Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last Day

This is the day we take stock.  Depending on where you are on the graph of longevity, you focus on the past more than the present or perhaps the present and future are the privileged view.
We adore change when it might bring positivity, in our view.  But with the beginning of 2018 comes the chance to re-set.  For many, seeing 2017 go away can't come soon enough.
It's only the feeling that we can begin again, with fewer mistakes and more alert than before, but it is something.
Something needed.
Something welcomed.

In our commercial culture, we'll be mugged by all the advertisements for weight-loss and ancestry, newer, bigger sales, and the latest models of everything from cars to phones.
It's what we do.
Many folks will marvel at just being able to
It's been that kind of a year.
But for the uninitiated, the inexperienced, the folks who would rather not look back, they'll still have to be wary of what it is that just might be gaining on them.
I don't think people celebrate the new year as much as they just celebrate.  It provides focus from what might be just another ordinary evening.
This is usually a time of expectation.  I dropped those kinds of evenings years ago.  We all have those because we all know that apart from all the good things we're going to do differently we sense that this, too, is a time when darts get thrown, bombs drop and we suddenly find ourselves, (or could) out in the cold, just when we thought things were going to get better.
Yes, January lies in the heart of winter, and for some can be the cruelest month.
Like the snow and ice, things melt, the landscape drains, the sunlight emerges and wind dries out the wishes that we painted.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Dawn is only a few hours away
The airport is no movement empty
I sit in the dark
Hearing only “Early Morning Rain” in my head
Got the lyrics down now

My plane is on time and
I’m to let myself onto the tarmac
Shopping mall door slides open
Braniff Air taxis up from the mist
Flight attendant appears from behind silver door
Yellow and brown hot pants at 2:29 am
I’m in and on and belted

Four stops before Chicago
3 now Witchita is snowed in
In 3 months I'll appear before my draft board
For now, a window seat
next to a returning vet
we smile hello, nod and then sit back,
Our paths cross in the frozen wind

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Slouching Again

I recently watched the new documentary about the creation of Rolling Stone magazine.  Like the music and community it documents, Rolling Stone has survived and flourished for decades.  Aside from the many behind the scenes film and video clips, and the stunning photography the film employs, what resonated most with me was a comment by the founder of this iconic publication.  Jann Wenner was talking about some of the young, unpublished writers that were assigned various pieces early on.  In one case, he took a young journalist aside after he'd written a noteworthy piece.  No, he didn't offer constructive criticism or even express disappointment in the piece.  Conversely, he liked the piece and recognized the obvious talent in his young charge.  What Wenner did was grab a book off of his shelf and tell the inexperienced writer to go home and read it and then use his considerable talent and write like that.  The book was Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion.
That book, a collection of essays written in the style of "New Journalism" has influenced countless writers ever since.  Its prose decorates the syllabi of numerous college courses, and like my own curriculum, it is often used to teach writing.  In short, Didion wrote the book on how to write non-fiction like fiction.

Last week I bought the book...again.  That's because I often passed it on by accident or design over the years.  Always there was a copy in my classroom library.  Somehow, after viewing the Rolling Stone documentary, I decided to revisit Didion's work.  Glad I did.
The title essay, "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" details Didion's experiences and observations during the summer of love in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco.
The writing is superb, but that's not what got me thinking.  I wondered how some of the most outstanding experiences in my life (and you in your's) would sound through the lens of Didion's talent.
I began to think of various travels and experiences that lend themselves to this style.  Certainly, my life and times in the late 1960s would be similar to Didion's experience in San Francisco. In fact, I first went to the city by the bay during that much-heralded summer.  No, I did not wear flowers in my hair, but I did open my eyes and other senses to what was obviously going on.  A feel for the dialogue and topics of conversation in Golden Gate Park would have been useful then.  Didion captures this remarkably well in her essay.  A few of my VISTA experiences would benefit from the Didion filter too.  The conversations I had with white Southerners who couldn't fathom the fact that I lived on the wrong side of town.  The conversations and the looks from Black Southerners who couldn't fathom why I lived on their side of town. (That was the purpose of VISTA, to live in the communities we served)
I'd love to take a few peak experiences I've had in the classroom and give them the Didion treatment. A tape recorder would have been useful as it was when I was actually a working journalist.
With all the advancements in technology, I wonder what will be lost and gained.  If we simply view people in their surroundings talking about things that matter to them, what skills go unused and lie dorment in the process?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Morally Bankrupt

So there he was, smack dab in the state of Mississippi delivering a speech on the occasion of the opening of the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.  He read his prepared (by someone else) remarks as my insides did a slow burn.  This was a showcase for hypocrisy 101.
What occurred to me is that this is how it must feel to live in a dictatorship.  For the current occupant of the White House to talk about the courage of people like Medgar Evers, the Freedom Riders, and the 3 young Civil Rights Workers brutally murdered,  it was repulsive.  This is a man who believes and sustains the worst stereotypes.  This is a man whose party has rescinded the Voting Rights Act that many of those enshrined in the new museum devoted their lives to achieve.

Two of the events that stand out most in my memory of growing up as the struggle for Civil Rights was blossoming in the 1960s are the funeral of the 3 civil rights workers and the 1963 March on Washington.  I wonder where the current President was on those two occasions?  I recall my presence and my emotions clearly. What was he doing? Thinking? How had his life and worldview changed?
In this current climate, a news reporter would not even get the chance to ask such a question.
Of course, all this is set against the soon to be election of Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate.
The fact that the people of Alabama are comfortable electing an accused child molester to represent shows the real truth here.
Hopefully, the consequences will make them pay the price needed to join the 21st century.  So, this is the new normal.
There is an Arthur Miller quote that keeps tapping away at my brain.  In the Introduction to his famous play "Death of a Salesman," Miller talks about the change that has come over the Lowman house.  Says Miller, "Now it was quiet in the house and the wrong people in the beds."  Later on, he says, "Strangers in the seats of the mighty."
What we have here is a troop of actors playing at running a government.  The wrong people in the halls.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Having Been

Having been a seeker,
I danced with watercolors,
I traveled among leather-clad musicians,
who always fed me well.

Having been a thinker,
I slept upon waterfalls beneath
iron mountains, jumping below on occasion to
drink poetry in blue-black corners,

As  a politico,
I made choices from the heart,
stopping every few decades to pick
up the box of assumptions left hanging
in a distant wind.

As a laborer, I worked every hour
for the price of admission to the tent show
called "the system,"
I sat through each performance refusing to
show my appreciation for being allowed
to survive.

When I had been aged enough,
I came to believe in afterthought,
Early mornings are best to recover
all that has been lost.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Come On

When I tell people where I live, they always have a comment on my neighborhood.  "St. Johns," they say, "It's an up and coming area."  My response, though not shared vocally, is I wish it would already get there.  It's been "up and coming" ever since I moved to Portland over a decade ago.  So why does this label stick?  Probably because, like so many other places, the time for gentrification has arrived.  But up here, in this far NW corner of the city, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia, change is coming slowly.  Maybe that's the best way.  I'm coming to believe that it gives us time to savor the old before everything gets replaced by the new.
Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about.  I know an old guy named Charlie who used to work on the railroad.  Charlie knows the Pacific Northwest as well as anyone and used to frequent a mercantile business in St. John's to buy his overalls and hats.  Jowers was run by an elderly Chinese man who Charlie liked to visit with and swap stories.  Today the "Jowers Building" has been refurbished and is now a Beer pub.  In fact, we have about 5 of them in our little neck of the woods.  Afterall, it is Portland.

