Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Strange Fruit


"Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." -- James Joyce, Ulysses

As someone who has rarely left food on my plate over an entire lifetime, I was not one to flinch at supper, no matter the shape, color, or texture of food if someone else was eating it. I was a premature birth, housed in one of those little plastic boxes for a while in the nursery, then held in the palm of the delivery nurse, who told my mother I'd always be scrawny. Once I topped 265 pounds.

Consequently, I've eaten most of the odds and ends of living beasts and plants, including blowfish along the Japan Sea, salted herring with onions on stiff bread from a Dutch breakfast cart, blood pudding, kidney pie, and haggis (oatmeal-stuffed sheep stomach) in Scotland, kishke (vegetable-stuffed chicken skin), whale-meat hotdogs in Tokyo (please forgive me), gooey sealfat and nori appetizers (in the Yukon), steamed chicken feet (and other mystery dim-sum), roasted iguana (in the Yucatan), frogs, snails, and an assortment of plants and roots that most people would rather use for compost than shove into their mouth.

Maki-san once fed me kagami mochi, a sticky double-cake of rice that the Japanese eat just after New Year to break open a new experience. My new experience was that the mochi tasted like eating your pillow and chasing it with white paste.

Once, when I was in Athens, I stayed in the Plaka, the oldest section of the city nested in the shadow of the Acropolis. The narrow streets threaded among cozy cafes, jewelry shops, tavernas, and souvlaki joints. Feril cats scampered about or sat begging under the cafe tables. Cats were everywhere. They sat on the steps of the Acropolis, curled for naps in flowerbeds, darted across the tiled walks just ahead of noisy motorscooters. You couldn't take a snapshot that didn't have a cat in it.

Souvlaki is Greek fast food. They serve pork (or lamb) on a skewer or in a pita with vegetables and piquant sauces. I prided myself in finding the cheapest place in the Plaka. Calling it rustic would be a complement. But the souvlaki was most excellent and at nearly half the price in drachmas.

I ate two or three of them at a clip. And continued the practice for several days until a Greek passerby stopped to whisper in my ear that this particular cafe served cat, thereby maintaining its remarkably low price. He said I could wait and see that the meat was delivered fully cooked in a pan to the rear of the joint every hour or so--rather than cooked on the premises. Further, he said, I would never catch an Athenian ordering from their window. After he left I looked to my plate where a scrap of meat lay untouched in the creamy sauce. I didn't wait to see whether the cat was delivered to the rear door. I took the messenger at his word. Yet the souvlaki had been quite tasty.

On a trip to Italy in the late 1980s to attend an international Hemingway conference, I feasted among other academics from around the world at a banquet hosted by the communist government of the town of Lignano Sabbiadoro. We had spent the day touring the Udine reqion, saw the marker on the riverbank where Hemingway had become the first American wounded in World War I, and ended up at long tables set among tubs of iced shrimp, carved melon, and a dazzling spread of cheese and cold cuts. I particularly loved the bright red, thinly sliced beef that had a sweet aftertaste, and went back for more. I asked the server for the Italian name of this savory meat, and she said, "cavallo". Even with my poor Spanish I knew what I was eating. It's tough to say, but dogs have it awfully good.

It's only fitting here to celebrate the rich, Eastern European palate that my mother introduced to our home. Our entrees were so strange, I feared bringing classmates home for supper. We naturally ate organ meats or vegetable soups normally eschewed by my friends. Liver, tongue, borscht, shav (cold spinach soup), matzo-meal pancakes. Mom had a hand-cranked meat grinder into which she fed boiled livers, eggs, chicken fat and onions. Out came a heavenly paste with the faint suggestion of organic chemistry.

Once she put a ground concoction in front of me that vaguely resembled pale, runny chopped liver. It had an unfamiliar smell.

"Spread it on some matzo," she said.

It did not taste good to me. It was something I could not eat.

"Brains," she said.

It might have been the only part of a cow on which I had never dined. Brains.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taking Cover


We had two drills at Kittredge Elementary school that were created to foster conformity--rather than panic--the moment the Russians dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles. The drop drill was a monthly affair that was meant to catch us unawares, but somehow it always leaked out that we would have one. The teacher would ask for our attention. Then she would shout, "Drop!"

We were to dive beneath our wooden desks and curl into a fetal position, cradling our heads in our hands so as to stave off the flying ribbons of glass. We were to hold the position until she had completed the tour of the classroom, correcting the slackers who used the opportunity to giggle. Then she would say, "All clear" and we'd climb back into our seats, all a-twitter and ruddy faced.

The second drill was called "Take Cover" and was held at irregular intervals, yet we'd know it, too, was coming. The teacher would shout, "Take Cover" and we'd push our desks to the center of the classroom, then run for the nearest wall, where we'd lower the shades and cower beneath the windows, backs to the imaginary blast.

The drills may have satisfied the school district administrators but did little to palliate my fears. I knew better. I had seen television clips showing classrooms and buildings swept away by the atomic thunderclap, entire walls and windows converted to a river of plasma that blew across the darkened landscape. I had nightmares of turning into a flaming corpse or a widening stream of particles into thin air. Neighbors were buying and burying atomic fallout shelters in their yards, but not our family. I never asked.

When Soviet ships carrying missiles sailed into Cuban waters, my mother joined the millions who raided supermarket shelves for powdered milk, canned soup and vegetables, and bottled water. We were as ready as we could be, although we knew we were only kidding ourselves....

* * *
The bullet train from Tokyo rocked gently along the Kansai plain, passing through flooded rice fields and small villages, hurrying along the countryside where Mt. Fuji rose white-capped and majestic into the pale blue sky, stopping briefly at at dusk in Nagoya, then in Osaka with its garish animated billboards for Coca-Cola and Toshiba, then sweeping westward through the quiet night to Hiroshima Eki.

I was there to take a teaching job with Junichi-san and his language school. The school was located in a bustling section of the city on the third floor of an office building. The school offered English lessons by native speakers to school-aged Japanese children, to businessmen, and to senior citizens. Junichi-san was working a ploy where he kept a line of plates spinning in the air, hoping that his dreams would come true. To me, he reported having secured a government educational grant to pay my wages. To the government, where he was but applying for a grant, he said he had rounded up a native English speaker for his staff. If the timing worked out, he'd have the teacher and the money to pay him at the same time.

It did not. Junichi-san advised me that it would be preferable if I demonstrated gratitude for the opportunity, agreeing to work only a few part-time hours until the grant came in. Slim chance of my affording big city housing, the expensive food, and transportation on the few Yen I'd receive for teaching an hour or two a week.

To try me out while I mulled over his skimpy offer, Junichi-san said I could take the Gray Hairs class. These were senior citizens--mostly widows--who were looking to increase their cache by learning some English. It was like a sentence-quilting class for seniors. But these were special widows, survivors of the first atomic bomb dropped on a human population.

Though I was ashamed to ask, my curiosity won over and after class I asked a woman in a violet polka-dot dress and matching hat with a spray of white flowers if she would tell me about that day. My Japanese was poor--considerably poorer than her English, which was limited to salutations, dates, and numbers. But she did take a city map from her purse and pointed to the A-Bomb memorial with certain insistence, and I got the message.

Hiroshima is home to a historical castle and a heritage dating back to 1589 A.D. Nestled in the Piedmont of the Seto Inland Sea, it is ringed by the Chugoku mountains and forms a delta for three rivers. It had been a manufacturing city on the morning of August 6, 1945, which made her a prime military target. The parts and machinery built there could be put on barges and shipped out to sea, onwards to the war.

The museum is located in a lush park at ground zero, at the confluence of the Ota and Motoyasu. The bomb went off around 8:15 am and for days afterward, thousands of newly orphaned children wandered the streets of ruins, many of whom would die of leukemia over the next 20 years. The numbers of dead were staggering, numbing. But it was the drawings made by children on the museum walls that ripped my heart out: painted scenes of blood-red rivers choked with bodies, a ceiling beam thrust like some mad atomic spear into the chest of a mother as her child weeps at her feet. Flesh running like melted butter from limbs, shadows of human forms burned into the concrete.

After a while, I just couldn't take any more. I went in search of a florists shop, found a bouquet of white lilies, and brought it back to the grounds where I knelt at a memorial shaped like a blossoming nuclear cloud. It was easy to cry, but it sounds cheap and insufficient, or self-aggrandizing, to say so today.

I wasn't there very long when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an elderly Japanese man with a trimmed gray mustache in a tidy suit and polished shoes, holding an umbrella over his shoulder. I stood up and looked him in the eye. You can study literature for decades and not find words.

