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X-Rays, Motorcycle boots, Cuban heels, and Jimmy Choo by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Shoes

/ Stories

I do love me my shoes. When I was a little kid we went to a shoe store that featured an x-ray machine that you could stick your feet inside and radiate the hell out of them. It made your bones glow. Scary, how little they knew about radiation back then. Despite my fascination with glowing bones, I still have all my toes. Just lucky, I guess.

As an adolescent, I got into bitter conflicts with my mother about sensible shoes. Dang. I got so frustrated, I went out and bought me a used pair of motorcycle boots, AKA engineer boots, at the Goodwill. They didn’t fit but they suite-ed up perfectly with the wide leather belt I wore to hold up my dungarees — yeah, that’s what we called them, dungarees, not jeans — with the buckle slung to the side.

There was a long period as student and actor where I wore cuban heels, probably because I liked the noise they made. You know actors; they always have to make some kind of noise. Cuban heels worked really well.

As a musician, I was wearing either jeans or hip stuff — and one horrible band with matching fuschia bell-bottom suits — or tuxedos. With tuxedos, I wore men’s jazz dance shoes, which I love. I went through several pairs. They’re lightweight, they quickly move, fit your feet like gloves, are comfortable to stand — and yes, groove — in.

I went through a series of lace up work boots the were de rigeur and necessary for country living. I’ve always loved the invulnerability afforded by boots that are waterproof, warm, and non-skid.

I’ve been through dozens of pairs of topsiders and other preppy East Coast footwear that I wouldn’t wear in New England but that lent a certain peculiarity to my presence n Los Angeles. I liked to buy shoes in New York that were strange, comfortable, and beautiful and wore them during my office work days in the publishing department of a civic education outfit. I even have a pair of fancy Italian wing tips that cost me $600 bucks. I’ve never worn them; they’re stiff and heavy, and now I have no use for them.  I don’t know what I was thinking.

These days, in quarantine mode, I often go barefoot, or slip into a pair of Tom’s loafers; I’ve bought dozens of those because Tom’s gives away a pair of shoes for every pair they make and because they aren’t leather, which I love, because it reduces my creature-murder footprint.

I also like women’s high-heeled shoes, the real crazy creative ones like Jimmy Choos despite (a) my lack of interest in cramming my fat feet into a pair and (b) a critical awareness that high heels offer the most efficient manner of foot-binding invented by the patriarchy since the Ming Dynasty. Watching women walk in stilettos makes me wince with sympathetic pain.

But more significant than all the above, my love for shoes probably comes from my great grandfather, who ran a boot shop in Placerville, California. You can read more about John Degelman’s boot shop in an earlier Retrospect piece called “Placerville, 1888: Galoots in Mud Boots.”

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Totem Salmon — fruit from a different garden by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By The Garden

/ Stories

As I child, I grew championship cucumbers on a septic tank. I grew apples and corn for farmers. I grew communal gardens in Massachusetts and California. I’ve grown hot peppers and marijuana together; they are the best of friends. You can put your pot-sticky fingers to your nose and inhale but never, NEVER touch your face after you’ve cut an orange habañera pepper. This simple advice is typical of the kind of lessons one can learn from gardening, que no?

"...we have lost previous models of a more elegantly balanced life among humans." — Freeman House, Totem Salmon

I’ve also had the opportunity to walk through a different kind of garden, one with roots in land and water, a garden created by the earth gods and goddesses and cultivated for millennia by indigenous people, those who  lived on the edge between hunting and gathering and planting and harvesting.

Freeman House was a salmon fisherman, writer, and ecological thinker who lead the efforts of a group of people who set out to recreate a garden from the main course and tributaries of a California river and the land that surrounded and supportedit. Not a garden in the standard sense of the term, but a garden, nonetheless.

In the late 1960s, I lived in San Francisco with an extended family of utopian anarchists who set out to explore new ways to live on the land outside the city. They wanted to extend our notions of change to the countryside, where they could see the scars of industry that had “tamed” the wilderness.

Mattole River, the Lost Coast

In 1975, a small group of these San Francisco artists, activists, and adventurers moved to a hillside above the Mattole River along Northern California’s Lost Coast, in Humboldt County. They had seen firsthand how the Mattole’s complex and fragile watershed had been eroded by overgrazing and clear-cut logging. As they became more intimate with the land they loved, they saw how the salmon suffered from the destruction “of a place” — the creeks and small tributaries that fed the Mattole. In the words of Freeman House:

The very roots of the word ‘indigenous’ mean “of a place.” But…the relatively recent Industrial Revolution have been so successful that … we have engaged in a process of purposeful and systematic forgetting; we have lost previous models of a more elegantly balanced life among humans, and we have convinced each other that it is fruitlessly utopian to imagine any other way of life.”

Freeman and his brothers and sisters set out to reinvent “a more elegantly balanced life” in a unique garden of earthly delights, using indigenous means and ways of thinking.

Salmon hatch upstream at the headwaters of small creeks and streams and as youngsters, swim downstream to the sea. There, for two years, they become deep water creatures, roaming for thousands of miles, growing into the powerful and intuitive animals who return to the exact same creek or other tiny tributary where their parents had laid and fertilized their eggs to complete the cycle of life.

In the Mattole, the logging and overgrazing had filled these tributaries, making it near impossible for the adults to return to their birthplace. Confused, they often died during their frustrated journey upstream.

The Mattole family followed the way of the area’s indigenous people, who considered the salmon to be a life force. They reasoned that, if the bioregion (the watershed of the Mattole) was ill, the salmon would be ill. If they made the watershed a healthy bioregion again by clearing the streams and tributaries, they would make the salmon healthy again.

They set out to do just that, to restore the garden that had developed naturally in the Mattole bioregion. They began a long campaign to convince the community of ranchers and loggers to do the impossible — pay attention to the health of the Mattole watershed. At the same time, the family set out to restore the salmon and their migration by collecting them in hand made traps, incubating their conception and releasing them. After years of patient work, the Mattole family began to win cooperation from local ranchers, loggers, and even the Bureau of Land Management.

Nothing is perfect, nothing ever lasts, except an abiding love for the wild beauty of the salmon. Today, generations of “gardeners” have followed in the footsteps of Freeman house to sustain the wild beauty of this noble creature, the totem salmon and the garden it lives in.

#  #  #

*Totem Salmon is also the title of a book by Freeman House, who describes in detail the Mattole River salmon restoration project. You might find it of interest.

Full Circle by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Lost and Found

/ Stories

I had split up with but not left my partner. We owned a house together, B. and me. For almost a decade, we had shared the love and care of two great kids, had sung together from California to West Virginia, lived in the Rockies for two winters, traveled the country in a variety of vehicles, all that and more. As is often the case, the breakup was horrendously painful.

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. I couldn’t get the “brother” part out; it stuck in my craw.

We had returned to San Francisco where B. enrolled in law school. Enough of this fooling around for her. I was working in the theater with a salary from a latter-day WPA program. I was also playing jazz in San Francisco’s bustling music scene.

I was functioning, but crazy as a loon. I needed a time out, so I packed up my upright bass (gotta keep those chops up), a sleeping bag, a few clothes, tools, and my favorite leather jacket, which I had nherited from my grandfather.