Live/work spaces are all the rage and my neighborhood is getting a fairly diverse group of them.  Whether it be the apartments over retail spaces or artist's studios or even condos, we have them all in place and soon to be in place.
My city (Portland) is growing by about 50,000 people a year.  With that comes traffic and a dearth of parking spots and an entirely different vibe.  That's why it is important right now to take note of what is and let it register before the what it has become sets in.  So take a little walk with me and let's see what it looks like today.
On the main drag, sit a quartet of small dive bars.  Only one is iconic enough to attract everybody of barflies to hipsters, Boomers to Millenials.  And, the food is good.  That place is Slims.  Live music every week and a very welcoming atmosphere help the aesthetic.  The other places have names, regulars, and reputations, but nothing compares to Slims.
Then we have boutiques.  About 4 in all.  Each with different taste and merchandise makes St.Johns the place to go should you need to buy a gift for someone you care about or need to kill some time.
My favorite is a place called Therapy.  Here you can find everything for your home, your oldest friend or yourself.
We have restaurants too.  A Vegan BBQ, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, some Tap Rooms with adequate pizza and a wonderful Italian Restaurant with the best-handcrafted pasta around.  Two movie theaters, a Mexican market-restaurant, and of course a handful of coffee places.  The other occupants of the "downtown" section include a fencing studio (that's right, swords) a couple of optometrists, two-day-care centers, one for dogs one for babies, and what is trying to be a wine bar.  Off to the side are a new bagel shop, a barber shop,* and a high-end shoe store.
*note* Not your father's barbershop.  That one died with its owner a few months ago.  Wayne was stationed by his window chair for decades.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Come Forth

In this year of all maladies, a new malaise has descended upon the U. S. of A.  From here on, let this also be known as the year that sexual harassment allegations became daily and commonplace. Every day this week provided a new assertion.  There is a major dose of "the time has come" going around, and the truth is that only those inside particularly thick bubbles doubt the accusers.

We need to remember that there are always reasons a woman (or man) will sometimes wait decades before voicing their experiences and allegations.  Just put yourself in that place and if any doubts remain, seriously check yourself.
Ironies abound.  The current occupant of the White House seems to slide off this stage even when the evidence is clear.  Many of the accused are the purveyors of supremely Christian family values.  I pause here to remind the reader that there really is no such thing as family values; family, itself is a value.  What is likely to happen within the remaining months of this year from Hell is that a good dose of voters will mark the box "I just don't care."  Some may elect to vote: "My political party comes before my sense of morality."
I am, of course, referring to the case of Alabama Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore.  While he continues to play the persecution card demonizing the journalism of the Washington Post, others in his neck of the woods are recalling that as a man in his 30s he seemed to prefer to date teen-aged girls.  When you are a local Judge, that keeps people from following up on the stench that accompanies a person.
Of course, we must remember that to expect some strong sense of morality or even social decency from an Alabama politician is not all that foreign.  I realize, of course, that I am stereotyping the residents of Alabama and heavily weighing the tropes of racism and inequality that hang heavy over the entire region.  Nevertheless, truth be told, this is territory where a local politico could keep his true intentions and actions well hidden for decades.  That appears to be the case.
Yet, the pendulum of social justice continues to swing, even in this dark, dark time.  The ghosts of those wronged and those committing the wrongs thrive in all corners of this land.  They sometimes take their time emerging but they do come forth.  often at precisely the right time.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seemingly Simple

We hear the phrase all the time: It was a simpler time.  Things were very different back then.  Back then can refer to anything from 20 to 100 years ago these days.  But, for the most part, we do live in a different world than mere decades ago.  One easy way to compute and visualize the differences is to simply turn on the TV.  As a culture, we seem to be fond of looking at family sit-coms from the 50s and 60s as a way to gauge social change.  The black and white images of squeaky clean 50s families with perfectly coifed mothers and business-suited fathers seem ridiculous by today's family units.  Take the color out of TV and we find a land where nobody is gay, neighborhoods are lily-white, and the language...oh the language is ever so proper.  These Pleasantvilles weren't always so peaceful and perfect.  But the arch of early TV sitcoms is both predictable and benign compared to today's fare.  Sometimes, while watching TV these days, I imagine myself a 10-year-old again watching television with my 11-year-old sister and my parents.  I replace the 1957 show with one from today and wonder what my family's reaction would be to the plot line, the language, or the characters of the show.  In moments like these, it's fairly easy to see how far we've come.

I guess this is one of the luxuries of growing older.  We have the benefit of historical perspective that younger audiences do not.  In fact, it recently came to my attention that many Millenials do not recognize the photos of some of the most well-known figures of the past.  A friend of mine who teaches Freshman composition recently reported that the all but two students in one of her classes could not identify a picture of Malcolm X.  Now, I don't know what to attribute this to because, in California, where I spent the majority of my teaching career, most kids had read Malcolm's autobiography or at least seen the Spike Lee film based on it.
If we take the term "simpler time" it could be argued that today is literally a simpler time because the vast majority of folks in this culture do not read books anymore and depend on questionable sources for everything from their daily news to the weather and staying "on trend."  That they are more gullible and less well-informed seems obvious.  One has only to look at the mob behavior at Black Friday shopping events to see this in all its consumeristic glory.
I recently saw the new George Clooney directed film Sururbicon.  Despite its awful reviews, I wanted to see how the dark underbelly of this "simpler time" was translated to the screen.  After all, it had a script that the Cohen brothers originally wrote and seemed ambitious in its intention.  True, the film tries to do too much, but symbolically it cuts through the aura of cleanliness that inflates the era and depicts much of the ugliness that accompanied the racial hatred and duplicity of the time.
I'll bet some of the cocktail party chatter of the early 60s included a longing for the simpler times of the 20s.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hang On


I was all set to sit down and write about what an awful year this has been when I encountered quite a pair in this coffeehouse.  They aren't really an odd couple but he is quite a bit younger than she.  I'd say about 50 years.
A grandmother and grandson...most likely.  But just his reactions to her voice changed my mood.  He has dark blonde curly hair but is obviously of mixed racial parents.  She could be most anyone's grandma, but an older middle-class white woman will suffice.  They upset my apple cart of gloom and doom.  Lots of babbling, smiles and that kind of innocent curiosity that can hold anyone's attention.  I admired how she kept talking to him all through their time together.  In the end, I got a modest good-bye wave and a last glimpse of that smile.  Mood elevating to be sure.
How easy it is to stop thinking about a President that lies more often than not and the recent wild firestorms that have decimated much of the Northwest I love when you have this little breath of fresh air nearby.
In my refrigerator is a small bottle of champagne that was left over from my birthday.  I'm hoping to down it on New Year's Eve to mark the end of a most pitiful year where the perfect storm of natural disasters aligned with a flawed election, numerous hacking scandals that created havoc for online consumers, my beloved baseball Giants in last place 39 games behind, and the untimely death of half a dozen people I know.  This year was the worst and can't end soon enough.
But, lest I wallow in grief, there are some highlights to acknowledge.  I've made it through far. I managed to go fly fishing half a dozen times.  I read some insightful and entertaining books.  I taught a class for the first time in a decade, and have had contact with a handful of former students who honor me deeply by taking time to say hello when they travel through Portland.