But he knew. "War is over," he said.

* * *

Before I left Hiroshima forever, I took a day-trip to the shore. You can board a ferry for Miyajima Island. So-called Shine Island, Miyajima is renowned for its temples, gardens, and thousands of wild, red-assed baboons. The vermilion gate that stands at the entry is considered one of Japan's Three Essential Views--luring students and native vacationers here all year round. You pass beyond the gate and land in a paradise of bamboo forests, hidden courtyards, and melodic streams trickling through granite. School kids in their black and white uniforms pass happily between tall rows of bamboo. They stop and take your picture. "Look at the foreigner," one says, pointing, shouting the Japanese word for beard. Then off they go along the stream, around the bend and into the woods.

Suddenly you're hit with a powerful force. How quiet it is!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Eye for an Eye

The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
What? Mr Deasy asked.
A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
-- James Joyce, Ulysses


The clatter of feet, the hissing radiators, the bang of the teacher's bag on the desk...I remember this much of Brooklyn's PS 99. I remember the red door and short, black picket fence, the cloakroom, where we put our wet slickers on hangars and stood our rubber boots in neat rows, and the shelf where those of us lucky enough to have a lunch put up our colorful pails for the noon hour.

I don't remember much about second grade, but I remember that my best friend was also named Gary and that we came as a matched set of 1950s boys, with our wool shirts and bluejeans with the legs turned up in three or four inch cuffs that were called "buckets". We wore matching crew-cuts with the front of our hair held up in a ridge with pink "butch wax" and the backs scalped so closely that you could spot all the imperfections of the skull where the plates came together like continents of a living globe.

Not only did we look alike, my namesake and I prided ourselves in forging an alliance against "the others", the non-Garys. But that December in our second grade -- if only for a few days -- our friendship was cleaved by fate. We were in Prospect Park, a sprawling 585-acre playland with a skating rink, zoo, and forest designed by the same landscape architect who masterminded New York's Central Park across the river.

I can't recall the other rider, perhaps she was Gary's sister, or another friend. We were lined up on a toboggan atop one of the parks rolling hills, with a wide expanse below. Gary sat in front, the girl tucked in behind him, and I sat in the rear. With a rush we were off, the landscape spinning by on each side beyond the roostertails of spraying snow.

I didn't see the park bench, even at the moment the girl ducked out of the way. Gary must have ducked first, because I was the only one to take the full stopping force of the concrete in my face.

The next day at PS 99 the shiner under my right eye was the talk of the class. I had gotten it in a fight. I had been hit by a mugger. I wish I could have come up with a number of less humiliating explanations. My teacher and classmates referred to me as Gary with the Eye. The other Gary laughed at me along with the others. As far I as was concerned, we were no longer a matched set. He was one of them.

A day or two passed that way. I guess, finally, it bugged him. Gary came to see me after class.

Our family lived near the corner of 13th Street and Avenue M.-- a few short blocks from PS 99. We rented the top half of a duplex. The kitchen had black and white checkerboard tiles on the floor and a red Formica table with matching chairs. Visitors had to ring an outside bell to get into the foyer, then climb a long flight of stairs with a hardwood banister to reach the landing.

On judgment day, my friend Gary rang the bell, raced in from the December chill, and smacked headlong into the banister. His shiner, quite naturally, welled up under the right eye. And when we returned to PS 99 the following morning, we were twins again.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Men's Men


Bob Shacochis. He's a man's man, a teller of tall tales, noodler of great sentences set in the broth of political intrigue, a straight-talking lover of language with a delightful intolerance of hacks and pretenders. I had swapped letters with him long before we ever met, but when I first saw him, he was barbecuing leeks and asparagus that he had marinated in balsamic vinegar, a half-cigarette's worth of ash dangling from his lips, and what looked like a nasty case of windburn.

I had gone to Frisco in North Carolina's Outer Banks to visit him and his partner, Miss Fish. After dinner and oh so many cocktails, Bob drove me out to the dunes in his four-wheel truck, spinning us up the shore to where the waves swept across the black, moonlit sands and the cyclops eye of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse spun at you through the fog.

Months before, Bob sent the kindest rejection letter I had received during a four-year stretch of opening the most vile of commentaries. He was editing The Missouri Review and encouraged me to stay in the saddle, contending that the sorry world we lived in needed writers that could take out your eye with angular prose. He had come into the land of letters through journalism, using the same back door as I had done, as Hemingway had done. We were in fine company.

Shake, as some people called him, also waded ashore into travel writing because he had been mad about surfing. The waves carried him from his childhood home in Virginia to Hawaii, later to South America and, eventually, into the Peace Corps where he discovered the Caribbean. The string of islands opened up a trove of untapped stories that Bob mined for years, studying island life. Eventually, he penned two collections of literary short stories and a novel set in the land of heavy drink, heady women, and brutal politics. He wrote exclusively about the coup in Haiti. An avid outdoorsman, he wrote a cooking column for GQ while crafting journalistic gems for Harpers and Outside, along the way reeling in the Rome Prize for Literature, a National Book Award, and other noteworthy trophies. His writing about the Third World belongs on the shelf beside Graham Greene, Robert Stone, and Joseph Conrad. When I knew him, he was the book-blurb king, his nougats of praise appearing routinely on the jackets of short story collections and novels of his peers.

The last time we gathered, I had invited him to Fairbanks as a visiting author at the Midnight Sun Writer's Conference. He was a hit, carving off chunks of wry commentary on stories submitted by participating writers and holding forth on craft without waterboarding the audience with theory.

Toward the end of the conclave, I spirited him out of bed before dawn in my subcompact, and drove the 120 miles west to see Denali. The peak, better known as Mt. McKinley, had been spotted over the past few days and viewing--they said on the news--was optimal. Denali makes her own weather, so you can't trust conditions outside of the park to witness a rare appearance. But when she comes out, she is spectacular, rising 20,000 feet over an expanse that defies the human sense of scale. We had also packed some fishing gear, a couple of sandwiches, and a bottle of vodka, which somehow ended up open by 9 am, passing between us along the highway.

The park has six million acres of wilderness, so there are hours of driving just to get from the front gate to open views of the mountain. It's a track populated with grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep and moose--which of course we were there to see.

We had been motoring at a decent clip along Polychrome Pass when Bob brought out his field glasses. He had a feeling he said, and sure enough he shouted for me to pull over a moment later. We hopped out of the little car and stood along the road, steam rising off of our heads and shoulders.

"Up there!" Bob said, pointing to an overhang. His intuition was right. Seated on a boulder about 50 yards from us was a mature grizzly, his coat brown and red-ocher in the morning sun. If the bear saw us, we were of no significance. But I was impressed. The pass was long, pocked with crags and boulders, and Bob picked the bear out of an impossible backdrop of yellowing tundra.

Not long afterwards, we were finishing off the vodka, driving along the road to Wonder Lake, when Bob had another moment. He shouted for us to pull over and we hurried to a high point where we could look out on the massive valley carved eons ago by glaciers. The backdrop was equally confounded with jigsawed colors and shapes, yet Bob was sure. He pointed to a deadfall of spruce between the rocks and handed me the glasses.

His intuition was uncannily sharp as ever, but he had mistaken the beast's genus entirely. Sure, the chipmunk wore the same fall colors as the bear, and its shape, rising up on it haunches with its furry head certainly suggested a genetic relationship. It was as if I had turned the glasses backwards while looking at a ferocious grizzly, shrinking the image to manageable size for viewing by boys, wimps, or other undesirables who would never makes the rugged pages of Outside.

"Look out!" I shouted. And I shouted it again afterwords, after Bob caught an amazing creel of fish, and I would shout it out on the way home, and certainly a few times the following days until I had surely worn it out. I swear to God, Bob, I'm sorry. Mostly.

"Look out, Bob," I'd shout, "he's getting ready to charge!"

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Dragons of Rochester

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

In my family there is a saying that what you don't know won't hurt you.

Here's what I do know: My father was only seventeen when he was called out of school to go upstairs into his father's tailor shop. Grandpa Max was a talented and successful suit-maker; he had cut fabric for New York's renowned actors and politicians; and my father was sent over to identify his body.

At least that's how the story goes, but the story is hardly ever told, and the details change between times and tellers, and I grew up without hearing any of it.

So when I turned 41, I visited my uncle Mort in Eugene and he brought out photos of my grandfather Max and told me who he was and how he died. Until that day, I was told, alternatively, that Max had died when he fell out of a boat crossing out of Russia, that he had disappeared, or that he had lived a long time ago and the details of his life didn't much matter, or my questions about my relatives and their lives were just met with evasions, talk about the Dodgers, the weather, which chores I had failed to do up to snuff, or the grades I should be making.