I drove north to visit friends who lived on the Lost Coast of Humboldt county. I felt I needed to make a decision about what my next move would be. Should I move out of the house I had settled in with my surrogate nuclear family and assorted fellow musicians and actors? Should I stay and try to pick up the pieces of my badly fragmented relationship? Or should I leave one theater company for the excitement of a new creative project and a year-long work relationship with S. that promised new love, new worlds, new directions and, as is so often the case, new conflicts?

The sojourn to the beauty of Humboldt’s wild coast settled nothing. I started back to San Francisco as conflicted as when I had left, proving that retreat solves little; engagement, painful though it may be, is the only way to work through dilemmas. There was a lot at stake, and I had to return to address the tangled web I had woven.

By the time I completed the long, solo trip back to the city, I was a wreck and still undecided. Should I stay or should I go? I stopped by the home of S. my theater partner heartthrob, and confidante. Working together, we had grown more than close.

I sat in her kitchen, had a beer, calmed down with the benefit of her patience and wisdom. Although we didn’t resolve my problems, destiny dictated that I would soon take up residence with a third-party pal, an actor friend who had a spare bedroom. I would move from Andover (over And over And over And over) Street to a new pad on Connecticut (Connect I cut, Connect I cut, Connect I cut) Street. As mentioned earlier, I was out of my mind.

I said goodbye to S. and descended the stairs to my station wagon. My heart stopped. In my road-weary disarray, I had left the back window of the vehicle open. The tailgate was down; everything was gone: clothes, sleeping bag, tools, and my string bass. Gone. Lost. I’m sure you can imagine such a feeling. Anger, self-recrimination, and the case for karmic retribution centrifuged in my skull until my vision blurred.

Time passed. I moved from Andover to Connecticut Street. Set up shop. Found a throaty old string bass and scrambled for the cash to cover it. I began working with the new theater company and sealed the exciting, intense new partnership with my exciting, intense new partner.

Gigs, theater pieces, a life filling in, a new theater company building, terrible happenings in San Francisco, the city hall murder of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, the mass-manipulation -murder -suicide at Jonestown. But the work continued, my relationship with S. deepened. I reunited with the wonderful kids I had lived with for so long. I began to feel whole again.

One evening, S. and I went to see Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” The film had become popular and there was a line leading down from Van Ness Avenue to the ticket booth and the theater marquee. An acoustic ragtime band was playing to the waiting line of movie goers.

“Jeez,” I said to S. “That looks like my old bass.”

“They probably all do,” she said. “Probably a little like seeing an ex where no ex is.” We shuffled closer as the theater doors opened.

“That really looks like my old bass,” I said. You get to know an instrument you play a lot. The outline, the look of it, all the little imperfections.

We drew closer. The band was playing a kind of watery ragtime, hippies in ragged jeans, plaid shirts, funny hats and ponytails.

“Fuck,” I said. “That IS my bass.” I walked up to the band, very cool. The guy playing my ax was no thief. “That’s my bass,” I said.

The poor guy looked like he’d just killed his mother. “Oh, no,” he said. The other guys responded with a soft chorus of “oh, wows” and “dangs.”

“Look on the inside,” I said. “You’ll find a serial number ‘4-2-1’ hand-written in ink on the label. It’s a Thompson. And there’s a chipped corner on the inside cornice of the bridge, right…“ I put my finger on the broken bridge cornice. “…right here.”

“Oh yeah, man. Oh, wow. Sorry, man,” the bass player said. The other musicians nodded in chagrined agreement. “Bummer, man.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Bummer.” I felt very pre-possessed. “So where’d you get the bass?” I asked. “Don’t worry. I know you didn’t steal it.”

“Oh no, man. I sure didn’t.”

“Okay,” I said. “I don’t wanna know.”

“Oh, okay, cool.”

So,” I said. “Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

“Sure, man. Whatever. I sure am sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. I couldn’t get the “brother” part out; it stuck in my craw. “Just give me your driver’s license and your phone number. We’re gonna go in and watch this movie, and tomorrow, I’m gonna call you. When we meet, you’ll give me the bass, and I’ll give you back your driver’s license.”

Nods and assents from the possessor of stolen property and his voluntarily culpable music mates.

Through it all, S. stood by. Although she had a sharp eye for human behavior and a lightning articulate tongue, she also frequently quoted Kenny Rogers current hit, “The Gambler.” You got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em.”

The bass player gave me his license, apologizing all the way through the transaction. Sad but sweet in an apocalyptic sort of way. San Francisco. 1978. An apocalyptic time.

My partner and I went in and watched Woody Allen indulge in one of his earlier explorations of pedophilia. Mariel Hemingway played a lovely teenager who was laughably unbelievable as the adoring girlfriend of the scrawny, balding, funny man. He almost redeemed himself with one of those Allen overtures with New York City and George Gershwin serenading each other.

Through the film, I felt surprisingly composed, whole. I felt an unfamiliar peace buzzing in my gut like a warm roll. When we emerged from the theater, the little ragtime band was gone. The next day I called the unfortunate musician and picked up the bass.

#  #  #

Covidream 2.1 by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Pandemic Summer

/ Stories

I’ve been having vivid dreams since March 19, the day that normal died. I wake up having dreamed a life of time and a universe of travel, sweat-soaked, curled in a fetal position, short hours from when I last registered reality. And already, I have oversimplified our pandemic world. Nothing was “normal” before the virus developed a mind of its own. Before our new zoonotic leader took over, we had lived under the stunning ugliness of a monster and his winged monkeys in a nation that had lost its mind. And the above mentioned “reality” clings to the surface of consciousness the way I cling to a micro awareness generated by a book or movie on the inside of an aeronautic tube when I am knifing through thin air 33,000 feet above the earth’s surface.

I awoke with a familiar mixture of covid emotions, sadness and gratitude...

These dreams are often quite beautiful in their scope, scale, and clarity. I wouldn’t define them as nightmares. They’re set in vast and complex technoscapes populated by swarms of humans. Although the humans are often adversarial, they never kidnap or harm me. Maybe the best way to describe these techno scenarios is to overlap an Amazon distribution warehouse and the streets of Portland, Oregon during the time of Trump terror, where history fails to lend perspective to the painfully sharp pivot we balance on, not knowing whether we will rise or even which way we might fall.

Covidream Beach

My most recent Covidream begins at a busy seashore where I stand at the back of a gypsy truck in which I roamed from commune to commune fifty years ago. The rear of the truck had been a camper and a comfortable one at that. In my dream, the back was filled with a stacked assortment of coats — hearty outdoor jackets, navy peacoats, Pendleton lumber shirts, denim jackets, Carhart workman’s coats and, oddly, several edgy leather pieces appropriate for male or female. Several friends from my past stood around the truck, trying on coats, commenting on appearances, laughing. One by one, they left, thanking me for their new outerwear and leaving me alone with my father.

Now this is, in itself, extraordinary. My father has been dead for longer than he lived, and he rarely appears in my dreams. But now we sat on the tailgate of my truck watching the surf break offshore and talking about the corona virus, discussing how it has risen from the imbalances we have created on the planet; how it possesses an ability to strategize, to travel, to change, to adapt. We talked of its chimeric qualities and mysterious behavior, how it first seemed to attach to the respiratory system until it began to appear in the fringe areas of the human body, where blood danced with oxygen or shed its toxins in the liver and kidneys, in the capillaries of the cerebral cortex, the eyeballs, any place where the tiny tributaries of our vascular system ended in narrow backwaters where the covid protein could anchor and embrace human cells.