I'm reminded that today is the 28th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay Area in 1989.  Being in the big middle of it all, the memories are fresh and fuel the desire to keep an earthquake kit updated at all times.  So today, on this mild rainy day Portland afternoon, I'll relive a few of those tense minutes from what easily seems like only a few years back.
In this culture of plenty seeing a major grocery chain with no water or batteries is alarming and not easily forgotten.  That evening of October 17, 1989, was the closest I ever came to experiencing a natural disaster.  It began by relaxing.  At 5:00 pm I finally sat down to watch the World Series after a long school day.  I'd taught 5 classes and made the drive back home from El Cerrito to Oakland and was looking forward to watching the Giants battle the Oakland As.  At 5:04 pm  I heard a rumbling sound which I presumed came from the apartment above me in the 4-plex I shared. My neighbor at the time was a drummer in a band and sometimes practiced at home.  The sound I heard seemed familiar.  Then a jolt and a Paul Klee print hanging over my fireplace slid off the wall, it's corner catching the top of an antique kerosene lamp nearby.  The painting and the lamp crashed to the floor with a burst of glass.  That's when I first thought earthquake.  The TV went out and a sinking feeling that baseball was over for the evening overtook my thoughts.  Before I could frown the second and largest jolt shook the building.  It reminded me of the thunder claps I'd heard in Texas and Louisiana. That's when I scampered for the door frame.
The earth stopped moving within seconds and finding myself in the front door frame I opened my door to the sounds and sights and yes, smells of this 7.1 quake.  There was a funny brown dusty smoke in the air.  I'd later find out it was coming from the fallen Cyprus structure that was part of the old highway 880 overpass system.
My phone service allowed a couple of calls before going dead.  Fortunately, at that time, I had a girlfriend in a nearby town who still had power.  We reunited and walked around her neighborhood that eerie evening.  My school remained open the next day but it was one of the few that did.  I recall no less than 3 aftershocks that rattled the old glass windows of my classroom.  The underpinnings of PTSD, they produced fearful reactions for many of my students on a continuing basis.  It took a few weeks before we were all confident that another big quake wasn't far behind.
There were fires and unfortunate souls who perished in the overpass collapse.  The Bay Bridge cracked open and was down for what seemed like months.  The freeway system was subsequently reconfigured in key areas that altered traffic patterns ever since.

Sitting here on this drizzly Portland afternoon I'm quite aware of the San Juan de Fuca plate that is predicted to deliver a mammoth Pacific Northwest earthquake sometime in the next 50 years.  I hear it could be as large as 9 on the Richter scale.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Walk a Few Miles

That this country, the USA, is deeply divided is not news.  We've been that way since the inception.  In fact, it's in our DNA and we value that diversity of viewpoints.  What is new, however, is that the divides seem deeper than ever before.
Countless stories surface of people not being able to talk to one another.  If the sight and sound of political commentators and policy wonks talking over one another, no, shouting over one another is any indication, we are in new territory.  So how can anything move forward in an environment of so much verbal toxicity?
Empathy is the only answer, in my view.  Say it again, empathy.  People need to walk a few miles in the other guy's moccasins, as native Americans would say.
There are many ways to walk those miles, too.  That was the theory when I went through my training as a VISTA Volunteer.  For two weeks, we altruistic, recent college grads lived in the homes with families that had very little.  Poor folks.  People who lived in "shotgun shacks" or on the other side of very dicey railroad tracks.  Yes, it was awkward, at times, but it was also eye-opening.  Not coming from wealth, for me there were no great surprises, but living in a household where 4 children shared one bed and slept horizontally so everybody could fit on the mattress, is not easily forgotten.  Neither are the meals made by a single parent from surplus commodities like government cheese and oversize cans of green beans and peanut butter. When we share an experience or better yet have the same experience on an emotional level, we won't soon forget.

The best definition of empathy I've ever seen says it is the ability to feel the whip on the other person's back.  Easily understood.
So along comes comedian Sarah Silverman with a new TV show based on this very premise.  In episode one she goes to New Orleans to spend time with a family of Trump voters who have never known a Jewish person.  Silverman jokes, to be sure, but she also deals with strong emotions that surface during her attempts at political discussions.  This family is unfortunately badly misinformed about everything from Barak Obama's country of birth to how they feel about gay folks raising children, but Silverman's warmth comes through and before she leaves we are hearing fewer jokes and seeing genuine hugs.  Even from the youngest member present, 10-year-old Blaze who first responded to Silverman's question, "Have you ever knows a Jew," with "What's that?"
Put simply, we need to live in a world where we share a common experience in order to bridge this awful divide.  Social engineering has resulted in s few misguided attempts.  Just the sound of that term infuriates some folks, but when we continue to live in a bubble made of the same food, the same music, the same colors, the same ideas, and the same people, we hardly challenge ourselves.  Some really bad Hollywood have exploited the "fish out of water" theme in vain attempts to build empathy. The man who wakes up a woman,  the woman who suddenly is 10 feet tall, the old switcheroo involving age, or ethnicity, or gender, or class (wealth) can only go so far and last so long before it's stale,but at least it is something.  What needs to happen now of for more opportunities to stand in someone elses shoes and begin to negotiate their life for a few days.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mother May I

Aside from the plethora of tragedies that converged this past week on this culture, a couple of homegrown phenomena crossed paths in front of me.  While the Mayor of Portland was telling the media that he's aware that the new name for his city has become "Tent City," I finished the novel Mary Coin by Marisa Silver.
Portland has a serious homeless problem.  Parts of the city resemble the "Hoovervilles" of the 1930s. Tests and makeshift lean-tos pockmark the bridges, underpasses, and trails surrounding the many beautiful parks.  It's the underbelly of the American Dream and it won't go away.  Now, the problem has morphed with the addition of broken down RVs that are often towed to a city lot for destruction.  It's not uncommon to find a person's belongings inside these decrepit vehicles.
But then, living on the side, or by the side, or underneath or on the margins is nothing new.  In fact, one of the most iconic photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" takes this lowest rung of human existence and converts it to fine art.

This photo, which brings from 40 to 400,000 dollars for an original print is now the subject of a remarkable novel by Marisa Silver.  In her work, Silver creates an alternate universe that brings together the lives of the subject and the photographer.  The cliche says it's worth a thousand words, but Silver has made an entire novel, and one worth reading at that.
She takes some of the facts and then skillfully carves out a story of the woman by the side of the road and who she is and what has brought her to this moment in time.  Combined with a couple of other characters, we see how the photographer, Vera, based on Lange, has issues and challenges in her life that are remarkably similar to Mary Coin, the fictional name for the mother in the photo.
Real life tells us that in the 1970s when the woman, Florence Thompson was re-discovered, she took exception to some of the facts and disputed Lange's telling of the tale.  But no matter, the picture is frozen in time and its impact cannot be undone.
People often ask what made Lange such a skilled photographer?  Much of her skill was enhanced by her own vulnerability.    Lange walked like the polio survivor she was.  Keenly aware of angles and distance.  The fact that she moved with a hitch in her walk that seemed to serve as a comforting attribute.  A photographer must maneuver into position to get the shot and Lange was easily able to do just that.
Probably, somewhere in Portland today, and perhaps in your town as well, is a photograph waiting to be taken because it represents all the anguish and uncertainty of our own times.  I doubt it could ever achieve the status of "Migrant Mother" because our visual literacy seems to be changing as well as our ability to empathize.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


"The man hasn't read a book in years."
I keep hearing that about the current occupant of the White House.  Maybe that's as it should be because recent studies say that claim goes for over half the population of this country.  Scary but true.  It's obvious that the President doesn't know the history of this country.  Examples abound. Even for those who can forgive him for inventing the African country of Nambia (he referred to that the other day) the fact that he knows very little about American History doesn't seem sway his followers.  Either they know nothing too or they simply don't care.  Probably both.  Yet, the notion of ignoring history and repeating mistakes looms large all the while.
A former colleague of mine, who taught Language Arts for a lifetime used to have a large banner in her classroom. When kids came into this learning environment they saw a sign which read, "Unless We Read, We Live But One Tiny Life."
I'd love to hear a discussion among a group of non-readers relating to that quote.  How do we measure the size of a life?  The character Mr. Antolini in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye told Holden Caulfield, "Maybe one day you'll find out what size mind you have."  For the American people, that day has come.
I get that reading is problematic for some folks.  It's either about time or learning disabilities, or missed opportunities. But is that an excuse for not knowing our country's history or keeping apprised of current affairs?