So here in my uncle's living room I was looking at a photo of a stranger--and yet I knew him indelible intimacy, the curvature of his chin, the odd nobility of his countenance that I had seen in my father's face: the Hyman obstinacy to survive no matter the details, to put your head down and keep charging, the non-acknowledgment of inner agony and suffering that somehow--as water seeks its own course through cracked granite--finds expression in convoluted ways.

I grew up loved and without want of any kind. My parents' home in Los Angeles bears little resemblance to the crowded tenements of New York's Jewish ghettos where my grandparents landed without language and scraped pennies together for sustenance. The home is decorated with photos of my mother's family, of Harry and Tillie, of maternal uncles Manny, Moe and Sol, but none appear of Max, or of Max's wife Libbie.

Today I live in a lovely cottage on a hillside in Northern California. They discovered gold near here. Deer graze in my yard. There's a pond outside my window dotted with geese and the ripples that drift outward in their wake. This morning it is cold and in the still gray before sunrise I can see the bubble of light in the distance where Sacramento is sleeping--where the waxing moon lies in the seat of dark clouds--and I can feel the shadow of my grandfather Max, sullen, the vapor of unspoken grief, the larval fury which gnaws restive on the valley below. If, in Langston Hughes' words, a dream deferred dries up like a raisin in the sun, then a grief deferred grows like a dragon in the earth.

The dragon has consumed some of us. It doesn't always kill you straight off. For some, it chews on us for a while, then backs away and waits patiently in an offshore corner, watching for signs of revival. Some of us have used alcohol and drugs, some prescription medications, some food, some workaholism. The dragon demands homage.

One summer not long ago I was riding in a car with my parents and Dad's niece, named Maxine after my paternal grandfather. Quite out of nowhere, she asked dad how far Max jumped to his death.

"Not far," my father said. "A chair is not that high."

I began to weep in the back seat.

"Were you close to your father," I finally could ask.

"Yes," my father said. "But it's not such a good thing to be so close."

What Maxine and my uncle seemed to agree upon in their stories was that my grandmother Libbie was a piece of work, a selfish, voraciously driven soul without center that preyed upon Max and his family. No one could do well enough, in her eyes.

There are facts and fancy. I've quilted this much together.

Let's say it's 1906: Max is himself seventeen--the same age my father will be when Max ends his life. Max lives in a small Romanian village where the summer heat is stifling and the humidly nearly unbearable. The still, evening air fills with the drone of mosquitoes. If you think of current-day Bosnia, you have an idea what it's like being a Jew in this village. Daily life is depressing for most Romanians, who find themselves in a downward economic slump, but for the scapegoat Jews there is only excruciating fear and torment. Their businesses are burned and homes leveled. And one evening, as Max returns from synagogue, he finds his family in the remains of their home. He is alone now.

And then, here is Max, with nothing but the box of jewels his mother has hidden in the sun-scorched garden, and a lifetime of horror to digest, and perhaps (I like to imagine) the drive of the family survival mechanism which, beyond all emotional disaster can operate at a steady thrum. And there is that winking gem of America and all it signifies across the sea. So Max and his box of treasure are smuggled out in a caravan of refugees--like today's refugee of the former Yugoslavia who sew their jewels into their coats with fishing filament as they are driven by bus to the camps outside the war zone.

Let's say Max lands first in Brussels where he buys passage to England and from Liverpool sails in steerage class on a shipload of Irish immigrants to Ellis Island.

There is a joke in my family about the Jewish man who comes to America in such a vessel. His Eastern European name contains so many consonants the Irish shipmates give up on using it. They give him a name--Joe O'Leary --to use when he lands, but now, dockside, at the table where the first line of immigration authorities interrogate him, the man cannot remember the simple, four-syllable name given him by his fellow travelers. In a fit of despair he says over and over that he has forgotten. The authorities shake their heads and ask again, and over and over he wails in Yiddish, "Shayen fergessen." Finally they understand, and on his immigration form in the block marked name they write, Shane Fergusson. And so Max enters the country as an Irishman without a word to share.

I don't know Max's real last name--before it was changed-- although we natty-haired Hymans are not Fergussons. And the name Hyman, with so much irony it seems, comes from the Hebrew "Chaim"--life! And when I walk the hills here in Gold Country and wonder why Max was never able to carry himself forward into so many truths, I acknowledge that survival itself at any cost is not life enough for me. I've come this far, Max. See the hills here? I've been on glaciers in Alaska in the midnight sun, wrote my name in gold foil in the ceiling of the Golden Buddha in Nara, Japan, placed prayers for our family in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, seen the deep blue of Loch Ness, saw the birth of your great granddaughter Emily and cradled her in my arms as we danced to a recording of "What if God Was One of Us?"

I'm sad that you ran out of options. And I'll never go out that way.

On the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side where Max lands in 1906 at age seventeen and already the owner of a lifetime of horrific secrets that he cannot communicate in the common tongue with Americans. I wonder even if he would even speak of such horror among the Romanians or other Jews he encountered in the ghetto who spoke his language, or whether the slaughter of the Jews by now had become so commonplace that it was the baseline of silence: this is where we all come from but it's passed and now we have this life to lead. Don't talk about it, now put your nose to the grindstone. That's certainly my father's message.

And perhaps it worked, for a while. Did Max already know how to tailor suits with such delicate workmanship? What of my great-grandfather and his skills? Gone into the silence. But this was America now of the industrial new century, the streets of Manhattan awash with merchants, the Babel of Immigrants. You have to leap a lot in the story to get to the next part--but it a leap worth taking, for all that ensues in the next few years is silent, steady toil. And Max learns English, finds work, and by all appearances--since appearances have become so important in America--is a huge success. Bully for Max! He does so well that he buys himself a motorcycle. This, I know, is fact. My uncle was certain of it, but I so wish I had that photo--Max in his leather cap and goggles, revving the throttle on that Indian motorcycle.

Work is going well. So swell, in fact, Max has time on his hands. He decides to ride the Indian up to Montreal, or maybe northwest to Toronto. The road from New York City passes through the Adirondacks, the trees blossoming with fall color, birth and death at once. Past the Finger Lakes he rides, flushed with excitement, and he gets as far as Rochester before he finally gets lost.

It is there, so Uncle Mort had told me, that he asks for directions at a house. A white picket fence frames the yard. The woman in the garden is his bride to be. And from there spools out the history of my father, my family, my brother and sister and their children.

I wish I could know more. But one day before my father's 89th birthday this year, Uncle Mort took his own life. There was a note, as unreliable in relation to the truth as any other speculation here. But here are some facts: after his stint in the Navy, Mort visited our home in Brooklyn. I was a toddler. There are home movies of us in the almost-accurate color of the time. Mort is strumming a ukulele and I am dancing. Other stories have Mort asking me to put a tune on the record player. I am too young to read, but I have associated the look of the writing on the record label with the music that comes out when it is played. If you asked me, I could put on The Jones Boys. "The whole town is talking about the Jones Boys," it went. And so went I, beyond the boys to Shostakovitch and Springsteen, Miserlou, and MP3s.

I have Mort to thank for that--and for my love of words. When I graduated junior high, Mort gave me a thesaurus and invited me to explore the "adventure of words". The blue hardback catalog of synonyms sat at the side of my desk, in all the states I traveled, during my years that I worked as a journalist, at my side when I completed graduate school and taught writing in the Big Ten. I kept it until my niece Jessica, my brother's eldest child, graduated school and I sent it to her. I want her to go on this adventure of words, too. I want her to seek the truth.

And all these words, unworthy as the best may be, are for Ted and Linda, for Emily, Jess, Nathan, and Christian. Dragon slayers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Eskimo


Many summers ago I set out on a hell-bent drive through the Yukon Territory which brought me in no small measure humility and faith. All of this is true. Most of it. The parts I remember, anyway.

First I need to tell you a story that goes around in Alaska taverns about the Eskimo. You’ve may have heard it: an explorer is stranded on a sheet of polar ice. He's surely doomed. In wild desperation he prays to God, actually gets on his knees and asks God to save him. He's not given to prayer, especially not given to belief, but now he's ready to try anything. "Dear God," he says, "if you save me just this time I'll always believe." Time passes. The polar nights are cold and the days are pretty cold, too. And as he's shivering on his sheet of ice he sees this black speck in the distant rime of Arctic air heading straight for him. It's an Eskimo, and this native fellow climbs the ice sheet, puts a blanket around the explorer, feeds him some dried salmon and high-bush cranberries, and spirits him by canoe back to Barrow. Not much later the explorer is rifling down shots in the tavern and bragging how he didn't need God at all since there had been an Eskimo nearby. A typical bar tale told under the canopy of northern lights.