We tried reconfiguring the corona virus, to invest it with a vitality that might include vengeance. Wasn’t it possible, given the discovery of macro organisms — did you know, for example, that a grove of aspens is not a series of individual trees, but one large creature? That the entire floor of a forest is connected across distance and species by a network of mycelia that allow the forest to talk to itself? Isn’t the virus floating down the Amazon the way ants launch leaves to cross a stream? Isn’t it possible that the virus is one great creature, sent by the planet to rid itself of human scum?

We weren’t the first people to imagine this possibility, my father and me. A group of Yoruba priestesses are currently approaching the earth mother to argue that there are plenty of good humans on the planet and that she can easily distinguish between the good people and the pricks. Couldn’t she order the virus to spare the good people and take the bastards? My father, always empirical was skeptical, and I had to admit that so far, the priests hadn’t been able to contact the earth mother’s sister, Ogun. Ogun was known to be quite impulsive, egotistical and self-righteous; she often took holidays from her caretaking duties and her generous capacity for compassion. The priests allowed as how Ogun might not currently be taking calls.

Now, please understand. Neither my father nor I are fond of subscribing to a bum-trip worldview. That would hardly be dialectical, and both my old man and I subscribed to the belief that opposites seek equilibrium, that thesis and antithesis generate synthesis, and that science does reveal great beauty in the universe. Our covid speculation had saddened us both. I decided I would go for a run along the shoreline to restore my balance while my father relaxed in the back of the truck where he would smoke his pipe and recall his days as a merchant sailor.

So, after donning my mask, I set off for a run along the shore, only to come immediately up against a wire mesh fence of the kind usually erected to keep deer out of the garden or to corral a mean-spirited urban mastiff or pit bull. Behind the fence, thousands of swimmers and sunbathers frolicked in the breaking waves or basked in tiny bathing suits. No one wore a mask. Everyone seemed to enjoy interacting in the most intimate ways with each other. I was disturbed, but I continued on my way, although my mask did attract attention.

Behind the private beach lay a labyrinth of boathouses, restaurants, bars, spas, and other facilities, all designed to expedite pleasurable interaction. I dodged in and out of these rooms and hallways, always finding a path that led me parallel to the beach, hoping to find a deserted stretch of the shoreline that wasn’t fenced off for profit. Finally, I came to a massive breakwater, where bathers were soaking and playing with their children in the shallow water. It reminded me of the shallows of the lake we were forbidden to swim in during the height of the polio epidemics that would descend upon New England in August. It seemed dangerous to me, this lazy crowd in the warm, shallow water, but when I tried to approach the bathers, they turned a deaf ear to my ministrations or told me to buzz off and take my mask with me. Several of the bathers took up quacking at me, I suppose because my mask made me look like a duck.

A woman approached me, very sweet and gentle, like one of those kids in school who would befriend a kid who was being bullied. She was as generous of body as of soul, both barely  contained by her bikini. She had five children with her and added that she was pregnant with twins. She asked me if that meant she was a septuagenarian. I told her “no” but did tell her that she had one famous precursor, the woman in Dorothea Lange’s pictures of the Great Depression. We spoke for a few moments about the possibility that she and Dorothea’s careworn mother of seven were doppelgangers, but the surf was breaking steeply on the shore and the blue water had turned to steel.

I bid her a socially distanced goodbye and turned back. I recollected a time when my friend Roger and I had left my father behind on the beach while we explored the lake in a small motorboat that my father had generously helped me resuscitate and paint. He had been very sad when I returned to shore. I didn’t want to repeat that kind of abandonment. I began to work my way back up the beach, overcoming all “private beach” and “no trespassing” signs I encountered. The sun had begun to move toward the western horizon and the shoreline, the restaurants and bars, the yacht basins looked alike.

Unmasked people surrounded me, inviting me onto this yacht or into that restaurant and bar, daring me to unmask and “show my pretty face.” The journey began to take on a repetitive, nightmarish quality as I searched in vain for the landmarks that had marked the beginning of my shoreline run hours earlier. Finally, I saw a familiar stretch of barricading wire fence. There was the familiar outline of my truck. I lurched up the beach, shouting my father’s name and apologies. I arrived at the truck as the lower lip of the sun touched the horizon. My father was nowhere to be found. Before I allowed myself to grasp that I had lost my father once again, I awoke with a familiar mixture of covid emotions, sadness and gratitude, eager to accept the waking reality I had so recently left behind, my partner and two cats asleep beside me.

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How beautiful it was… by
50
(97 Stories)

/ Stories

Not much to say on cursive, although I had perfect cursive writing scores in third and fourth grade.
I liked how beautiful it was, all the curves and the way the style let you keep your number two pencil on the page when you finally got to write whole words and sentences.
Now my handwriting is largely spastic, but can be reflective of my mood and emotional state, smooth and generous, the curves sensual when I feel good, shaky and spastic when I don’t.

Outside Agitators — showbiz goes to the demo by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Protests

/ Stories

Dear Retrospect readers: This post is criminally long. It’s part of a larger work in progress, so the story arc stretches beyond reasonable reader expectations. Please read as much or as little as you want.

Mao Tse Tung, Uncle Ho / Dow chemical has got to go

— Gratefully yours, CD


 

We arrived at Madison on a Friday afternoon in October. An SDS kid met us at the gate with a permit and led us along the walkways to the theater. A city motorcycle cop showed up. The kid showed him our permit. The cop gave us a dirty look and left.

“City cops around a lot?” the director asked the SDS kid.

“We been on the streets a lot this fall,” the kid said. “Dow chemical gave the university big grants last year.”

“For what?” we asked.

“To make napalm stickier.”

“Stickier?”

“Yeah, so it sticks to the skin better and for longer. While it’s burning. That’s the trick, see? To make it stickier and hotter. Like phosphorous.”

“You know a lot about it,” we said.

“We all do,” the kid said.

We pulled the van up to the loading dock and went inside. It was a good theater, proscenium, with a sprung stage floor. A techie met us. He started talking to our techie, bragging about the new light board and grid. It was a nice theater, and the funky little commedia stage would look great, framed by the proscenium.

We had a routine for unloading and setting up, and it was the first that the students saw of our road company, very together, very boisterous, invading the academic sanctum. We pulled the two uprights and the crossbeam off the top of the truck, shouldered them through the backstage loading dock and laid them down upstage.

Next came our outdoor stage platforms, stacked to the side. We set the pylons and the two-by-six support beams onstage where our funky little stage-upon-a-stage would sit best, lined up under the light grid. Next came the platforms, two actors on each, laid onto the frame. Wedges jammed the platforms tight together. We bolted the cross bar to the two uprights and lashed the curtain onto the crossbeam.

The curtain, crude canvas, split in the middle for grand entrances, was painted with a two-dimensional village in shallow perspective, no naturalism anywhere. Above that, we stretched a banner — “San Francisco Mime Troupe — Engagement, Commitment, and Fresh Air” carried by a snarling, toothy gothic griffin. When assembled, we lifted the whole rig upright with a big cheer and tied it off to stage weights and cleats. Outdoors, we’d just drive stakes into the ground.

I walked up to the back of the theater for a look. Our stage looked small, incongruous, the perfect effect against the grandiose theater that surrounded it. The drop curtain was laughable. It destroyed any pretense of proscenium, any expectations of a normal night at the theater. That was a good thing.