What President hasn't read biographies of former Presidents?   This one, no doubt. I wonder if he eve writes anything more than his infamous Tweets.  I love the quote, "How will I know what I think until I see what I write."  No wonder he doesn't always know what he thinks.
I have a suggestion for the next Voter Information Guide.  How about we ask prospective candidates to make us a list of their reading in the last year.  I'd love to  see that.  Maybe even some politicians would extend their lists to local libraries and we could have town hall like reading groups.
I'm confident that instead of arguing political theory or the polarization of our current population, we might actually refer to historical examples grounded in documentation.
So what do I think would come as the most profound revelations.  That's tempting.  If non-readers read, they might know more about the reality of the slave trade, or the wording of treaties like Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Maybe they'd learn about immigration or the fact that "race" is a human construct and that archaic words like Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid, were inventions that mean nothing.  Most non-readers don't know that Caucasian refers to the Caucasus Mountains not skin color.  Would they be surprised to know that all humans have the same 6 genes for skin tone?  That the greatest genetic differences between human beings has to do with how tall they are.
There is a lot to be said for informing yourself through films, provided that they are on the level of the current Ken Burns Lynn Novik "The Vietnam War" production now showing.  But something special happens in the mind when we read.  We make pictures, we think in quite a different way.  We encounter ideas in a much more active way.  To sit and let the images tumble at us, we have no choice to accept what we are given.  Unless we read, we don't think too well.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sound Track

Something about a song lyric, popping up in your ear at just the right time and your life can flash by.  Maybe not your entire life, but certainly a few segments.
One of the things that keeps me exercising regularly is the ability to listen to music while doing so.  I move around on Pandora a lot and ultimately settle on a genre.  Usually it's blues music because I know that will keep me awake and to the task at hand.  But occasionally I wonder over to Neil Young or Dylan, or even Jonathan Edwards, a lesser known country rock artist whose sounds often sooth better than a cool drink of water.
Today, a combination of all three took me back to lovers and friends from decades past.  I realized that you never stop loving someone unless you work at it.  There were a couple of times, OK maybe even more than two, when a relationship in my back pages ended and I was feeling undone.  We've all been there but when Dylan sings "If you see her, say hello..." a stone cracks inside me and the beauty and pain and gratitude as well as regret pours out.

As I get older I'm amazed by how often I hold images of people I've known in my mind.  It doesn't matter how many years have transpired since we last saw one another.  True with social media, we have the ability to peer into windows that are open for all.
I've come to believe that we all have a sound track to our lives.  Just as the things we see and experience at certain ages stay with us, the emotions tied to certain pieces of music or places or the artists that accompanied both hold a key to our emotional literacy.  We tend to remember what is held together by strong emotions.  The research supports that, but it doesn't take a study to realize that emotion is thicker than most all else.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Houston Then and Now

It's difficult for me to watch the grim footage coming out of Houston, Texas without thinking about the year I spent there as a VISTA Volunteer.  I knew very little about this 4th largest city back then and in full disclosure, even as a recent college grad, I was heavily influenced by the stereotypes, positive and negative, that focused on TEXAS.
I wasn't even sure I could spend a year in Texas back then.  But, as often happens, when you immerse yourself in what you are doing and keep an open mindset, you often find that the result is pleasantly surprising.
I found plenty of decent people in Houston.  There was Carl Adams, the former trumpet player for such notables as B.B. King and Ray Charles, who wanted with all his heart and soul to run music workshops for kids who lived in under-privileged neighborhoods.  Houston had plenty of those, and when I see much of the footage today of the flooded homes, I wonder what it looks like where I once say large projects for low-income families, and the dismal parts of 3rd and 5th and 6th Ward neighborhoods.

Much of Houston's poverty back then reflected the images of classic Southern poverty.  Lots of "shot-gun shacks" and plenty of old wooden homes up on cinder blocks.  High water is nothing new to Texas and the history of the region is peppered with "great floods" of various years.  The wonderful blues music of some of the regions best clearly illustrates this as well.
I wonder, too if some of the people I met over 40 years ago are still there.  Many of the children would be in their late 40s and 50s.  I'm sure the old redneck who rented us a dilapidated home for $100 a month is long gone as well as the used appliance salesman who sold us a $10. refrigerator and then responded to our address, "You mean you live in colored town, with all those colored boys?"
He and his ilk are not part of the new Houston.  The fact that there is now aa African American Mayor and a Latino Chief of Police show progress and that real change did come to Houston.
Still, he the media reports on and from Buffalo Bayou, I still see it as the place where more than one victim of police brutality was taken to receive justice, Texas style.
Houston will recover and continue to be the home of a diverse community of pioneers, ethnic cultural workers, and loyal Texans.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


In this world of rapid change, it's refreshing to find something that stays the same.  Almost.
Once a year, for two weeks, the little Humbolt County Fair in the small town of Ferndale, California kicks off.  I've heard it's the longest continually running county fair, stretching back to the 1870s if I remember correctly.

Let me set the context, because that's part of the appeal.  Ferndale is a tiny dairy community tucked into the mountains of very Northern California, not far from the costal city of Eureka.  This is beautiful country where redwoods meet the pounding sea.  I've been there a handful of times and now I'm thrilled to be able to watch the horse races at the fair from my TV or computer screen given the technology available now.  The fair is like most county fairs with fried everything and lots of animal exhibits and show competitions.  Against this beautiful backdrop sits a little 5/8 mile racetrack, as cute as it is dangerous.  Tight turns, the intimacy of the crowd and animals, and the enthusiasm by all involved make this a special place.  For once, it's not about the competition as much as it's about enjoying yourself.

Rumors and folklore about Ferndale abound.  From the legendary announcer Gunnar Froines, to died a few years back, to the year of the moth invasion, to the many tales of horses that missed the turns, it's all part of the mystique.  The stories would fill volumes and the fact that this little gem of a fair continues to this day virtually the same, is a modern miracle.
I've done a few articles on Ferndale, once even getting the cover story for The Blood-Horse magazine, where I was a correspondent for almost 20 years.  There is just something touching about this place because of it's size and it's unusual appearance.  Being a dairy town, the home to a Knudsen Creamery, the baked potatoes with sour cream are exceptional.  He townsfolk, so I've heard, save up all year for two weeks of betting horses, enjoying the fair daily, and just marveling at what they've got.  Aside from horses best described as underachievers, what's they've got is something historical, consistent, and timeless.  This is horse racing as it was, with all the risk, color, and pageantry on a slightly smaller scale.
Racing at Ferndale is capped off with the running of the Humbolt County Marathon, at a mile and 5/8.  That means three complete circles around the track.  The lore says that in the beginning, each jockey was given 3 pebbles to hold in their mouth as the race was run.  Every time they crossed the finish line they were to spit out one pebble.  When the third pebble was gone, they were to ride to the finish line one more time and the race was over.  Somehow, I believe this story.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Street Dance

He knows there is something there,
Something most of us can't see,
So he darts out in the middle of the street to peck
the unpeckable.
That's what crows do,
I see it and want it, but there are cars
from both directions
cars that can stop his vision in one spasm of the neck.
Still he pecks,
until the last second, then hops or flies or sometimes walks
as if his life were not at stake.