In my story, I had two days to make the Haines ferry -- almost seven hundred miles from the Alaskan interior -- and I was certain to arrive on time for the sailing. Yet, that first morning I was so filled with dread of missing it, that I whipped out of a friend’s driveway and plunged into a culvert. Three hours later, the tow truck arrived. Already behind schedule, I sped angrily down the Al-Can highway, only to be stopped in the road by a forest fire which raged near the town of Tok. Furious and frazzled, by the time I crossed into Canada, near dusk, I resolved to drive through the night.

Hundreds, thousands of jackrabbits lazed along the shoulder of the road, taking the last of the low-flung Yukon sun, scampering for cover as I sped past. Every so often, one shot across the highway.

The only driver on that hundred-mile stretch, I played dodge-the-hare until I finally misjudged one, or it misjudged the car -- either way, the hare slipped under the front tire with a loud whap, and then the car began to list dangerously to port.

I stopped, crept under with a flashlight, and found blood and bones packed around the brake drum. After dislodging most of the remains, I resumed driving madly south, but the wheel banged and scraped, and the car canted left and slowed to a crawl. According to the map (which now had fissures in it), the nearest service station was in Burwash Landing: twenty miles.

When I finally arrived, the station stood under the arc of a weak floodlamp. The only other building at the edge of the wilderness was an adjacent cafe, its neon light flickering in the dark. The mechanic had already gone home. I suppose I’d hoped to find an earnest, all-night Canadian wrench junkie. But my best plans had nothing to do with the over-arching scheme of things.

I pulled off the highway into an open field and parked. I pitched my tent, lighting up the site with my headlights. I crossed the street to the cafe where, through the window, I watched a grizzly bear raid the dumpster out back. “We don’t usually get them here,” said the waitress. “Glad I’m not sleeping in a tent.” You might say I slept fitfully.

In the morning I drove across the field to the apron of the gas station. A young man in a red baseball cap sat behind the desk at the service station. He had terrible acne and a gap between his teeth, but looked fresh, like he'd slept pretty well without worrying about bears.

“Can’t look at it today,” he said, leaning back in the chair and propping his feet on the desk. He was not the mechanic, he said. The mechanic was home sleeping. But there was more than a day’s work lined up ahead of him whenever he made his entrance.

I sat in the car and waited, drumming my hands on the steering wheel. It was nearly noon when the mechanic showed and set to work. I could see his legs dangling out from under a blue pickup in the bay.

Whenever the mechanic stood, I waved at him and smiled. The first few times he grinned back, then he flat-out ignored me. I watched him roll in and out on that little sled that they use to creep under cars. There was something else, at the edge of my vision, a dark blur in the bright sunlight just below the nose of the car.

It was a furry tail, whipping side to side in the glare. I was transfixed a moment before I climbed out and walked around the hood.

A dog lay under the engine, pawing away at my tire. He was a heavy-set Lab with dirt-clumped fur. The dog glanced up, hare bits and suet on his muzzle, and then he went back to work, yanking away and twisting his head side to side.

Five minutes later he was snoozing under the shade of the service station awning: my Eskimo. And he hadn’t spun a wrench.

I backed the car out of the station, and the wheel grooved steadily, quietly, effortlessly along the road. I drove toward Haines. Moderately, you could say, buoyantly.

Something had shifted as I thought about my luck. I pulled off the road for a rest stop at Sheep Mountain and watched the white flecks of Dall sheep as they grazed on the green eastern slope. The air was sweet with the smell of fireweed and sage and a faint tinge of campfires. I stopped at Boutillier Summit for a last look down the Kluane Basin and the glimmer of blue light on the glaciers. I paused to listen to the wind as it rifled down the pass at Dezadeash Lake. I sat on the hood of the car and gazed at bald eagles as they wheeled above the fir trees along the Chilkat River.

Finally in Haines, I parked at the wharf. Lights danced over the water in the harbor and the peaks threw tall shadows against the starry sky. I gave thanks. And that night, I slept quite well before a toasty fireplace in a waterfront lodge. I missed the morning ferry by choice.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Moniker Business


My birth name is Gary, as only my family and friends from the past know. It was a common name among 1950s boys, just as Kyle or Evan are white-bread names today. There were always four or five Garys in my classes. There were lots of Garys moving into lookalike suburban homes of families escaping the cold, crowded boroughs of New York to warmer climes in Florida and Southern California.

In Jewish tradition, I was named to honor my maternal grandfather, Harry, a Russian man I never knew. My middle name, Marc, pays homage to my father's father, Max. I never knew Max, either. When the Rabbi gave me my Hebrew names--to reflect my place in the order of things--I was called Getzel Mendel ben Gedalya, the last name being that of my father's first Hebrew name. I am Getzel Mendel, son of Gedalya.

In Hebrew school, they called me Getzel the Pretzel (see french fry post below). In high school, some of the more witty fellahs called me Buster (as in Buster Hyman), or Gary Cherry. Is sarcasm the misshapen expression of love? (Rilke says, "The child bent becomes the bender, inflicts on others what he once went through.")

I came by the nickname Gabby after living the better part of a year in Israel. I worked on a kibbutz (a socialist labor colony) on the Sea of Galilee. At the time, you went to an office in Tel Aviv and selected the flavor of kibbutz where you hoped to volunteer. The offices organized the available colonies by religious and political orientation. You could choose an orthodox kibbutz with a right-wing, Zionist stance, a middle of the road kibbutz with a liberal stance--or any number of combinations. There was even a kibbutz comprised entirely of American emigres, but who wanted to go abroad only to live with the people you were trying to escape?

I had landed in Tel Aviv and spent December with my distant cousin Ronit (changed from Robin) who had settled in Israel years before. She had married an Israeli--a tough, no nonsense kind of fellow--and was completing an internship as a nurse in the downtown Tel Aviv hospital. Her roommate was a Moroccan Jew with black skin and kinky hair. When they completed their training, she was sent to the town of Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border. The town is the site of many a rocket attack and a horrific massacre led by the PLO. It was considered a "sponge town" in that it was to absorb the hatred and violence that rained down from the Lebanese mountains above while maintaining an Israeli presence. It seemed like blatant racism to me that Morrocans were assigned there, while my cousin and other Ashkenazim (European Jews) enjoyed cosmopolitan life in central Israel.

I had seen Kiryat Shmona on a bus trip north of the Galilee. The apartment houses had "safe rooms"--cinder block vaults where the families could run and lock the doors behind them should terrorists invade their building.

I was awestruck by the Galilee, with its dry brown hills and plush, irrigated fields beside the sparkling blue sea. Minarets in Tiberias and Safed were whited gems along the shore. After I had returned to Tel Aviv, Ronit said it was time to go; she advised me to check out the kibbutz office on Frishman Street.

I found an opening at Ginosar, a large kibbutz north of Tiberias, set on the shore of the Galilee just steps from where Christ had lived. Busloads of Christians emptied out nearby and people were baptised. Ginosar had hundreds of families settled on it, had a diverse economy based on crops (cotton, bananas, grapefruit), fishing (harvesting tons of St. Peter's Fish from the Galilee), a dairy, an electronics assembly plant, and a tourist hotel. Its most famous resident, Yigal Allon, was a Zionist pioneer and former Prime Minister, settling there in the early 1940s. I loved the idea of being on the sea which stretched out from the safety of the shore to the looming Golan Heights. I paid the small fee for health insurance, signed a few forms, and went directly to the Eged station to catch a northbound bus for Tiberias. Soldiers stacked their rifles in the aisle as we passed through the coastal plains and the foothills east of Haifa.

The bus dropped me off on the highway, right at the kibbutz. The farm was surrounded by barbed wire and a guarded gate and, after seeing bombings in the city and taking cover in shelters during terrorist threats, I came to feel comfortable when I returned from traveling and that gate slammed down behind me.

When you first arrived at Ginosar, you were assigned to a hut on the shore of the sea, given a roommate, a work assignment, and ushered to the laundry room where you were issued work clothes, bedding, and towels. You could put your name on your clothes, if you liked the fit and wanted them returned after cleaning. But you had to write an your name on the laundry tag. The Sabra who worked the counter looked at my tag. "Gary?" she said, "What kind of name is that?" She was right. In Japan, my name, phonetically, meant "diarrhea". "Your name in Israel," the clerk said, "Will be Gabi." (She prouncounced it "gah-bee").

