember the doctor saying the words, Demerol and Morphine.

Wednesday, 4:30am

The CT scan had revealed that the kidney stone had passed and the doctor said I was free to go – if I could walk. That was very much up for debate. But I did. The discharge nurse called me a cab and I was on my way back to Austin airport to catch the 5:45 to Houston.

Wednesday, 5:05am

I don’t remember getting back to the airport, checking through security or even how I found my gate. But somehow I did. Now the trick was staying conscience until I boarded. I recall a rush of fear going through me that they would keep me off the plane because of my altered state – I was high as a kite.

Wednesday, 6:05am

We still hadn’t boarded. Then voice came over the PA system. “Ladies and gentlemen we’re sorry to inform you that Houston is now experiencing the storm that hit Dallas last night. All flights are delayed until further notice.”

Wednesday, 10:05am

It was becoming obvious that any hope of making it to Chicago was fading. As was I. I had been up for 27-hours, waited in more lines than an Ellis Island immigrant and shot up with more mind numbing drugs than Timothy Leary. I don’t how but I was still coherent enough to call Nicole in Chicago and tell her the situation. I then called Lisa McQueen. She was a piano player I knew in Chicago who had brilliantly musical directed my show, Friar Laurence, at The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre the summer before. I told Lisa the situation, explained the score she’d be seeing in a matter of hours and roughly outlined the show. Thank god for professionals like Lisa is all I can say.

Wednesday, 10:50am

I waited in another line for over an hour. I didn’t know how but I was going to get back to LA. I’d never felt so helpless, hopeless and anxiety ridden in my life. My insides were shaking and I was having difficulty breathing. I had to get out! I had to get out! I had to get out of this airport and the state of Texas. The agent told me that there wasn’t a flight open to LA until 6:30 that evening. I said that couldn’t happen. I told her it was life or death that I get out now. I wasn’t exaggerating. I truly felt I would die if I had to stay in that airport for another 8-hours. She told me that there was a flight leaving at 11:30am but it was full and the best she could do was put me on standby. I told her to do it – I was going to be on that flight.

Wednesday, 12:05pm

The thing I’ve discovered about “signs” and the universe is this: It all works visa-versa. If there’s something your not supposed to be doing, no amount of finagling on your part is going to change it. By the same token, when you’re working in harmony with it, nothing can stop it.

The flight back to LA had twenty people on standby. There was one seat left open. I got it. The flight was supposed to take 3-hours, it took a little under two and a half. My car was at Burbank airport and I had no transportation out of LAX. The Flyaway bus to Van Nuys was practically waiting for me when I stepped out of the terminal. The bus ride up the 405 was usually a good 45-minutes. For some reason there was no traffic and it took 20-minutes.

As I said in the beginning of this story, I don’t know the “why” all of this happened or why it just wasn’t in the cards for me to get to Chicago and play the show. All I know is that every step of the way I was being warned with signs and the ramifications got more dire each time I ignored them. Today is Friday and I’m just now feeling fully recovered from my adventure. I slept the rest of the day Wednesday and was in-and-out Thursday. The show went off without a hitch in Chicago and was a hit. Second City called to congratulate me and said some very nice things about mine a Nicole’s work.

Signs – rest assure I’m paying more attention to them from now on.


Jack Segal: reflections on a songwriter

I thought this was going to be easy. I have so many Jack Segal stories that I figured I could just dash off some paragraphs on the wit and wisdom of the man with no problem. I was wrong. There are just too many stories. So, here are a few of my own random recollections. To those who knew Jack (many far longer than I did), they won’t be that enlightening. But for those who never had the pleasure, let me introduce you to one very special guy I got the privilege to call friend.

The Teacher:

I first met Jack in 1988. It was suggested to me (I don’t remember by whom) that I check out the songwriting workshop at the Songwriters Guild of America. I couldn’t have been less interested. I had been a struggling songwriter for a number of years, had attended every songwriting workshop from New York to LA, and was certain that another class would have nothing new to offer. But then I learned the guy teaching the workshop wrote “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Well, if you play piano (as I do), and have spent endless hours in nameless piano bars (as I had), you play “When Sunny Gets Blue.” So, I decided to give it a try. From the very beginning, Jack, was a thorn in my side. He was direct (some say ruthless) with his critiques and unforgiving when it came to structure. He was also seldom, if ever, wrong. And that, maybe more than anything else, pissed me off beyond all reason. I remember walking out of the workshop every week swearing to never return. But I’d get home, stay up to the wee hours going over Jack’s notes (always in red ink), and rewrite to the point of a stroke. By morning, I couldn’t wait to get back to the workshop and show that “bastard” what I’d done. Getting the nod of approval from Jack felt like winning a Grammy.