She has a family to feed,
nothing can go to waste,
Risks envelop everything, they hatch
at all hours,
so she darts, she flirts with the steel boxes
that form the carnival ride of chance.
Something I can digest is hiding from those
that do not see.
Still, she pecks until the sound descends,
she flits aside at the last second,
as if her life were not at stake.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Sometimes trying to simplify our lives can get complicated.  Cutting back and letting go of things need not be so difficult.  In fact, the two or three times I've made a concentrated effort to downsize were absolutely exhilarating.  Filling up a dumpster with material things that have stayed too long at the fair is a very visual measurement of how attached we get to the non-essential.
I've begun to think about finding new homes for anything I still cling to that might be of some value.  In full disclosure, nothing I currently possess is of significant value that it couldn't be replaced if necessary.  Although, my little collection of historical books and primary source objects, while not really worth much, would be difficult to reproduce.
Though my wife worries that some of my most interesting items would be difficult to "place" I constantly assure her that a museum or two would take some and a used record store right down the street would be the place to take my record collection.  Anything they don't want could go to Goodwill or even be placed outside on the sidewalk.  It all disappears and rather quickly.
I had something a few years ago that I really wanted to find a good home for...something that I kept to remind me of the time I owned a horse.  It was a hackamore bridle.  This bridle differs from a standard one in that it has no bit that goes into the horse's mouth.  Granted, you have less control, but the big mare we rode with the hackamore was gentle enough that the hackamore was a good choice for all.

I put the hackamore out at a yard sale I had with some friends many years ago, and actually ended up selling it to someone I knew.
Luis Niebla bought the bridle for a measly $10.  I really wanted him to have it because I knew it would get used.  Luis was a jockey I knew who worked for two trainers that had been movie stuntmen in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s.  They did stunts for John Wayne among other famous screen cowboys.  Luis was the stable rider, in that he rode horses of theirs in minor races.  If ever they had one good enough to compete in stakes races, another more accomplished jock would be engaged.   Luis didn't mind, he had a home, a few mounts a year, and a source of income.  Wayne Burson and Chuck Roberson  (the trainers) would barnstorm some years at the small California and Nevada Fair circuit.   Sometimes their horses were more experienced than people knew because some of the fairs, especially the Nevada ones were so small that statistics weren't recorded.
I once asked Luis how and when he came to California from Mexico.  The answer was astonishing.  Luis was the little Mexican kid in the movie "Stagecoach" that went for a wild ride with John Wane on an out of control coach.  After the filming, he came to California to work at the Bakersfield ranch of his stuntmen friends.
BY the time I met Luis, he was the most unassuming person.  He never won many races.  I even looked up his stats.  He's listed as having 89 wins and 89 second place finishes.  I know there were many more...somewhere.
So that day when Luis appeared at my yard sale, I knew he'd go home with the hackamore.  Hopefully a horse with as kind a disposition as this jockey is enjoying the feel of the fit.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Play Has Got To Say Something

With the passing of American playwright Sam Shepard, I was reminded of a most interesting experience that unfolded at the scene of what is arguably Shepard's most critically acclaimed play, "Buried Child."
Here's what happened.
I'd read some of the reviews of the play and wanted to see it.  So I asked a friend of mine to accompany me.  My friend, Ed Robbin had joined the cast of a modest production about the life of Woody Guthrie that I too was involved in at the time.  We're talking Bay Area circa early 1980s.
Ed had directed plays in the 30s and aside from being the guy who first put Woody on the radio, has a few accomplished friends.  He'd drop names like Theodore Dreiser or mention projects he's worked on with frequency so I thought, naturally it would be useful and informative to watch this play with Ed.  Besides, Ed was in his late 70s at this time and was delighted to get the opportunity to attend a play in San Francisco without having to drive at night.
Now, "Buried Child" was a bit of an avant guarde play and I was sure Ed would share his thoughts in a way that might put this particular piece of work in perspective.  Ed had liberally sprinkled his expertise as a director on our small Woody Guthrie production, so I knew he could talk the talk.
We watch the play and then before the audience leaves, the director comes onstage and informs the audience that they are being afforded the opportunity to meet the cast and director.
If interested, we can make our way downstairs to the first 10 rows of the center section of the theater and the discussion of the play will promptly begin in in about 5 minutes.
Most people depart the theater to cabs and nearby parking lot, but I ask Ed if he wants to remain and he quickly says, "sure."

We join about 75 people downstairs and await this opportunity.
The curtain opens to the cast arranged on chairs in a half moon behind the director.
The director thanks everybody and then begins to entertain questions or comments from the audience.
After a few comments about the plot and characters, my friend Ed rises and raises his hand.  He was immediately recognized.  I knew he would be because of his appearance.  Ed is an olive skinned man with long white hair covered by a seaman's cap.  He just looks like he is somebody worthy of comment.
Ed addresses the actors first: "You're all very good." Then he looks at the director.  But the play doesn't say anything.  A play has got to say something, and this play doesn't say anything."
Silence.  Ed looks at me.  "C'mon Bruce, let's go."
I always wondered if Sam Shepard was in the house that night.  One thing I do know is that "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize that year.  So...somebody heard something.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Wild Man Fischer

Most people ignored him.  Even though he smiled and could talk softly. He offered his wares.  "Want to buy a song for a dime?"  Ten thin tenth of a dollar was all it took for Widman Fischer to sing his original compositions to you.  Most often I heard him sing "Merry Go Round," but occasionally he'd belt out "Linda and Laurie."
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!

Sort of a lilting up and down voice collage much like the "Merry Go Round" refrain. A human calliope.
He was a fixture on the streets of L.A. in the late 60s and a regular on the UCLA campus where I spent my junior and senior years of college.
By the time I was ready to graduate, Widman Fischer, who we all knew was a paranoid schizophrenic, but harmless, had witnessed first hand many of the people and events of those politically flaming days.

 Anti-war demonstrations, take overs of the Administration building, Black Panther Party shootings, you name it, it happened in 1968 or thereabout.  What also happened that year was a new concept in university literary magazines.  It was called Laminas I and came in a box, in layers.  There were poems and essays, short stories and cartoons, line drawings and music.  The latter was a 7" LP that, among other things featured a handful of performances by Widman Fischer.  I briefly helped edit the magazine and received a free copy for my time.
It came as no surprise to me that in the years that followed, none other than Frank Zappa became aware of Larry Fischer (aka Widman) and recorded him.  Even though I spent much of 1970 out of California, I'd heard that Zappa was having Widman Fischer open for him at some concerts.  If anyone could appreciate the genius of Larry Fischer it would be a risk taker like Zappa.
I have a few pieces of that 1968 magazine in a box.  I don't know what happened to the 3 poems I had published in that issue, or some of the art work, but I do still have the recording.  I kept it, because of its size with a small, select, group of 45s I used for a teaching unit on the concept of death and dying in popular music.  The little 33 1/2 rpm recording fit nicely in boxes with the 45s.
Last week, while watching a PBS program about a lost collage by Frank Zappa, I thought of Widman Fischer and his music.  Sure enough, I located the recording from almost 50 years ago.  The once white record sleeve is faded, but the record itself is in good shape.  I'm, hoping a Zappa collector or collector of off beat music will be interested, because I have a lot less than 50 years to find a home for some of the things I clung to for so many years. Want to hear a song for a dime?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Tao of Winshield

She gave me a poem a bout wiper blades,

             tucked it right up under my own on the driver's side

a  too cute, if not subtle tale about how her wiper blades had

            fallen in love with each other, But it wouldn't work

because they would come together and then flee apart...perpetually when activated.