It was odd having friends (among Israelis and kibbutz volunteers) with names that suggested they had stepped from pages of the Old Testament. There was Solomon and Samson, and Ester and Ruth. You could pick a name that used your original initial, so I became Gabby. In this country, Gabby is a woman's name, and I constantly receive junk mail addressed to "Ms." Or, I am miscalled "Gabe", which is rankling.

In the third month of my stay on the kibbutz, I went to work after a sleepless night and buried a machete in my knee. I was in the field, chopping down banana trees. Once the fruit is harvested, you chop the tree down to a foot or less and it regrows, producing its precious fruit. The plant is like bamboo, largely a conduit for fresh water from the Galilee and, once chopped, it sends new shoots toward the sun. My knee, on the other hand, did no such thing.

The stoic kibbutz nurse tried to stem the bleeding and told me to put a bandage on it and get back to work. This is no nation for slackers and whiners. But I needed stitches, so she backtracked, handed me bus fare to an American hospital in Tiberias. That afternoon, I came home on crutches.

For several weeks I could barely walk at all. A friend returned from a day trip to Tel Aviv with an armload of classical literature. It seemed like the first time in my life that fiction made sense to me. I thrilled in Graham Green's novels and Doris Lessing's stories. I wept at Chekhov, of all things. The sentences in Hemingway's narratives of the two-hearted river wrapped themselves around me.

After I was able to walk again, the kibbutz assigned me to a seat in the electronics factory, where I pressed two red buttons simultaneously to spot-weld switches. The machine buttons were separated so as to require two hands to initiate the weld. Apparently workers fried their free hands using the previous model. It was a far cry from the banana fields and fresh air and mud fights with my fellows. But, more than anything else--more than the evening dance parties at the field-house, the sunny days bobbing in the fishing boats on that brilliant sea, or the endless dininghall arguments over world politics with my fellow volunteers--I thought of digging out another book from the collection my benefactor had brought back from Tel Aviv.

In the spring, I left on a ship bound for the Isle of Rhodes. Less than a year after that, I enrolled in the creative writing program at Santa Cruz. I kept my floppy green kibbutz hat (click picture for detail), which I wore until it deteriorated, my memories, the scar on my left knee, and my kibbutz name. It's my writer's name. It's the name on the label of my birthday suit. It's the name that fits the shape that will remain after all the stars have died.

Aside from the folks at the department of motor vehicles, the IRS, and members of my family, no one gets to call me Gary.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Claw of the White Ant


I was raised on the horror films of the 1950s where creatures exposed to radiation from atomic testing invaded secret government labs only to eat the scientists who had worked so diligently to protect us from the Red Menace. The beasts were metaphors for the creeping Stalinist thugs who hid under the bed, waiting to steal your mind and pervert your allegiance from, say, apple pie to borscht.

My brother--five years my junior--and I would camp out in front of the black and white television on Saturday nights, tuned in to Channel 9, the local Los Angeles station that aired spooky flicks. Creature Features. The opening shot drew in on a castle set in a craggy hilltop in the fog, its a single lantern aglow against the endless dark and creeping fog. Then a voice cried out: "Helooooo there!"

The idea, on nights that mom and dad went out, was to watch the show for a while, then chase Ted around the house and beat the crap out of him. Kind of a rehearsal for fratricide.

There is probably a tangled psychological explanation for displacing my pent up family frustrations onto him, possibly some genetic coding to re-enact Cain and Abel. Perhaps it's a learned behavior. My sister claims that Ted practiced his own (though more subtle) forms of sibling terrorism on her. In the animal kingdom, brothers scuffle to prepare to survive in a world where the Red Menace is real enough. Many of us believe that we have evolved from that point, but I can't be sure when I watch the evening news.

I loved to torment Ted with a game played on hot summer days. We'd gather in the vacant lot at the corner of Collett and Kingsbury. It was a huge lot, now choked end-to-end with apartment houses. But in the day, it had rolling terrain and weeds, and a great assortment of rubbish (cardboard, wood, old appliances) that you could round up for a fort. We held dirt-clod fights with other neighborhood kids. You tossed only caked hunks of mud, but grabbed a small rock when you were angry enough at the enemy.

What I told Ted was this: beneath the tumbleweeds, the piles of castaway lumber, and bits of broken glass in the field were armies of White Ants. They were down there, awaiting their chance. There are, of course, no such things, although exterminators often use the term to designate termites. But MY white ants were brutal carnivores with serrated teeth that could rip Ted into a bubbling pulp of flesh in a matter of seconds.

"Look out," I'd shout, "it's the white ants." And Ted would get a pained look, rise on his tiptoes, and scurry for the sidewalk, his flip-flops beating out time to the cadence of horror. I had assured him that the ants could not reach him through solid concrete, and they never did.

Over the years I turned out to be the creep that would sit beside you in a darkened theater as we'd watch a thriller and the moment the soundtrack hinted of looming terror, I'd clap my hands, or shout, or jab you in the ribs.

I don't remember ever having anyone do these things to me. But what I do recall is my father taking me out of a New York theater in the middle of Fantasia, where I had exploded in tears at the sight of the Devil in Night on Bald Mountain who scooped up lost souls in his green talons. I can see its face before me this very moment when I close my eyes. And later in childhood, after the first time I had watched Godzilla rampage through Tokyo, I had years of nightmares where the beast would find me where I hid beneath a stairwell. His mouth drew back in a snarl as he bent over and breathed fire...

It's amazing that we ever outgrow the boogieman. Ted has. Today, he's a great success, a partner in a leading architectural firm, designing structures impervious to White Ants, earthquakes, and stomping fire lizards. In my evening prayers, which have grown elaborate over the years, I ask to never cause him a moment's discomfort again.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Life as a Beatle


“There is more felicity on the far side of baldness than young men can possibly imagine” -- Logan Pearsall Smith.

My hairline began receding in my senior year of high school. It must have begun then, because I remember the morning Martha Louise reached up her hand and brushed back the locks I had combed forward. I was annoyed, which is sad, because today I fully understand her gesture.

That summer I had a near-fatal bout with myocarditis, a viral infection of the heart lining, after which the recession resumed in earnest. By the time I entered San Jose State, I had a partial comb-over that was so shameful, I slept with my head under the pillow.

My utter sense of despair grew proportionally to the pace of departing strands in the dormitory sink. So did a flagging sense of sexual prowess. Today, shaving your head--even if you have a full shock of hair--is commonplace and considered sexy; but in my adolescence only Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas had acceptable crowns, and they were distinctly odd and exotic men. I was whiter than white. (Oh, and there was the bald Genie on the soap bottle, too.)

The last of the comb-over supply was progressively knotted and, by my senior year, it was a matted clump held in place by thinning strands. It rattled in the wind. Following the lead of another young man who confided his secret to me, I went shopping for a wig. At that time, the since-defunct May Company store offered a wide selection of apparel and accessories. In their wig department you could find a brilliant array of styles and colors--for women! There was a single model for guys and it resembled the late-era Beatles mop-top. I took one home, along with a Styrofoam head (which my friends called "Spike") where it would rest all night on the dressing table.

The wig had a tight mesh lining that left a angry red pattern on my scalp when I took it off at night. It was hot, which was fine in cold weather, but unpleasant in the summer. It made my skin crawl. And it did little to allay my fear. It might be the end of a luscious evening over candles and Chardonnay when my date would run her fingers through my nylon, dislodging the entire facade. Surely that time would come, so I avoided women altogether.

After graduation, I went to work for a daily newspaper in a small college town near Sacramento. Each morning I would pull on my loud, double-knit sports coat and tie, brush my mop-top into shape, and drive off for the newsroom in my Buick convertible, the wig stirring in the breeze. I walked about town, gathering stories from my sources, sure that I looked suave and confident. I was probably the only person who thought I had hair.

When spring rolled around, I volunteered to coach football for the local Pop Warner team, the Cowboys, with a head coach who had played defensive back in college and hit you like a falling piano. In those days, everyone wore knee-high white athletic socks and hippie-generation headbands while playing sports. So I bought a bandanna and tied it around the wig. I looked studly.

Toward the middle of practice the coach and I were showing the boys how to pounce on a fumble. I beat him to the ball, but he slammed into me and the wig went flying. It flew about ten yards, then rolled--still held in shape by the headband--down a grassy hill, our young charges gazing in horror at what must have appeared as a clean beheading.

Then there was a twitter, and another, and then came cascades of laughter that I could hear all the way to my car.