We dropped our coats — outdoors the autumn had grown cold in the Midwest — and clambered on stage. The tech guys began to light our little stage from the grid while we tried out the floor. Actors warmed up offstage, out from under the techies and their heavy lights. Play some music, somebody shouted to the techs. Just don’t make it “If You Go to San Francisco” or “On a Warm San Francisca Night,” a ridiculous song. There are no warm San Francisco nights. None. Ever.

We did some lazzi, stock commedia physical sequences, practicing falls and leaps on the floor, short physical bits. By now, we had the show down. Although it changed every night in its tempo, details, and audience response, the show, “L’Amant Militaire,” the military lover, had congealed into a funky ballet, at once orchestrated and improvisational. Within limits, you could change beats, insert ad libs if you didn’t break the rhythm. If you ad libbed and blew it, you’d hear about it. A good ad lib works well, but only when it’s linked to the scene’s overall context. There would be no question when it worked, because the audience would explode. Or we could do joke-jokes, laugh catchers where we’d throw in a reference to a hit tune or a San Francisco band, or an irksome professor on campus or insert some mention of dope or a popular villain like General Waste More Land the commander in charge of the 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. Sex was built into the characters, their relationships, the movement. It was a very bawdy, very sexy play.

Once the stage was lit and the techies were off the grid above us, we ran a speed through, very fast, very fun, stretching and twisting, keeping on cue but whipping through it. This was a time of invention. The best work came out of these light, quick run-throughs. Then we’d go to eat, usually at some student commons, or a restaurant with the organizers, all of them SDS members.

The plan was to use the show as a rallying point for the organized protests that were unfolding on every campus, often based on the battle against Dow Chemical, Hewlett-Packard, the napalm brewers and the cluster bomb makers, cruel corporations. And ROTC. Rot Cee. Reserve Officers Training Corps. More ninety-day wonders came out of ROTC than anywhere else, the scared or arrogant lieutenants who commanded the platoons in battle, often leading with their dicks instead of their heads. College kids getting their young troops killed. So SDS’s idea was to get the military recruiters off the campus. We talked the SDSers about their politics and strategy but there was very little ideology to discuss. we were all on the same page.

After we ate, a few of us set off to the radio station to promote the show. So far on this tour, the SDS organizers had their shit together to dovetail the shows into whatever student action was planned for the campus that weekend. By design, we would act as a spark plug to fire up the students with laughter and thought provocation. It felt important. Every moment felt like a teaching moment, but we didn’t see it as a top-down thing. While our show was military-tight and organized, anarchy ruled our threadbare theater’s soul. The way we lived fed into the way we performed. The theater came out of our lifestyle and our lifestyle fed the content of the theater.

We lived the life of bandits but conducted ourselves like guerrilla fighters. We knew why we were there, and we understood and respected the students and their circumstances. Ours were hit-and-run tactics, but the students had laid the groundwork for what was about to happen, and they would take the consequences after we had gone.

All across the nation, SDS, Students for a Democratic Society had been at work for over a year, feeling their way into unity and collective action via remarkable communication, FBI-tapped phonelines, mimeographed leaflets, bundles of New Left Notes distributed from east to west by bus, truck, whatever. Hell, we’d carry bundles of New Left Notes in our van to the next campus.

Plus, nearly every city in America had an underground paper, most run for political and cultural organizing, all of them contributing to the communication for a nationwide student movement, the most powerful we had seen in this country, ever. You could feel the power, rolling out ahead of us.

*

Showtime! We walked onstage. Unlike proscenium shows, the set was designed to break the fourth wall that stands between actors and their audiences. The audience had piled into the classy theater, dark wood panels, well-kept theater seats, a rich green. By contrast to the formality of the room, the students mixed preppies in chinos and sport jackets with bushy-haired freaks in jeans and ragged tops, long dresses and black pipe stem pants.

The kids were jazzed up. SDS had done a remarkable job of getting them organized and prepared for what would come tomorrow. The students were incredibly savvy about the war and the role the universities played in keeping the war machine going. No dupes here. They radiated energy and noise and they filled the staid hall to overflowing.

Onstage, we formed our warmup circle, lots of spontaneous smiles and eyes. We were on! The commedia had not yet begun, but we were singing beside the stage. This gleeful breaking of expectations gave the warmup a naturally raucous, lascivious style and I loved preparing. Students ricocheted off the walls. They danced in the seats. All we had was a recorder, a tambourine, and five sets of hands to accompany our voices but the audience joined with whistles and shouts.

The audience loved the show and left the theater clapping and chanting. They flowed around the campus cops who weren’t prepared for a rowdy, post-show mob that clamored across campus toward the chem building, where the university was conducting napalm experiments. Everybody danced and cheered and shouted around the chem building entrance, a big crowd, but no one tried to assault the doors. This was no unruly mob. That’s what The Man liked to call these protestors, as if they were a large infesting insect. Shortly, “the mob” broke, groups and couples heading in different directions. Our SDS hosts guided us off-campus to a joint with initials carved deep into the tables, pizza, burgers, and pitchers of beer carried above the heads of waitresses weaving through the standing-room only crowd.

*

The next morning, we showed up at the SDS office, our rendezvous point. Everyone hit the mark on time. This was guerrilla theater: We had learned our coordinates and kept our ammunition dry. The Chancellor had refused to discuss demands written up by students. Because the university had chosen war research funding over their mission to educate the young citizens of Wisconsin, the students had decided to occupy the chem building where the napalm research was going on. We would provide a drum and bugle corps to march the protesters into the building. We had a snare drum, a trumpet, we had tambourines and whistles. We marched across campus as students poured out of the dorms and reached critical mass at the foot of the granite stairway that led majestically up to the heavy double doors of the administration building.

Two young women draped a hand-painted graphic of a clenched fist over a podium liberated from a lecture hall. An scruffy kid dressed in jeans, a faded blue work shirt, and a sheepskin jacket stepped up. A long-haired student set a microphone down in front of him. An extension cord trailed out of the back of a Fender guitar amp and slithered up the steps to a window in the chem lab.

“We all know why we’re here,” he began. Feedback whined. He cringed, looked at the microphone, tapped it. Leaned aside. The kid adjusted the volume.

“It’s not just because we posted flyers and handed out leaflets about this action today.”

Cheers.

“Okay, we’re on,” the speaker said, grinning. “Sure that was helpful, but we all know that the chem building is no longer a place of science. It’s a munitions lab. And the bosses of this supposedly sheltered academic community, they no longer represent our well-being. Now they collaborate with war mongers. They take money from the war corps and tap the brain power of who? Of us! They hold out diplomas like carrots in front of mules and tell us “do the work. Do THIS work. Use your hard-earned knowledge, your love for science to fulfill our government research grants. And the people who come to work each day, dressed like academics, like our benign, beloved betters. They use the standards of academia to pressure us — yeah, that’s right — ‘pressure us’ into making the napalm burn hotter, make the cluster bombs tear more flesh.”

The crowd boo’d. It was clear that they — students and organizers — had been meeting frequently. The crowd stood attentive, knowing they wanted to hear what this guy had to say. I felt the unity, all these kids understanding the power behind the words, the concepts becoming real, a matter of life and death, even for them.

“And they all know — like I know. Like you know. That those nice people, so many so friendly, so sincere in their efforts to help us.”

The crowd groaned with sarcasm.

The speaker stopped them. “No! No!” he shouted. “They’re sincere. Sincere in their intent to keep the wheels turning here at the university. But now, the wheels have reversed direction. They are no longer about academia, the gift of education, the treasures of knowledge. Now the wheels turn as gears of the military-industrial complex.”