The Mentor:

In 1994, I was asked to teach a songwriting workshop at the guild. There were so many reasons why I wasn’t the guy to teach a workshop – others having better resumes topping the list. But my biggest hang-up was “what would Jack think?” After all, this was Jack’s domain. Hell, the big black chair in the meeting room practically had his name on it. So, I called Jack and told him that I was considering teaching a workshop. His reaction? “It’s about damn time!” Then I expressed my concern that I wasn’t the right guy for the job because (fill in the blank). He told me to shut the @#%& up and that I was the right guy for the job because I was going to be the guy in front of the room, that made me the right guy for the job. To this day I’m still fuzzy on that logic. But then he said: “Phil, treat every songwriter with respect and remember just how hard it is to write a good song. You do that, you’ll be fine.” I was never fuzzy on that logic.

The Songwriter:

Jack was one of those songwriters that you sharpened your pencil for and wrote down everything he said. He was a walking rhyming dictionary and spoke in poetry. Collaborating with Jack was just plain fun. A few years ago we had a writing date set up. Now by this time we had written a number of songs together so I knew Jack’s routine and wasn’t surprised when he arrived early. On this day however, Jack, was a little earlier than usual – and he didn’t walk into my office so much as he danced in. “Phil, let me play you my Sinead cut!” Sinead O’ Connor had covered Scarlet Ribbons and Jack was blown away by her arrangement. What blew me away was how this almost eighty-year old guy was bouncing off the walls about his “Sinead cut.” Like it was the first cut he’d ever gotten. I didn’t even know he knew who Sinead O’Connor was. I remember thinking at that moment, “There’s a songwriter. Can I be him when I grow up?”

The Storyteller:

Some of my favorite times with Jack were spent on the golf course. Though not a long hitter, Jack, was always down the middle of the fairway and flat-out wicked around the green. I, on the other hand, was usually two hundred fifty yards to the right and in the woods (I also couldn’t read a putt if my mother’s life depended on it). But none of that mattered because golf with Jack meant stories. Truly a history lesson in early pop music: Mercer, Kahn, Porter, Gershwin, Nat, Bird, Sinatra, Billie, and on and on. From Tin-Pan-Ally to 52nd street, from Broadway to Hollywood, Jack had lived it and talked about it. Not in an “I remember when” kind of way, more in a matter of fact kind of way; like those legendary people and places were my realities as well as his and I somehow was worthy to be a part of the conversation. I should have told him what that kind of inclusion meant to me as an insecure young songwriter.

The Counselor:

A few years ago I was going through a rough time personally. Jack and I got together for lunch one day and he asked me, “How you doin’, pal?” Uncharacteristically for me, I told him. He sat there and listened as I poured my heart out. He didn’t judge, he didn’t ridicule, he just listened for over an hour. Finally, I asked him what he thought. But instead of answering me directly he started sharing some of his darker times. That led me to share some more dark times. Then it was his turn again. Eventually it got to the point that Jack blurted out in the middle of me talking, “Goddamn, I wish I could still drink – this is depressing!” I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It was a wonderful afternoon. I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me that day. He said, “Swannie, you know you don’t have to live the songs you write. Right?”

The last time I talked to Jack was about five months ago. We’d written a song together and he called wanting to rework it. But I was out of town and told him that it would be a few weeks before I could get to it. He understood but said that he’d had a revelation on the song and was anxious for us to fix it. We never did. That was our last conversation.

Whatever success I now enjoy I owe in large part to Jack Segal. He taught me more than how to write a song. He taught me how to be a songwriter; to see the world differently, to not settle for just okay, to take five minutes more and make it perfect. Not a bad lesson for life when you think about it. Jack, in his later years, became a man of great faith. That comforts me. Because in my mind, Jack, is somewhere at this very moment fixing that song of ours. If that’s the case, then I’m also sure tonight he’ll be holding court over one really cool workshop. And if John Lennon, Stephen Foster and Mozart know what’s good for them…they’ll do the rewrites. Read the red ink boys.

Here’s to you, Jack.