A few months later I landed a job at a newspaper in the Bay Area and decided to make a clean break of things, vis a vis Spike and company. Besides, I had scorched the front of the mop-top attempting to light marijuana at a party and the wig remained crispy and smelled of disaster. The wig ended up in a dumpster, and I grew out the sides of my hair, glad to have it all out in the open. I could date again.

In 1975, I got brave and shaved it all off in the shower. I liked the look, complemented by my thick, black Rasputin beard. I was a trailblazer.

For a short time, I had a job writing advertising copy for a company that made pharmaceuticals said to grow hair. No way I would try them. The side effects include a dramatic loss of libido. Why stiffen your self esteem to loose tensile strength elsewhere? It seems a perfect metaphor for our culture.

There is nothing worse, I think, than male-pattern blandness. I'd rather leave it to nature to decide what grows--and where. Meanwhile, I can shave without cream, without a mirror--even wield a double-bladed razor in the dark. I know the tucks and curves of my head with profound intimacy. And despite the insane prejudice against baldness in our society, I find that many women -- at least the kind that interest me -- will still need me, will still feed me, when I'm sixty-four.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three Plagues

"These are unclean to you among all that creep: whosoever doth touch them, shall be unclean until the evening." -- Leviticus 11:31.

Plague by Air
We were living in a small house near the beach in La Selva, a quiet, lovely place set in a grove of pines, fringed with flowering bougainvillea and ivy. In the stillness of morning and the dark, foggy eves you could hear the waves breaking on the beach below. On days when the fog backed out, the sun baked down on the houses and you could hear the wooden beams swelling and moaning in the still air.

One Sunday we were having coffee on the deck when we noticed a few bees darting among the trees. Then we saw more coming, sifting in between the pine needles in the dappled light, growing slowly in number until there were quite many of them. Diana went back into the house. It wasn't long before I followed, as a single bee sting can send me to the emergency room.

Shadows appeared out the windows over the tops of the hedges. Then thousands of bees circled the house and we raced to shut the flue on the fireplace. You could see out the windows, but the day had turned into dark ribbons of yellow and brown. I phoned the police, who referred me to the firehouse, where I was given the phone number of a bee keeper from Aptos.

That night, in the cooling dark, the keeper came out and shook the solid mass that had roosted in the tree in the center of the yard, and all the bees fell into a box and were gone.

Plague by Land
I was traveling across America in a Greyhound bus, maximizing my journey between California and Florida through a special fare that allowed you to move about for several weeks without restrictions. When you ride the bus, you're treated to desert way-stations in tiny shacks under a brutal sun, to inner city slum-terminals where panhandlers lean into you, or gas stations lit by a single lamp in the icy mood of a mountain snowflurry.

This particular night, we had stopped in a small Texas store and post office outside San Angelo. It was hot and stifling, and we waited just long enough for two riders to depart and an elderly Black woman to climb aboard with a shopping bag filled with clothing and a lunchbox. She took the seat directly behind my own and after a while she was asleep.

The next stop seemed further out in dark spaces of prairie, at a gas station flooded by arc lights where the bus pulled up with a whoosh of brakes and the driver opened the door. "Ten minutes," he called out.

I was in my stocking feet, half asleep, and went out to find a restroom. My socks got wet. Only when I had reached the sidewalk that fronted the store did I notice that the surface swarmed with dark brown beetles. Not only was the walk a sea of pulsing bodies, the wall itself was stuccoed with living, hard-shelled varmints. Around the side of the building, an attendant used a push broom to carve a path between the beetles and the doors to the restrooms.

I decided to hold my water and tiptoed back to the bus. I found a clean pair of socks in my backpack and put them on. A short while later, we were heading down the dark highway when the woman behind me screamed. A stowaway had found a home in her hair.

Plague by Stealth
We had been driving all day, following days filled with drives, when we gave up on reaching Alabama and took a motel room in Coldwater, Mississippi. It was hot and muggy and crickets filled the air with their cadence. We chose the motel because it had a swimming pool. So said the sign out front.

After unpacking, we went into the cafe and ordered sandwiches. In this part of the world, maybe only in this part of Mississippi, they served barbecue pork on white bread with a scoop of cole slaw plopped directly on the meat.

I couldn't wait to get back to the room, change into my suit, and cool off in the pool. I should have noticed the smaller signs of trouble, but walked right past them. The pool area was fenced in, set up against a forest of kudzu vines that looked like green frosting on the trees. I tossed my towel to the chair and dove straight in.

The pool was thick with tiny green frogs. Hundreds of frogs. Thousands of frogs. Chock-to-jaw with frogs. I had jumped into a vat of frog-flavored pudding.

On my way back to the room and the shower, I paid closer attention to what I had seen all along: the hallways and narrow paths of the motel were filled with the little guys, scampering around in the dusk, doing their froggy things.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fries, No Flies



The Hebrew characters spell the word Chai (sometimes pronounced "hai"). It means life or refers to the living God--depending on how it's used or defined. A variant, l'chaim, is the common toast in Hebrew, meaning "to life". My last name, Hyman, is also a variant on the word, meaning that my last name refers to life and the God that lives inside me.

My last name was changed to Hyman when my forebears arrived from Romania at the turn of the 20th Century, having been hunted and killed by mobs and their villages burned to the ground. Grandpa Max came to America when he was still young, quite without the English language and familiarity with life on these shores. Along the way, he changed our name.

Jewish boys and girls attend Hebrew language and culture training for several years leading up to the Bar/Bas Mitzvah, a ritual that signifies adulthood in the tribe. You learn common prayer, special prayers selected by the calendar that match the season in which you turn 13 years old, our cultural history, and the language used to read and recite scripture.

My family initially sent me to a school that was not affiliated with a synagogue, but a bar mitzvah mill that churned out celebrants by the dozens. We met in a converted store filled with school desks and blackboards under the direction of a taskmistress whose name I have blocked from memory to protect myself from recurring trauma. I love a story from Donald Barthelme in which he calls the teacher "Miss Mandible", and it will suffice for this recollection. My Miss Mandible walked behind the desks--not unlike the demon nuns that have been described to me from recovering Catholics--making sure we kept our Sephardic noses to the grindstone.

I had trouble making out the consonants, although the vowels were simple. They appeared beneath each letter, or to the side, and were few in shape and number. But the consonants! Some were uttered from deep in the throat and when you pronouced them correctly, it sounded as if you were trying to clear a bolus of half-chewed beef from your windpipe. Several characters looked exactly the same to me, which is why I sunk into depths of multi-generational despair when I confused them in recitation beneath Miss Mandible's gaze. When I went to the synagogue, I always chanted the notes to the prayers, mumbling the actual language, which seemed impossibly out of reach.

What I truly loved, however, were the short historical films we watched on biblical heroes from the Old Testament. I particularly had a crush on Ruth, the Moabite woman who said, "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; For wherever you go, I will go." In the film she was utterly delicious, impeccably tanned, lean, and graceful in her white robe and sandals. From then on, I was to search the continents and islands of my travels to find a woman who would commit to everlasting fidelity.

Bethlehem, as it was presented in the film, was a small village with neatly arranged little adobe houses tucked among smooth pathways that ran between desert rocks and plants. In the close-ups you could see Ruth's skin--like spun chocolate--and pleasant eyes. This a was a Bethlehem quite without scorpions, flies, and pestilence--whether biblical or otherwise.

One afternoon--for we went to Hebrew school after regular school let out--my friend David and I made a discovery that was to influence our religious training forever. Just up the alley that ran behind the Hebrew school was a cafe that sold french fries by the bag. These were no diminutive fry bags issued by fast-food joints. These were Number 10 shopping bags, brown as Ruth's skin, and stuffed to the top with hot, oily, heavily salted fries. They made for fine eating and quelled the imperious, full-body shame that rose to the heart from scripture dyslexia.

How many times did we sit in the alley, ignoring the fear of flunking out of Hebrew school, wolfing down those delightful, crisp, heavenly fries that surely God had delivered unto us? I cannot say, except that as my bar mitzva date grew near, my father was disturbed by my apparent inability to read or speak the most rudimentary of expressions required for the ritual. A private tutor was arranged, thereby wiping out the savings my parents might have made by sending me to the cut-rate, bar mitzvah factory run by Miss Mandible.

The venerable David Starr made house calls, teaching me how to perform the entire ceremony phonetically. Ever-more chubby, now entered into a lifelong struggle with my overeating, I mastered the Torah melodies, which I sung in my cherubic, bell-clear soprano voice just months from changing forever--and everyone was proud of me.