The speaker paused. He looked out over the crowd. No one moved. None had left. He crouched over the microphone, lowering his voice. “They’re keeping a list, brothers and sisters. A list of those of us who may stumble, even for a moment. Those of us who may — for whatever reason — not be at the top of our academic game. And that list goes to the warmongers.”

Boos.

“That list goes to the selective service. To the draft boards. To those who decide who l will go and who will stay. To those who can tear us from the halls of the university and drop us in the barracks and in the rice paddies and deep in the blinding jungle. Yeah, the big wheel keeps on turning, brothers and sisters. And the halls of ivy — that once crooned the harmonies of student life — now glisten with blood and burn with fire.

“They want us, these men at the induction center. The sergeants and the doctors. Waiting to stamp our asses like pieces of meat. G.I. G.I. Government issue. We are no longer the issue of our parents. We are no longer the issue of our hopes and dreams.

But there comes a time when we must turn this university away from its dark new identity as a factory of death. A time when we must stop the manipulation of our hearts and minds and bodies from the place we were born to become both the murdered and the murderers. While they make money off our successes and our failures.

The crowd began a chant. The chant began to move, in tempo, like a single organism. We picked up the tempo on drums and bells began to march behind the great prowling animal that took direction and danced across the campus to the chem building.

 

One two three four

We won’t fight your dirty war

 

Mao Tse Tung And Uncle Ho

Dow chemical has got to go.

 

We formed up at the back of the crowd as we had done so many times in the parks of San Francisco. But this time, we weren’t passing the hat, fleecing the audience for spare change and joints. We were playing the students into a building to sit on the floor in peaceful resistance, where they would sing. But we were no pied pipers.

“Stay outside,” the director told us. “Don’t go in.”

“But we can’t just march them in there and then leave.”

“Oh yeah?” the director asked. “And what happens if they get busted while we’re in there?”

“Then we get busted.”

“And then what?”

“No show.”

“That’s right.”

“So we drive all the way to Madison, our mission barely begun.”

“And we end up here in jail.

The director laughed. “Some guerilla action.”

During this exchange, the students knew what to do. Someone had crawled in a window in the chem building. She shoved open the front door. Chanting, the students had rolled into the building. We could see them hunkering down in the front corridors. The doors slammed shut.

Minutes later, phalanxes of cops appeared from around the corners of nearby buildings. They were outfitted in coveralls and helmets, gas masks strapped to their legs, gloves, heavy boots, and long night sticks. Really long night sticks. We retreated to the pedestal of a statue of Abraham. He had been adorned with a gas mask.

Inside, the students jammed the doors with baseball bats thrust under the push bars. Chains rattled through the door handles. They had come equipped.

A bullhorn blared from the police phalanx. The speaker, without identifying himself, declared the students as an unlawful assembly and ordered them to disperse.

 

Mao Tse Tung and Uncle Ho

Dow chemical has got to go!

 

Another bullhorn announcement.

More cheering and singing from inside the building

A shattering sound. Broken glass cut through our drum and bugle tattoo. Unable to force the doors, Madison’s eager, newly equipped tac squad broke through the glass at the entrance.

The dull thud of tear gas. The pigs shot canisters directly into the narrow confines of the chem building hallways.

People began to scream, their cries muffled but intense behind the doors and the shouts of the pigs. They began to drag students out of the chem building by the first available limb. Tear gas splintered the clear autumn air with glass shards. They clubbed, kicked, and dragged students toward two large black vans, super-sized paddy wagons. Shaking off the shock of the attack, the students rallied and counterattacked. They swarmed around the paddy wagons and prevented the pigs from closing the doors. They began rocking the vehicles and someone punctured the tires on both vans. Fire broke out under first one, then the other of the vehicles. The pigs flung open the doors and the students leapt out, only to be forced to run a gauntlet of pigs and their night sticks.

For a moment, the scene froze. The cops seemed to come to their senses. Students, beaten and bloody, collapsed on the grass. Only the coughing persisted, as the students convulsed from the tear gas that began to drift away over the autumn-still campus.

Horrified by the carnage, the Chancellor banished the city pigs. They dragged their crippled paddy wagons off campus and abandoned the territory to the university cops, who walked around the campus in tense little knots looking very outnumbered.

The afternoon sun cast weird shadows and an eerie quiet descended. The campus looked like a battlefield. The walkways and grass, the open quads were white with leaflets, a jacket, a lone sneaker, posters on sticks, half of them broken. Stunned students sat back to back on the lawn, holding their heads. A table had been set up to sign people up for legal aid. A group with medical skills walked along a cloistered corridor of wounded, kneeling, bandaging head wounds, a broken arm, a swollen ankle. By sundown, we retreated to the theater where a second battle was forming up.

Clearly, the administration was bewildered. After the tac squad retreat, the Chancellor tried to prevent our show from happening. The students regrouped, massing around the theater doors, demanding that the show must go on. We met with SDS at the upturned student union. We wanted to do the show, but we didn’t want to instigate another battle. Although they would have marched into the chem building anyway, we felt guilty, as if we had ushered these kids to their doom. But the occupation of the chem building had been planned far in advance to coincide with the visit from Dow chemical’s recruiters. They were nowhere to be seen.

That night, the show couldn’t have been sharper. The audience radiated anger and sarcasm, they vibrated with clear thinking and focused action. The laughs came up like punches, not aimed at us, but at the powers that had brought us to this point, in a Wisconsin theater after a day filled with fury.

Afterwards, people stayed around the theater and talked. There had been rumor of a curfew, but who would enforce it? The administration and the campus cops stayed out of sight. Neither had bargained for the pummeling the students took in their occupation of the hall. The city cops would not have permission to return. They’d tried out their new gear, got their kicks beating the shit out of the kids. They had proven the obscenity of violence, gang-banging cops, red-faced white guys in dark blue coveralls, anonymous, shielding their badges from the filth they had perpetrated. The Man had developed an appetite for violence with his fear but that night, he went hungry.

*

A hand shook me awake from an exhausted sleep. “Come on man. We gotta blow town. The cops are looking for us. They’re callin’ us outside agitators on the morning news. They want to pin what happened here on us.”

I dressed quickly in the morning cold. We stole out of the off-campus house we had occupied, started the unmarked white van —no signs, no flowers, nothing to distinguish it from a thousand other white delivery vans. We fled eastward, outside agitators avoiding the pigs, sneaking away at dawn in an unmarked white van and three marginally reliable cars. No fatigue, just coffee and nicotine excitement, only the road and the music on the a.m. radio winding us south and east toward Chicago and on to the rebellion still bubbling in Detroit.

# # #

Ornithology by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Chance Encounters

/ Stories

The Hollywood YMCA sits in an old mock-Spanish edifice just south of Sunset and a little west of Vine. It’s a comfortable old place with a pool, a couple of saunas, two basketball courts, a workout floor and a labyrinth of weight rooms, nautilus chambers, and a rangy set of rooms subdivided by rows of battered athletic lockers. I go there because it’s close to home and because it’s comfortable. No spandex allowed.

Damn, I thought, this guy has to be a musician...

So one afternoon I was hunkered down on an athletic bench with one wet towel under my butt and the other around my neck. I’d just gone for a swim and showered off the chlorine. I vegetated in front of my open locker, spaced-out, slack-jawed, and stupid, a beatific condition that I treasure. Someone nearby began to whistle a complex, zig zag bebop melody. Whistling bebop “heads” or melodies isn’t easy. You have to know all the intricacies in these tunes, often 32 bars long. It’s not like whistling “Georgia” or “Waltzing Matilda.”