What was she trying to tell me?

       That love and relationships were like sisyphus...?

            condemned to tempt with intimacy and then separate in an instant?

Or did she have something else in mind,

something that would take a lifetime to learn?

Windshields crack, wiper blades do too,

Relationships split but linger long after the parts

wear out.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Looking Ahead

I wonder when it first happens?  My guess is that around age 50.  That's a perfect time to realize that it really is half over.  I'm referring to the realization that life will continue here in your town, your country, this world, long after you do.
People must have some curiosity of what daily life will be like; what the future holds, because we get glimpses all the time.  Aside from picture phones and cars without drivers, we wonder about the small and simple things too.

It does no good resisting any of his and wish to go backward, but how many of us would like to go back a couple of hundred years rather than go forward?
The other day at the train station in Portland I saw an Amish family calmly waiting to board a passenger train.  Certainly not the first time I've seen a religious group in a public setting, but it is real Twilight Zone stuff. Compared to the other folks that surrounded them, with backpacks and tattoos, barefoot and wearing shorts, the optics are startling. Beards were a commonality.
If those folks wonder about life 100 years from now, do they think it will be exactly as they live it today.  Can they survive another generation given the technology they try to eschew?
It seems to me to be a wise idea for some of us to document our daily lives carefully and thoughtfully now.  It may be one of the only ways anyone will know how much we are losing and at what rate.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Find Out What It Means To Me

"It's beneath the dignity of the office." We keep hearing this about the behavior of the current occupant of the White House.  When we look at the highlights and perhaps more accurately, the low lights, of our President's behavior, it's easy to see why this comment comes up so often.
He calls it the "modern Presidency" but in classic fashion even the word modern is out of touch in the 21st century.  Perhaps it's the post modern version, but one thing is clear, our President eschews matters of dignity more often than not.

So just how much dignity should we expect from the office and the officer we call our President?  I'm reminded of a student who entered my classroom about 20 years back.  His first name was President.  Yup, there it was, right on the official roll sheet and all the other school district documents.  Davis, President.
His peers knew the story, or perhaps it had been passed around so much that by the time I officially asked him on the first day of class, I may have been the only one who didn't know the origin of his name.
I should mention at this juncture that the person so named was sitting in front of me with a strong persona.  He was an African-American young man with a well groomed natural and a broad smile.  He exuded self confidence and was verbally proficient.
"It's simple," he told me, and the remainder of the class who didn't know the story.  "My mother wanted me to be respected at all times, and she figured by naming me President, everyone would call me by a name that demanded respect.  She wanted her son to know respect at all times."
There you have it.
I believe that this President went on to become involved in the music industry as a producer of Hip Hop and Rap recordings.  He certainly was articulate enough to perform himself.
So, here we are with a less dignified leader that probably won't inspire anyone to name a child after the office.  Perhaps a few of his minions will take Mr. Trump's first name, but who'd want to be associated with the kind of dignity currently connected with this President.
Somewhere, I hear Aretha singing, R E S P E C T...find out what it means to me.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Big George

Yesterday, I learned of the death of a friend and former colleague.  George Austin was a big man.  A social science teacher and football coach, he taught and mentored thousands of young people over a long career.  Although George was not elderly, he had recently retired, but never lived to enjoy the rest he deserved.  That often happens. He'd recently had knee surgery and to the best of my knowledge some of the complications of subsequent surgeries took his life.  George was the kind of teacher who could easily put his students needs first.  He took the time to do that.  His priorities were solidly in order.

About 20 years ago, we were roommates for a week at a National Writing Project conference in Princeton, New Jersey.  I really got to know George that week.  Aside from the intensive work we participated in regarding teacher research, there was time for some relaxation free time.
One morning, George asked me to accompany him on a search for clothing.  He knew about a store for large men somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike and had rented a car for the purpose of going there and later to New York.  So here we are, two California guys trying to deal with the toll roads on the East coast and  starkly unfamiliar territory.  When we found the place, George was able to benefit from the current sales and managed to find a few things.  As I perused the inventory of this specialty shop, I was amazed at some of the sizes available.  I never knew of the existence of Triple X and beyond sizes.  Some of the garments made big George look small.
Later that week, the teachers at this conference decided to have a talent show and one evening before the show, George and I cooked up an idea.  We'd spent some free time walking on the Princeton campus and generally comparing the environment of the school and the town to the milieu of UC Berkeley.  We were struck by the fact that the lack of diversity and homeless people was striking.  We'd shared that idea with some of our east coast colleagues.  So that evening we hatched a plan.  I would go on stage with my harmonica pretending that I'd play a few tunes as my contribution to the talent show.  But suddenly I'd announce that while walking around the town I ran into a famous bluesman.  George would take the role of "Big George" an important and well known figure in Blues circles.  I told the audience that invited him to perform tonight and them introduced him to the crowd.  Out walks George, with appropriate pork pie hat and a bluesy disposition.  We then performed a revised version of Muddy Water's "I'm a Man."  I think a few folks were momentarily fooled, or at least confused.  Great fun.
Later that week, George and our new friend Marsha from Philly went over to the then Philadelphia Park  racetrack where, in the rain, I introduced them to the concept of mud breeding and we managed to hit a nice exacta before returning to the evening session of the conference.  Great day.
While those memories of George will stay strong, I'll never forget the day after Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.  Winning the Presidency after years and years of Reagan and Bush, we were all ready for the future.  That Wednesday morning, as I walked down the hallway of the main building of our school, George approached me from the other direction smiling broadly.  He motioned me over and whispered in my ear, "The money be flown' now," he said.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Homeless Business

When I drive around the Berkeley/Oakland area on one of my annual visits to the place that was home for 40 years, I can't help but notice the re-ordering of buildings, businesses, and neighborhoods.      To drive the streets and look for familiar haunts is a challenge as new configurations abound, and new incarnations of coffee houses, restaurants, and various businesses are the order of the day.
I still see the old hardware store or the stationery store that used to be there.  An Italian Deli has sprung up two doors down from where one used to be.  A small bookstore holds on for dear life and even though the drug store with the soda fountain intact has somehow managed to be preserved, it's changed ownership a handful of times in recent years.

I see the little Egg and Apple Press shop where I once dated that red-headed waitress with the smiling face and brilliant eyes.  It's been a Middle Eastern cant for a couple of decades now.  Of course the travel agency is long gone.  Do they still exist?
One bakery survives, and a little parking lot is still there.  It's presence makes all this reminiscing possible.  Parking is 7 min. for a quarter.  A nickel buys a minute a dime two more.
In place of the big Chinese restaurant, I see the Hofbrau with the Italian name that was always good for an affordable carved sandwich and a quiet place to read day or night.  The little ice cream shop i gone, the savings and loan is a boutique, and the little soup place with the lovely wooden tables is an import shop with rugs hanging on the walls and shawls in earth tones visible through the windows.  I graded a lot of papers in my early years as a teacher at that corner table.
Surely something has got to be the same, weathered the storm from four decades of gentrification and transition?  Maybe it's the little pocket park along the stretch of Ashby Ave that rises to the hills.  Perhaps the 7-11 store that sits in the same mini strip mall with the laundromat and the thrift store.
Even the bank has morphed into another one.  This time there are a few empty spaces.  Recent casualties and left blank until someone steps up to take a risk.  It'll need to be something that is immune to online shopping or a kind of food nobody is doing nearby.  Like many communities, it may just linger for awhile and be a homeless premises, in a time when buildings, like people risk abandonment from a culture in transition.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Tao of Impermanence

Been thinking about a conversation I had some years ago with a wonderful elder.  I's befriended him at a local coffee shop in Oakland and we became fast friends.  Maybe it was the Austrian accent, or the fact that he'd been a teacher.  Maybe just the fact that he was a warm, funny and vulnerable person who depended on me from time to time to accompany him on errands and getting around.  I knew he had a daughter, with issues that remained mostly estranged, but one day I asked if he had any other family.  "I have a son too," he told me.  Where is he, I asked.  "He disappeared," was his quick reply.  "What do you mean he disappeared," I countered.  "People disappear, you know."
I left it t that but figured that they's lost contact somewhere along the way.