Years later, I visited Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem. There was no sign of Ruth in the crowds of Sabras who walked among the modern apartments and rumbling buses. Her descendants wore bright miniskirts, Western jeans and baseball caps, and several carried Uzi machine guns. These were tough women, who had no notion of taking an oath to follow me wherever I went.

And the biting flies, dear God, oh the flies!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Some Kind of Sayonara



It was freezing cold and the December winds failed to diminish the air pollution that draped Tokyo with an acrid cloud. My English teaching connections had foundered; I had had months of frustrations speaking broken Japanese; and I was tired of wedging through crowds of commuters no matter when or where I went. So I found a Dutch travel agency near the Ginza and asked the well-scrubbed clerk in his gray muffler if he could find me a bargain flight in any direction. I told him, "I want off the rock."

He said I'd get the biggest bang for my travel dollar by taking a Pakistani Airlines flight to Athens. I asked if it would be warm, and he lied. I imagined myself baking away on the Mediterranean, seated at a cafe with a glass of brandy in my hand, my eyes sheltered against the blazing sun. The ticket, in 1979 dollars, cost $280. Not bad for a trip halfway around the world.

What the travel agent neglected to tell me--along with his false promises of sunshine and souvlaki--was that the flight would take 26 hours from gate to gate, with plenty of stops along the way. I took my ticket, gathered up my backpack from the apartment in western Tokyo, and hopped an express train to the airport.

Once airborne, I discovered that I was the only Caucasian aboard a flight of Japanese businessmen, Chinese nationals, and a handful of Pakistanis. The announcements were made in Japanese, English, and Punjabi. I snapped a few pictures of Mt. Fuji through the window and settled back. It was an old-generation Boeing 707 and it looked it. At one point, the overhead cases swung open and the oxygen masks dropped out. They swung like jellyfish all the way to Beijing.

In 1979, we had yet to formalize relations with China, so when we landed in Beijing, I was told to remain seated until escorted down the ramp. The terminal looked like an old railroad depot with richly polished hardwood beams and rows of wooden benches. The locals all wore blue or green quilted jackets and matching Mao caps. You had to look carefully to make out the gender. One couple necked surreptitiously beneath a stairwell. I tried to escape out into the countryside a few times and was brought back to the terminal under escort of armed guards who were astonishingly kind and courteous.

I converted Yen into Chinese Yuan, not knowing that it would not be accepted anywhere else I might be flying, and bought tins analgesic balm and cigars as gifts. When my flight was announced, I attempted to cash the Yuan into dollars and was told it was impossible. They actually held the jet on the runway while I pleaded unsuccessfully with the teller in his cage.

The second stop was in Rawalpindi--known today as Islamabad. At three in the morning, the runway was a dark strip between dusty fields, with a small concrete terminal at one end. The only thing you heard was the stirring of the wind and barking Pakistani dogs in the distance. If I had wanted warmer temperatures, I got what I asked for. It was stifling and muggy.

I would have four hours to wait and was forbidden to leave the building. You could only buy some kind of pickled vegetable, Coca Cola (which seemed to have four times the sugar content as the American brand), and small cakes dipped in honey. I pressed through a crowd of beggars to find a seat in the dark recesses of the hall, clutching my backpack in my arms as I lay back and tried to nap. That was impossible. Within minutes, dozens of beggars surrounded me, pawing at my pack, murmuring with an insistent rhythm which kept up unceasingly for four hours.

When we finally took off in the last dark hour before dawn, I was seated beside a Japanese businessman who had boarded in Rawalpindi. He was going to Athens and we traded precious little across the language barrier. The last fuel stop was in Damascus, where the flight attendant advised me to stay on the plane. An American Jew, I had nightmares of what would happen to me had I wandered off. An hour later, you could make out the whitecaps on the waves as we sped into the clouds.

Below, in the seas where Paris, Marcus Antonius, and Odysseus had sailed, tiny islands caught bright shards of morning light. When I finally walked out on the tarmac in Athens, I found that I needed a jacket. I didn't really mind. I was a gravely inexperienced globetrotter and only 25. I would share a cab with the Japanese businessman to Democracy Square and later that evening under the Mediterranean moon, I would sit in a cafe and sob with relief.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Same, Same



Meet Jampa Lobzang Negi, born in the hills of Himachal Pradesh in northern India in 1974. He looks more like he's 20 years old in person. I first set eyes on him at a White Tara empowerment ceremony led by visiting Tibetan monks near my home in California. I instantly considered him the Shaquille O'Neal of monastic devotions. He's pumped, buffed, cut, hewn out of muscle and, despite his height, looks more attuned to a World Wrestling Federation arena than walking around a temple with a smoldering pot of incense.

The moniker fit when I next found Jampa, standing on an outdoor basketball court with six other monks, shooting hoops in his flowing red robes. They all tossed up bricks, but laughed at every shot. One of the monks prayed for acuracy. Playful as a kitten, spiritually fierce as a tiger, Jampa spent the better part of a week with me, showing me how to blow the long temple horns or suddenly laying his head in my lap during a break in the ceremonies. Monastic austerity and impulsive expressions of joy seem like odd bedfellows until you realize that each facilitates the other.

Jampa was ten years old when he entered the Gaden Sharste Monastery in south-central India. The monastery was founded in Tibet in 1426 by the Buddhist Mystic Je Tsong Kapa, but relocated in exile to India in 1959 when less than a handful of monks were able to survive the onrushing slaughter of the Communist Chinese.

It would be a simple thing to let Jampa's boyish looks and manner decieve you into believing he was born yesterday. He was born much earlier, and several times over. In this incarnation, he undertook 16 years of intensive study of chants, tantric rituals, and rites, including several teachings under the direction of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Only after he left our small community here in the northern foothills did I learn that Jampa was credited with healing many sick in the streets of Dharamsala and aiding the poor.

When I met him I was new to Tibetan Buddhism and was taken by his chanting, which emanated from someplace deep inside him, impossibly low pitched and booming. He seemed dwarfed by his own powers. After the ceremony, I asked if he would bless my prayer beads and he took them in-hand, murmured a sutra, then blew over them. I thanked him, and wanted to say more, but his English was poor and my Tibetan limited to the names of a few meditative deities.

Jampa stood up, wrapped his beefcake arm around me, and tapped my chest. Then he tapped his own. "Me," he said, tapping his chest. "You," he said, tapping mine.

"Me, you," he said...."Same, same."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Glory Days


It's almost as if the two words "Bitter Rivalry" are linked by some symbiotic notion of tribal fidelity, as if there can be no bitterness without rivalry. In the photo, San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal is in the business of whacking the unprotected skull of Dodgers' catcher John Roseboro with his ash-wood bat. Famed hurler Sandy Koufax rushes to aid his battery-mate. It is August 22, 1965, just weeks before the Dodgers would go on to beat the Twins to win the World Series. The Giants were in hot pursuit, finishing two games back. It seems that Roseboro aimed throws back to Koufax so that the balls whizzed past Marichal's ear. The two had words, and Marichal went off like the tightly wound Dominican he was. The fight lasted 14 minutes and Roseboro required 14 stitches.

The number 14 in baseball means everything to me. When I was seven years old, my father took me to Ebbetts Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. The "Boys of Summer" featured Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campenella, and Pee Wee Reese. The silent heart of the team, to me anyway, was the first baseman Gil Hodges, who wore number 14.

Gil, the son of an Indiana coal miner, had come up as a catcher in 1943, but shipped out to the Pacific, where he earned a Bronze Star for courage in battles on Tinian and Okinawa. When he came home, he was moved to first base, where he was a stalwart up until he was replaced in 1961 by Norm Larker. Consequently, I never much liked Norm Larker, who managed only 22 homers in four years with the Dodgers.

Hodges was strong enough to lug refrigerators without assistance. His physique and numbers were astounding. He was second only to Snider in leading the league in home runs and RBIs during the 50s decade. He won the first three Gold Gloves for fielding after the award was created, was the first player after Lou Gherig to hit four home runs in a game, and in 1950 became the first Dodger to hit 40 home runs in a season. An eight-time allstar who helped lead his team to six pennants, he was dwarfed by the greatness of other players around him (Mantle, Mays, Snider, Aaron) and has not made it to the Hall of Fame despite leading the Miracle Mets of 1969 to their World Series title as manager.

But I had other reasons for loving him. He was soft spoken, and his name was Gil, the same as my father's. Our initials are the same. And we both played first base. He looks as big as Jackie in this photo of the boys standing in front of the batting cage in Ebbetts.