Bebop tunes, by definition, make no sense whatsoever. Bebop became popular shortly after WWII, when life made no sense whatsoever. Bebop tunes were usually built on the chord changes and structures of solid but overplayed melodies like “How High the Moon,” and were often the creation of black or beat jazz musicians who had grown tired of playing the worn-out but still popular jazz standards and were itching to reflect the crazy world they lived in.

I listened closely. The guy had blipped and bopped through the first two verses and launched into the bridge of “Ornithology.” He was hitting the tune note-for-note the way its creator, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker had composed it. They called him “Yardbird” because, back in Kansas City, his hometown, Parker survived on chicken.

Damn, I thought, this guy has to be a musician, probably a horn player who, to play these angular, cubist melodies, has to master each burst, flare, dip, pause, and jagged melody line to stay in synch with the other horn players, the pianist, and often, even the bassist and drummer. They all play the melody.

This particular tune was built on “How High the Moon.” “Oleo” and “Scrapple from the Apple” both written by bebop artists, were built on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” but the average listener would never know their origins from the angled, dissonant melodies being staccato’d out at breakneck pace by bebop innovators like Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Bud Powell. The list goes on, but I digress.

In the locker room, the guy finished the first chorus and began absent-mindedly humming an improvised line that might follow the exacting, intricate heads of these tunes. I looked down the line of dressed and undressed backs, bellies, knees. I knew this guy! “Eric!” I shouted.

The whistling stopped. The guy leaned forward, studied my face for a moment, brows knit in a frown focused on my visage. His eyebrows flew up, mouth flew open. “Charlie1” All Bronx, all the time. “What are you doin’ here?”

“Hey!” I returned, “what are you doin’ here?” I was delighted. I had only recently arrived in town from San Francisco, and Los Angeles was still a big mystery full of faceless two- and three-story buildings and freeways. I didn’t know that many musicians yet, and it was a scramble, just to break into the scene.

“I just got into town,” Eric said. “Figured I’d give it a try.”

“Uh, you guys wanna talk someplace other than over my business?” a wise guy between us asked.

“Oh, yeah, sure.” I picked up my towel and swapped places.

Eric and I gave each other high fives. “Great to see you, man!”

We caught up. We had played jazz together in San Francisco before I left for Los Angeles. I had chosen L.A. over New York because the Big Apple wasn’t big enough to accommodate my partner Susan and her mother Rose. Rose won and we drove south.

We recalled some of the San Francisco gigs we did, including at Ray’s, a faux beatnik bar located so close to North Beach’s Broadway and Columbus that, on weekends, customers would fall into the club from the sheer pressure of the crowd that flowed past the big picture window behind the bandstand. All the musicians shared the same fear, that one Saturday night, someone would fly through the window in a sforzando of shattered glass and stab us all to death with giant splinters from Ray’s ruptured window.

Eric and I had also played bebop together at the Deaf Club in San Francisco, where the intricate bebop tunes made us sound like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The Deaf Club had been taken over by a punk entrepreneur who filled it full of The Dead Kennedys, the Ramones, the Mutants, and Negative Trend. We were the novelty act, with our acoustic instruments and 1950s bebop.

I had scratched out a musical foothold in L.A. and invited Eric to play with us when the gig paid for more than the standard piano-bass-drum trio. Eric was a mensch. He was always grateful for the gigs and played with that kind of transported ecstasy that so many musicians generate as easily and profusely as sweat. He never had any money, but then, neither did most of us.

After a month or so, Eric went back to work as a waiter. He had worked as a waiter in a South San Francisco Italian joint and did his job well. In Los Angeles, his proficiency and Bronx accent landed him a steady gig at Canter’s giant, sprawling bakery, restaurant, deli, and bar in the Fairfax district.

Sometimes we’d go in to eat during his shift, just to hang, dislocate our jaws around Canter’s mile-high sandwiches, and drink coffee. Eric was never embarrassed to serve any of us. He was proud of his work and could kibitz his way through the shift with all the other waiters, waitresses, cooks, busboys, and customers. An equal-opportunity kibitzer, was Eric.

After a few months at Canter’s Eric began to lobby the owners to begin a jazz night at Canter’s bar. They were reluctant. Canter’s Kibitz Room served as home base for some of the Fairfax district’s best-established bar flies — all of them over 60 and set in their ways. Nevertheless, Eric persevered. The owners understood the restaurant business exquisitely — they knew consistency was the key, whether it be with a pastrami and tongue sandwich or a bebop band. They committed and pretty soon, the bar flies were tapping their feet on the bar stools and swaying their cardiganed shoulders over their well drinks.

Eric also understood jazz’s saving grace — jamming. He invited every musician he knew to sit in at the Kibitz Room. Soon the usually empty cabaret tables were populated with musicians and their hipster pals. Eric’s Thursday night jazz became a fixture. Thanks to the regular booking, the crowds grew. It was a laid back scene with a gentle kitschy vibe, perfect for young jazz apprentices to pay some dues and learn the tunes.

For years, Canter’s featured a great picture of Eric with his soprano sax, blowing under the cheesy red and blue gels that lit the stage, and squinting from the wraith of smoke from a non-filtered Camel stuck between his right ring finger and pinkie. The gig went on, Eric kept waiting tables. I left to take a job in a publishing company and to play music in a Friday night cabaret at the L.A. Theatre Center.

Eric died a year or so later of lung cancer, but the picture of him remained in the stairwell leading to Canter’s second floor. I always stop on the stairs to have a chat with Eric whenever I fall by Canter’s for a pastrami sandwich and a bottomless cup of coffee. I don’t eat meat anymore but what the hell, I get a chance to encounter my pal Eric one more time.

# # #

 

The Kitchen by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Recipes

/ Stories

We returned to San Francisco in time for the kids to enroll for the fall in San Francisco’s school system. It would be the first year out of three on the road when they could look forward to being in a school for the entire year, no longer objects of their elders’ wanderlust. We were very bad people.

Good gawd how we tried.

It took me years to coax a criticism from either of the kids.Until they finally aired their complaints about being taken out of school twice in as many years, they had insisted that they loved to live communally — they had multiple parents they could depend on, and always lots of kids to hang out with, roughly their age. That was the truth; only changing schools had been a drag for them, but that was enough. So the move back to S.F. made sense to them, too.

An actor from the San Francisco Mime Troupe had — as a means of survival — taken out a real estate license years earlier and knew the territory south of the Mission District, an area south of Market Street that included Potrero and Bernal Hills. The two hills were covered with the redwood-trimmed, balloon-frame buildings that became so characteristic of San Francisco’s gentrified neighborhoods. Our search for a place of our own — and others, as you’ll soon see — took place back in the day when a human being could actually buy a piece of property — albeit so humble — in the fog-bedecked city by the bay. The house we bought on Andover Street cost $28,000. We scraped together three grand to cover the down payment and closing costs and bingo! We had become property owners.