Things disappear too.  Sometimes they turn out to be some of your favorite things.  Recently a funky little breakfast place I frequent changed its menu.  Gone were the wonderful home fries that kept me coming back.  Their toast order was diminished and the color of the building had also changed form blue to light green.  No warning, just gone and different one day.
Now this is no great shakes.  Definitely a first world problem that I'll easily get over, but it joins a long line of products, services, and places that seem to be disappearing on a much too frequent basis these days.
Things change.  We know.  But do they always have to.  The makers of the best marionberry scones are still up and running even though their bakery closed without warning.  Ice cream flavors, hair shampoos, restaurants, even coffee shops just up and vanish sometimes.
I know all about the Zen of impermanence, but why does it seem like when some things are no longer available, there is nothing we can do about it?
There are far too many more important items to deal with for me to put any more energy into the rant.  But sometimes, when the rug gets pulled out from under, I just want to have a say in the matter.
Back to the Tao of substance.  Enjoy it while it exists.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Political Animals

The current malaise that seems to be enveloping this country will react to the hearings being televised and Tweeted, consumed and considered.  We have a President that lies and who's lack of concern for protocol seems to be catching up with him.  As expected, he tries to run the country like he runs his businesses.  He cares little for ethics and makes moral calculations that are sadly lacking.  This is what happens when you try apply one model to another.  In business, you can step on people.  It's done all the time, because "business is business."  When you work with people and have the power to impact lives while seemingly advocating for the greater good, you can't quantify issues and boil them down to what is most expedient.  With people there is supposed to be a human factor.  Human beings are emotional and in the words of Aristotle we are "political animals."
That does not mean we like politics, or that we are ever engaged in politics, it means more that we are social creatures.  As such it follows that we should have empathy for one another.

If political power is decision-making power, and I think it is, then an empathetic leader should be a necessity.  We don't always have one, and we certainly do not have one now.
What we seem to have a difficult time learning is that there are some specific characteristics about the people who seek public office.  They crave power.  The power to impact the lives of others.  I submit that if we look into their backgrounds we can find the reasons and that what fuels the drive for power will emerge.  Could be genetic or the product of their environment. Probably both, but they all seem to have the need to control, be at the helm, be the one who makes the call.
On the personal and political hierarchies of politicians, some of their core values get short shrift.  They shuffle their moral and ethical principles when necessary and parse words in ever fascinating and increasing ways.
It's often been said that all politics is local.  That seems to be a good indicator of how corrupt it can be.  Think of all the city councils and local police departments that have some sort of scandal right now.  It's a constant.  Something we continue to face day after day. Almost predictable.
I will not compare the current situation concerning the Trump presidency with Watergate.  There may be some similarities, but not enough to make the contrast worthwhile.  Instead I will offer the possibility that we learned a good deal back in 1973 and I expect we will learn a good deal more this time around.  If we incorporate that knowledge into our take away, perhaps we can save the fragile form of government we purport to adore.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

My Summer of Love

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the "Summer of Love."  Ironically that contrasts sharply with the summer of hate that seems to be upon us now.  People seem to be muttering "something's happening here, but the contexts are vastly different.  50 years ago, I was a college student living in Southern California.  Like many, I went north to San Francisco that year to check out the intersection of Haight and Ashbury and see what all the fuss was about.  No, I did not wear a flower in my hair, but there were many who did.  What we all had in common was the overwhelming sense that a substantive change was upon us.  People were fed up with the direction of the war in Vietnam and the lack of trust they felt in their government.  They were buoyed by those that sacrificed all in the struggle for civil rights, and the hypocrisy of a star-spangled monument that was beginning to tarnish.   To be a young person that summer was to be insanely curious and optimistic.  It was to feel supported on the crest of a wave that had you breathing fresh air and certain that together, we could make a real change.
Because I was a struggling student the 500 mile trip was done in sections.  With a friend, I took a Greyhound bus, and rode all night to Salinas.  As unromantic as that sounds, it was terribly exciting to be going somewhere north. I studied the people on the bus.  A smattering of Latino farm workers, servicemen, and single women with children.  Throw in a few old timers, a few more college students and the bus was full.  After a brief early morning stop at a near deserted Salinas station, we rode to Monterey and then made our way to Carmel, where we had booked a room in what was then known as a "guest house."  In the pre-computer, pre-Air B&B world, there were still folks who had a spare room that they rented out and my friend had been there before.  In a beautiful little home on a very quiet street, we explored the Carmel-Monterey area for a couple of days.  On the wharf in Monterey, I found a craftsman by the name of Grabowski who had all manner of things I'd never seen before.  I left his little shop with a peg belt and a knit scarf.  That belt, which featured a wooden peg that went into a couple of leather loops in the belt was one of my signature garments throughout the 60s.
The most memorable part of that little trek came when we stood on Highway 1 and hitchhiked our way to the city by the bay.

San Francisco was buzzing that year.  Thousands flocked to "The Haight" and congregated in Golden Gate Park.  I vividly recall how young most people swarming the streets of the city were.  How broke they were two. People walked calmly but curiously through the streets. They seemed to be wondering, "Where you from?"  My first encounter with what the media soon dubbed "hippies" was a couple of dirty faced, tired kids from the midwest trying to get quarters to "buy some doughnuts."  I forked over a quarter to the chants of "we love ya man, we love ya." Nothing romantic there.  I remember an ice cream store on Haight called "God's Eye" and, of course picking up copies of the San Francisco Oracle and numerous other counter culture publications, all of which have vanished like the morning fog every day.

My friend Rob and I stayed in a cheap hotel in North Beach.  This was almost required behavior for young poets celebrating the hallowed ground of the Beats. One bathroom down the hall and a blinking red light from a strip joint flashing at night.  I recall that I just laid on top of the bed, not wanting to discover what surprises laid under the covers.
We frequented City Lights books and took in the scene on upper Grant Ave. near Chinatown and then rode Cable Cars to Fisherman's Wharf.
In what might be a classic scene from a bad movie about the "Summer of Love" one memory stands out as most amusing. Walking from the heart of downtown Monterey back to the highway, a Gray
Line tour bus drove by.  Both Rob and I had bought new hats, rather big black frontiersman looking things that kept the sun out of our eyes and the rain off our heads.  As the tour bus passed, I could hear the driver talking on his microphone telling the passengers to glance at us over to the right.  "Two hippies on their way to hitch hike...blah blah tailed off.  Laughter and tired feet, sourdough bread and cheese...Summer of Love.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

No Fly Fishing on the First Date

Finding a fly fishing partner has eluded me.  Since moving to Oregon, I've had a couple of short term relationships with fly fishers, but so far none as gone the distance.  It's complicated, but either they no longer share my passion for the sport, or have moved away, or aren't available.  I once tried placing an add on an online community bulletin board, but that only resulted in a woman who was looking for more than a fishing buddy.  Truth be told, she lined up under the banner of "I always wanted to try fly fishing." Not interested.