The place was perfect for our plan, with rooms on three floors suitable for individual privacy, including for the kids. The plan? To start an artists’ collective with our radical theater and Boho musical brothers and sisters. The place filled up immediately. The Pickle Family Circus had just sprung out of the brow of Larry Pisoni, a young visionary from a traditional Italian circus family. Combined with a diverse talent pool from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and bolstered by two physical comics whose skills, talent, and experience dovetailed perfectly with the odd combination of mimetic, vaudevillian, Eurocircus, alternative departure art of the Pisoni mind, the circus sprung into vigorous life. I put the circus band together from a jazz/latin/funk/soul/rock band I had joined on my return to the city. Randy and Nick joined the circus band and settled at Andover Street. Don had come with us cross country from our previous commune in rural Massachusetts.  Ruby, a sister from the Colorado town that had been home for two winters, showed up, as did my soul cousin from Cambridge, Jeffree. Wooly (Bully) and Zoom, our intrepid mutts made the round trip with us. To cover the mortgage, gas and electric, and lay in basic foodstuffs, each collective member had to come up with $65 bucks a month — kids and dogs lived gratis.

The kitchen was dark and small. In the spring, Don and I tore the back wall off the place and built a sky-lit anteroom that opened onto the back yard. We had assembled lumber, windows, doors, and floors from an old row of military barracks perched at a Marin bayside outpost called Fort Baker. One of our One Percent Free families had secured the contract to demo the buildings. Word went out and the soon the old fort was crawling with crowbar-wielding anarchists, happy to liberate the lumber. By that fall, we had a beautiful sunny kitchen in which to assemble our showbiz collective.

Mealtimes were haphazard except for dinner, when people showed up to combine eating and drinking with house biz, talk of the politics of the day, and generally just hang together. In the first cooking shift, we boiled hobo coffee — good San Francisco coffee beans even back then, milled and thrown into the big blue enamel pot with eggshells to settle the grounds. Coffee’d up, we got the kids off to school with full bellies and lunch boxes. After that, breakfast happened whenever sleepy communards made it happen. The musicians were always last to the table. We made group purchases of eggs, fruit, flour for bread and pancakes, milk. The freewheeling crew prepared their own oddities for breakfast and lunch. This was the time of early food co-ops and so odd lots of vegetables, dense, heavy loaves of Digger bread, cooked in coffee cans, large wedges of cheese, strawberries, apples, and bananas made their way from the giant, sprawling wholesale produce market at the bottom of the hill.

For the first year, the house on Andover Street celebrated a time of sharing. Everything in the kitchen was either considered common property or labeled with names, hands-off threats, or skull and crossbones. It worked out well. The kids ate healthily but their fruit loops remained sanctified. The yoghurt and wheat germ freaks claimed their territory, the oatmeal crowd shared large cans of the steel-cut Irish variety, brown rice was everywhere, and each adult member would stop at the local grocery to pick up the items they needed for their cooking night.

Ruby’s specialty was lasagna with good Italian cheese from Lucca’s deli on Valencia, and whatever vegetables were available. Zucchini, tomatoes, and broccoli seemed to be big favorites. Nick and his girlfriend made enchiladas or tamales with zippy salsas and gigantic bowls of salad. Betsy’s offerings were diverse, although one specialty was roast chicken and roasted potatoes and veggies or goulash with noodles and heaps of sour cream. Jeffree hated to cook. He learned how to assemble the elements for burritos for us to build our own, or he would punt and make scrambled eggs and omelets. We rebelled when he served us raisin omelets one night.

I usually concocted pasta or turkey chili. That specialty began when we found we could buy a whole turkey, roast it one day, eat leftovers on the second day, use the remainder for the chili and end up with a soup on day four. By that time, everybody had had enough turkey. I did the whole chili thing from scratch, soaked the beans, found jalapeños and sweet red peppers. Mexican spices were plentiful and popular. The Mission district was full of mom and pop Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants and we learned from them. Betsy also liked to deep fry snapper Vera Cruz style.

My stepdaughter Joss recently reminded me, “you may not remember that Jake and I had a cook night of our own each week. Our specialties were oven-fried chicken, tacos, and clam spaghetti. Also,” Joss continued, “I’ll never forget Randy’s attempts at cooking. He’d throw anything he found in the kitchen into either a cooking pot or a salad bowl – sometimes with hair-raising results. No matter what it was, he would always refer to it as ‘couscous.’ ”

Beer and wine came with an eye to quantity and nobody would kick a pint of brandy off the table after dinner. Talk centered around gossip, what had happened in that day’s installment of Amistad Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” We listened to kids’ school stories and gabbed music, theater, and politics. Vietnam had finally ground to a halt. Nixon was out and the post-war depression had begun to settle in. The United States had experienced the first oil shock the year before. Most of the radical groups that we supported had fragmented. Women and feminism had stepped into the world, from protest and radical acts of “militant” feminism to academics and legislation. Women were learning about their bodies and their selves.

The household worked hard to understand gender equality. We practiced political correctness, the good kind, before it was co-opted by our reactionary culture and turned into a term of derision. In the beginning, the liberation movements, all of them, including feminism were embarking on such new pathways that a new, politically correct vocabulary was necessary and welcome. Eventually, most of the men would make it part way across the great divide inconsistently, but good gawd, how we tried. Everybody cooked, everybody cleaned, and the kids participated with their own brand of liberation.

But the household had begun to crack. Nick found a new girlfriend. Ruby moved to Berkeley. Nick, Randy, and I went on tour with the circus and the daily routine began to break down. People began to miss meals, at first unheard of. Betsy enrolled in law school and the kids were growing older. Joss began acting in school plays, Jake picked up a paper route. Eventually, only Don, Randy, me, Betsy, Wooly and Zoom, and the kids remained. The household began to look and feel like the home of a nuclear family. The glory days were over.

#   #   #

Superstition, science, blind faith, denial, and ignorance: a trumped-up world view by
50
(97 Stories)

Prompted By Superstition

/ Stories

Yes, I’m superstitious. I drive on the right side of the road in America out of fear that someone will hit me head on if I stray. I urge Mercury and Venus to keep circling the sun, hoping for reassurance that the next sphere, our planet Earth, will follow suit. I instruct my shaman’s apprentice to maintain a steady beat on a mule skin drum, so I can find my way back from the ether. The drumbeats create a string of beads like Jason’s golden thread, offering the logic of tempo to my entranced brain.

The logic of tempo depends upon two points to establish a rhythm, a line of order that possesses length, direction and purpose. If a heart beats only once, there would be no life. Without the tempo set by two or more beats, there would no logic, no life. Likewise, without tempo, there would be no present. There would only be a now. And then another now. And another. No past. No future. Only now.

For us to acknowledge time, we have to be superstitious. Superstition asks for blind faith from its supplicants. The shaman who gambles his life and his use-value on his abilities, the zombie who obeys the punishing will of the community, the motorcyclist who leans into the turn, all rely on the unsupportable belief that, in the next moment, what happened before will happen again. Boom, boom, boom, ad infinitum.

Without the next drumbeat, without the continued consensus of condemnation, without the stability of centrifugal motion, without superstition, the entire universe might easily collapse in on itself, sucking the cosmos back with it. So, preposterous as it is, superstition allows us to believe that rhythm marks time, opinion can cause life or death, and motion flies through time and space. Superstition requires intelligence in the form of logic, a grasp of cause and effect, skill sets to drive cosmic events, and the blind faith that if an event happens once, it can — and probably will — happen again. Let’s hear it for superstition.

And then, there’s ignorance. Ignorance depends upon denial. For example, I’d have to be in denial to think that the bottle of water on the table next to me was not a collection of crystals and molecules held in temporary suspension by forces described by quantum physics. More personally, if I wasn’t superstitions about the complexities of my body and its workings, I’d have no faith that I would exist in the next moment.

Denial, a root cause of ignorance, usually breeds on a belief that there’s a benefit to denying the existence of a person, place, or event. Denial is also a lazy way out of the need to understand. Ignorance and denial are convenient. For example, in the early 1950s, doctors and medical practitioners tried to introduce the rhythm method of birth control to rural Indian women. In order to help the women track their fertility cycles, each woman was given a device with two-colored beads on a wire. One color stood for a fertile day while another color stood for days in which she might practice sexuality with a lessened chance of conceiving.

However, the women, in an effort to please their husbands (and one would hope, themselves, although not bloody likely) would simply slide the required number of beads into the “safe” zone of their device. From that act, they would surmise that it would be “safe” to have sex without fear of pregnancy. Convenient. Ignorance and denial led to the collapse of any faith in the rhythm method, and the birth-control project failed.

In the case of the Indian women, we have empathy. Their ignorance came from deprivation, a lack of education, and a culture that viewed differently cause and effect and the linear nature of time. Their denial was also more innocent. They wished to deny their own physiological rhythms in order to maintain the social stability of the household, or to make it possible (again, one hopes) for them to enjoy sex when they wanted to enjoy sex.

Today, we stagger under the burden of another display of ignorance and convenient denial. We ricochet between theory, superstition, and practice involved in medical science and epidemiology. The circumstances surrounding Covid-19 in America couldn’t contrast more starkly with the opportunistic bead “cheating” of the Indian women. The ignorance and denial involved carry no innocence whatsoever. Still, the effect is the same.

We have a leader, a President thrust upon us, who has no faith, blind or otherwise. He harbors no superstition. He has no wit, no guile, no humor. He has no innocence. He has no motive to understand anything, to do the work of learning. He is too lazy to read; he was too lazy to learn how to read. He grew up, secure in a confidence that he would not need to know anything.

He is psychotic. His sense of reality doesn’t connect with society’s myths, norms, knowledge, skills, superstitions, or theories. In his tawdry imitation of a mad king, he hears only himself and, because he is barren of humor, he is barren of self-assessment and awareness. In parallel with the Indian women and the rhythm method, he has, out of laziness, denial, and opportunism, reversed the passage of time, the polarity of cause and effect, the centrifuge of forward motion. How has he managed this?

In his faux cavalier style, he explained to the American people that testing for the coronavirus created a problem: If there were no tests, we would have no coronavirus. It would disappear, just like the fertile days in the Indian women’s menstrual cycles. In the infuriating way that the media has to soften and normalize, they call this reptilian, limbic twist of logic “magical thinking,” This man, and his reverse logic has no magic. He has no science. He has no tempo, no sequence, no innocence. His ignorance comes from depravity, not deprivation. He has no faith. He has no superstition. Death is the only consort to his twisted logic, and he has brought death to America.

#  #  #

If an event happens once, it can — and probably will — happen again.

Breathe in… Breathe out by
50
(97 Stories)

/ Stories

I have difficulty meditating in this time. As others have said earlier — the power of the pandemic yanks me out of my inner focus and lands me vicariously in the plight of others. Inward and outward, the personal and the political, yin and yang, the cosmos and the boson particle, all ring true as familiar dualities. The monstrous scope and scale of the microscopic pandemic virus unites us all in loss and sadness, hope and admiration, ingenuity and brutality. We cannot escape the virus except — for the time being — through our personal lives.

What a strange and terrible time to feel at one with the universe.

So I meditate in the safety and seclusion of our garden, hoping that the clarity and comfort I might find here can translate into resistance. At least here I explorel my brain. I consider meditation as a kind of rebellion, urging our minds to stand against the stream of our psycho socio habits. So I breathe in.

I breathe out and the shape of my breath resembles spheres now, a panoply of micro and macro spheres ranging from colors and currents that reflect the shifting conditions on our planet to the spherical representations of the virus, with its lovely, red Velcro burrs sprouting from Mother Covid’s teal globe.

I breathe in and imagine the continents as they slide over our own viscous sphere like butter sliding down a hot skillet melting over hundreds of millions of years, a nonsensical measurement.

I breathe out and look down to the open petals of a succulent in a cobalt pot. Familiar and adjacent, its small, perfect cup offers a tangible wonder.

I have grown stiff in my foolish sitting posture. I stand, stretch, and climb the steps to check the plants, just now fallen into shadow, the soil still warm. This is the first week outside for these slender-stalked girls and they already stand steady through the night and bask in the vernal sun.

I return to my chair, an old wicker job with a faded pillow.

I breathe in. A murder of crows flies on the diagonal across the sky, released and energized without the ambient audio garbage of small planes and helicopters.

I breathe out into the crowded, forced calm of an ICU, into the covid mucous hardening like plaque in the soft chamber of a mother’s lungs, into the exhaustion and the fear, the weary confusion caused by the power of the disease and the heartless stupidity of others,  PPE and face shields and of gloves and masks recycled, ventilators confiscated, hoarded, and bartered by a nation where ignorance has been weaponized.

I breathe in, avoiding the hot, stinking breath of beach breathers who bear a shaky resemblance to zombies, poisoned by their own stubborn ignorance and the toad venom and bones of children that White House sycophants grind and dry into powder that they blow into the nostrils of Fox News. Having inhaled the powder, the zombies march, their open mouths demanding the right to sicken, die, and infect, their shouts and threats spewing from grotesque, open mouths so different from the urgent chants that protest for the truth.

I breathe out. “Hatred, even of meanness,” Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Contorts the features.

Anger, even against injustice

Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last

And man is a helper to man

Think of us

With forbearance.” I don’t think of these idiots with forbearance. They do not protest injustice. Their hatred is not, as is ours, of meanness; it stinks of their own meanness. I will them all to die in their armed and dangerous cloisters.

I breathe in the fragrance of sun-warmed lemons and feel the breeze waffling in my ears. The Covid sphere morphs into mother earth and I feel her smile. Maybe this aberration is no more of her doing than her melting glaciers. Or, if the virus is by design, maybe she will only take the zombies and the sycophants, the animal butchers, the child rapists. But that’s not what’s happening.

I breathe out. Above me, a scrappy squirrel poops into the jasmine at the studio door and a young Mediterranean cypress rockets through the sunlight into the sky, free at last from a smothering mantle of oleander drought-killed a few summers ago. They’re gone now, cleared while the smoke wild fires bracketed this Hollywood terrain.

I measure our time here by this palm that appeared as a seedling above the ground cover when all this was just a muddy hillside.This seedling saw the Challenger explode, the city burn in rage over injustice, an earthquake that poured our tall brick chimney down into the bathroom and living room like dry, dusty porridge.

 

I breathe in. A police helicopter circles to the south. I hope there is not trouble in the homeless camp under the freeway at the bottom of the hill. They are disastrously vulnerable to the virus that unites us all. What will become of them? What will become of us? Have we had enough of “us” and “them?” We could heal this. This one of “them” explores a gear hub from stolen bike. He might well be a bodhisattva staring at a leaf and listening, not to the rush of the freeway above, but the river that watered the sun-driven photosynthesis of each leafy cell.

I breathe out and welcome the possibility of change for the better, of lessons learned and ingenuity supported. I grieve over the sadness and loss and fear the hot wind of asphyxiation on the back of my neck. I breathe in and feel the world embrace me with our commonality. What a strange and terrible time to feel at one with the universe.

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