I need a clone.  Someone near my age and ability who enjoys getting into a float tube and onto a lake, or perhaps walking the banks of a small stream or friendly river.  But the risks are great.  I have fears too.  I'm afraid of finding someone who isn't all that easy to be around, or who has bad habits, or plays food and alcohol fast and loose.  Someone who talks too much, or is a slob, or isn't punctual or is essentially too needy.
I'm not perfect. Hardly, but I'm at the age when I refuse to lower my expectations for a partner who would accompany me in this sacred endeavor. I'm conscious of time and health and this is serious.
Sure my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write this but these are real considerations nonetheless.  It's somehow a whole lot easier to go alone and avoid unnecessary drama or time with someone I don't respect.  It's a lot like dating.  It can get lonely too.  So I'm looking and trying to put myself out there again as summer nears. As I said to my neighbor, an older woman enjoying the independence that retirement brings, "No fly fishing on the first date."  It's like that, you know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Jerked Around

I had a rather unsettling, if not bizarre encounter with a homeless person the other day.  As I was scurrying to meet with a teacher I'm mentoring a 20 something guy sprang from a bus bench and asked if he could ask me something.  We all know the drill here, but his youth and condition held me for a split second so I thought I'd just cut to the chase and tell him I was busy but here's a dollar.  The dollar bill I thought was in my front pocket turned out to be a five and at that point the threshold is crossed.  No turning back.  He took the money and then rather uncharacteristically seemed to undergo a personality change.  What followed was a rather speedy, rather schizophrenic diatribe complete with people from another universe and his anger at have ing the 5 dollar bill.
"Well, if you're angry about having it, you can always give it back," I replied.  He wasn't going for that but seemed intent on continuing the conversation, one-way as it was.

I was done.  I wished him luck and fought off the temptation to urge him to get help.  I can still see the tattooed letters over one eyebrow.  At first they looked like RFK.  A homage to Bobby Kennedy?  Not quite,  just another use of some letters that might have been an R and a K somewhere.  So what's the takeaway?  That even homeless people can get angry when taking your money?  That finding food and shelter come after finding mental health resources?  Probably all of it.
That afternoon I had a scheduled visit from the cable TV guy.  My signal boxes, like me, are old and need replacing.  Since he lived in my neighborhood, we got into a quick discussion about some of the new places coming into our rapidly gentrifying corner of North Portland.  Soon we focused on a jerk chicken place called Jamaica House.  Just opened, it's been filling the surrounding streets with the aroma of cooking chicken.  I mentioned that I'd seen a guy with dreads and a ball cap with a large cannibis leaf on it working over a BBQ placed in front of a Jamaican flag that adorns the old house where the restaurant is located.  My technician, a Puerto Rican, originally from New York said he'd heard of the place and was wanting to try it also.  He then launched into a diatribe about  how one can't be too careful about assuming anything because it might just have been a non-Jamaican sporting all the cultural regalia out there cooking.
That afternoon, we walked over to the place, my wife and I, and entered the Jamaica House.  Said cook emerged from the kitchen with a big smile and gave us a menu.  Though the place was empty, it was still early enough in the afternoon so we waited.  A woman sitting at the bar offered a comment about the uncharacteristic spring weather.  The old house turned restaurant reminded me of a few similar places I'd seen in Texas.  Only those were BBQ joints with red soda water and potato salad.  They often had juke boxes, one in particular with only BBKing, Bobby Bland, and Little Milton records inside them.

We heard hacking from the kitchen; meat cleaver cutting up chicken...I hope.  10 minutes later we were home with our meals and the moment of truth was at hand.  The chicken was OK, not memorable and rather bony.  Present were a few parts most people don't eat.  I must confess that I'm a chicken bone lover and eat most anything and definitely every part except a few.  What passed for beans and rice was a large serving of rice, completely undercooked.  Crunchy.  Hard crunchy, not fried rice crunchy.  The beans present I could count on one hand.  That's right, five or fewer, no joke.
I hope this place makes it, but I have my doubts.  Portland is a food town and people will vote with their dollars and their palates.  I'll try again in a few weeks, just to see if anything has changed.  In the same way, if I ever encounter that homeless guy again, and we are both not in such a rush to condemn, we'll see if a donation to his well being still makes him angry.  You got to accept people and things were they are, not where you want them to be.  At least, in the beginning.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Places Gone Places Remembered

I live in a small community that's constantly changing.  Yes, some of the change can be filed under gentrification, but a good deal of it is subject to the changing social, economic, and technological shifts occurring in this early part of the 21st Century.
Old businesses, like the outdated means of communication and means of purchasing goods and services are dropping by the wayside.  Their replacements are not always progressive, but they are hard to ignore.  Just the other day I saw an older woman write a check to pay for groceries.  In an age when a phone app or the swipe of a plastic card is commonly used to buy a cup of coffee, this seemed like such an anomaly.  I half expected the cashier to take the check and ask, What's this?'
Maybe that's a little extreme, but rest assured, that day is coming.
We do so many things interactively with our phones and computers.  Our phones are our computers now, aren't they?
At this point in my life, I've made some decisions about reading and writing with regard to the technology available.  While I know it's neither good or advisable to ignore what I don't like, nevertheless I'm going to stick with books and records as long as I can.  I like the look and feel of them.  They are more than just words on a page or screens or sound coming from somewhere. They are entities that I want to have and hold.
We like to document the loss of places that have vanished in space and time.  My community is filled with homes and buildings that have been repurposed a few times over the years.  Just this morning I noticed a restaurant that closed down a few months ago will soon reopen as a bottle shop featuring beers and wines of the northwest.  The space was once a tavern that looks and feels like it's origin in the lumber industry as a local tavern.  It's got one of those beautiful ceilings that always grabs those who chance to look up.  I love that it now looks down on millennials drinking pinot noir when once it sheltered flannel-clad lumbermen.

The Beatles sang about "Places I'll remember all my lifetime."  Though gone, we do recall the people and things that occupied these locations.  Some spaces remain permanently in the mind.  The old Polo Grounds,  the house I grew up in, and racetracks like Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, and Longacres.
I never went to see the Giants play in New York though I have early childhood memories of Willie Mays playing in the Polo Grounds.  The house I grew up in is probably still standing but looks nothing like I recall, though in my mind I see it perfectly and could navigate each room in the dark from memory.
When a racetrack dies, all the memories come rushing back.  Something about an empty grandstand and the stillness of a site that once was filled with color and movement.
Longacres, near Seattle Washington was the quintessential mid century racetrack.  With equal parts country and art deco, it's pastoral setting and classic green/white color scheme made it a template for all the hope and promise...luck and excitement it dished up for years.  I went there once in the 1970s while passing through the area.  The day was stunningly beautiful.  It was a week day so the on site crowd was smaller than usual and I wandered upstairs to a private box in the grandstand.  There was nobody around and as the crowd began to fill in before the first race, I decided to make myself comfortable as if it were my box and I belonged.  I just wanted to watch a race from this prime location.  I had no intention of trespassing.  Looking over the railing at the horses on the track, I sensed two people enter this box of 6 seats.  In my mind I rehearsed what I would say, and how I would apologize, but before I could say anything, one of the two men behind me asked, "Have you seen Richard this morning?"
"No, haven't seen him today," I replied realizing they mistook me for someone they knew.  Sensing I belonged, I relaxed and remained until the horses of the first race crossed the wire.  My two new friends departed shortly thereafter and I decided to move along as well.  I'll always remember Longacres as a very friendly place.