The morning of my first game, dad drove us across Brooklyn in his gray Dodge and we got to Ebbetts Field in time to watch Gil take batting practice. Aside from the brilliant patch of green amidst the city scape around us--as so many writers remark about in their memoirs--I recall the vivid blue of the uniforms which had been black and white in the newspapers. Sure, there was the smell of the grass, but more than that was the overwhelming bank of cigar smoke, the overtones of roasted peanuts, and a sour aroma of beer in the air.

I knew from my reading that the rivalry between Giants and Dodgers fans during the era was, in fact, bitter, but I had yet to really feel it. Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951 apparently fueled the hatred. That was before I was born. When Giants fans bring that homer to my attention today, I am quick to point out that immediately afterwords, the Giants were destroyed by the Yankees in the World Series. I point out that since both the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1957, only one team has won a World Series--in fact five of them--and that team wears blue.

But back to Brooklyn.... What I recall most about my first trip to Ebbetts Field was that we sat just to the left side of home plate, about 30 rows back, and the cast-iron pillars that supported the upper deck rose right between the seats and blocked our view toward first base. I remember the warmth of the crowd, which seems to blot out most of the other recollections. It remains my first memory of Black people, the fans who came to see Jackie. I remember the incredible kindness and joy in their faces, and how several made a point of speaking with me, including an older gentleman who sported a smoldering cigar and tapped me on the shoulder whenever the crowd roared. I remember wild music, played by spectators who had brought instruments with them. And a circus clown, mournful Emmett Kelly from Barnum and Baily, passed among the rows making us laugh.

We moved to Los Angeles--the same year the Dodgers moved--so I never lost my team. Dad would take us to the Coliseum and later, to Dodger Stadium to see the new boys of summer. I always rode in the back seat with my baseball glove in my lap. The place was packed whenever the Giants came to town. I hated to leave before the last out, but my dad often would get us up and out the ramps to beat the post-game traffic that tied up the freeways for hours. I'd listen to games on my transistor radio at the beach, in the car, while mowing the lawns, and in my darkened bedroom at night where I could see the grass and red-dirt infield in my mind's eye as Vin Scully carved out delicious swirls of language. We'd sneak a transistor radio and earpiece into synagogue, where the High Holiday services often conflicted with the World Series.

Mom loved to go to the stadium where they had fabulous hot dogs. Maybe they weren't as good as the Coney Island dogs at Ebbetts, but they were and still are tasty. Mom knew the game, too, and the players. We watched every battle televised from Candlestick when the Dodgers played the Giants--the only games on television aside from a weekly NBC broadcast. Dad would order a pizza and we'd set out the tv trays in the den and camp in front of the set for hours. We were watching the incredible stretch run in '65 that Sunday afternoon when Marichal whacked Roseboro on the head. That moment I finally became a Giants-hater.

When I moved to Northern California to go to college in 1972, the Giant's drew so poorly that I could go to games at Candlestick Park and sit among a crowd of Dodgers fans almost equal in number to the locals. The boys won their share of pennants those days, and it was fun to rub it in. One night sportswriter Gary Rubin finagled a press pass for me at Candlestick and I walked around the batting cage, yakking with Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, snapping a photo of Smokey Alston as he stood with his foot on the top step of the dugout in his last year as skipper.

But by the time the Giants assumed their new home in the city, the crowds were almost entirely made of hardened fans in orange and black with profound hatred of all things blue. I made the mistake of wearing my Dodgers jersey. A surly fan wedged his nacho chip into that so-called cheese sauce and dumped it over me.

Outnumbered, I simply found an usher, reported the incident, and had the fan tossed out of the stadium. Revenge was sweeter than the relish on their substandard hot dogs.

Only once have I rooted against the Dodgers. I am not ashamed of it. It was September 6, 1988 in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. That year that the Dodgers would go all the way, riding to the World Series title on the backs of Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser. The game Cincinnati's Tom Browning of the Reds started against Tim Belcher began late following an evening shower. Tom Chiarella and I sat under the overhang in the upper deck and drank beers, waiting out the storm. Chiarella was an avid Mets fan, but more than that, he loved the game. We thought nothing of driving half a day to see the Mets play in Atlanta. For this outing, we had driven in the rain nearly four hours to Cincinnati, hoping they'd play the game.

The Reds would only get three hits off of Belcher, tallying a single run. But that is not the story. Gibson was tossed out after arguing strikes after his third futile at bat. Hell, they were all futile at bats. Not a single Dodger reached first base.

Browning took his perfect game into the eighth. Wonder about the odds of seeing a perfect game? There have only been 16 of them since Cy Young tossed the first one in 1904. So as the ninth inning rolled to the top of the scoreboard, I rose to my feet, dropped my blue hat on the seat behind me, and began cheering for Tom Browning until I was nearly hoarse as he retired the side. I watched as he was carried off the field and waited around for his curtain call.

I still reside in Northern California, where I am frequently confronted by Giants fans. I heard it especially during the recent dark era in which they joined in some inexplicable, hallucinatory hubris in their allegiance to Barry Bonds. In the face (an apt metaphor) of all evidence to the contrary, they loved their bloated, naked emperor with his artificially-swelled punkin' head.

It's difficult to reconcile my new-found devotion to Buddhism with historical sibling rivalry, especially when the bile arcs through my veins each spring. It's not as if I have not been a loudmouth thug myself. Once I got a row of fans tossed from Wrigley Field after yelling unkind epithets against an umpire who had crossed a picket line. An usher once asked me to remove a tee shirt I was wearing that suggested that the New York Mets should receive vigorous stimulation while bending. Simply saying that I have never touched another fan or tossed anything through the air, save for a beachball at Dodger Stadium on a hot summer's day, is gross rationalization. But growth takes time.

Crowds of fans have been trampled in sporting events around the world. I recall film clips from England where rival soccer aficionados tossed darts into a crowd, maiming the eyes of opposing fans. This is surely setting loose the precognitive, ancient furies of Irish and the English, Hatfields and McCoys, Arabs and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, the Red states and Blues. I don't see a fundamental distinction between beating up a fan in a parking lot because of the color of his cap as flying an airplane into a large office building. It's just a difference in amperage.

There's yet an odd peace in drifting to naive days where I sit in Ebbetts Field, craning my neck for a glimpse of Gil Hodges, that hulking Rock of Gibraltar, who brings Blacks and Whites, Christians and Jews, and all the odd fellows of the borough together where, for a moment, we are the embodiment of the refrain from the mystic Rumi, in which the poet says,

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Persistence


"...after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence...." -- Marcel Proust

Neurobiologists say that we have more than 1,000 different sensors inside our nose, located at eye level, enabling us to identify more than 10,000 distinct odors. Since the cells in the nose are short-lived and frequently replaced, the researchers claim that olfactory codes must be mapped in the brain to enable us to associate the smells with phenomena. Then the brain attaches linguistic information so that we have words for them. The catalog can be extensive. Wine aficionados probably have a broader memory vocabulary than I have for crushed grapes. While the associations seem instantaneous, they have taken a lifetime to form, and we probably inherit genetic memory from ages ago when we had to sort out meat and berries for spoilage.

My favorite earliest memory is of honeysuckle hedges along the walkways of a motel in San Diego. I would set the date around 1963. Whenever I pass a row of honeysuckle today, I am instantly in front of the Mission Valley Inn, and then I wander the broad highway of associations with lobster, which we ate by the harborside, and an evening's walk in the crisp salt air. My first sweetheart wore a lily of the valley perfume and whenever I smell something in that broad palate of odors, I am transported instantly into her arms.

In the spring of 1979 I met Maki Yamada , a woman from Nagoya, Japan. She had arrived in California to study English -- and to learn how to drive a car. Driving school was prohibitively expensive in Japan. After several months we moved in together, taking a small cottage just a block from the beach in Santa Cruz. You could smell eucalyptus trees out the window and hear the morning waves. In those days, my attire of choice was a pair of overalls, a railroad engineer's cap, and bare feet. It was the beach, after all.

Maki adored the cap, which she would swipe from my head, hold to her nose, take a long sniff, and sigh.

"Ee-nyoi," she'd say.

It was as if the cap was a portal to her baby blanket, or some ancient connection to paradise. As often as she did it, I could never see it coming. She'd whip the cap off my head and bury her nose in it.

"Ee-nyoi."

I'd ask her what a smelly old hat had to do with anything and she would just sigh and lift it back to her nose. It had no particular odor I could discern. Perhaps it lay camouflaged in the blank spot of familiarity, just like the smells of our house that only visitors can sense.

Teaching Maki-san to drive was a challenge. We had to overcome linguistic barriers and the illogical machinations of clutch and stick. "Put the clutch in where!" she stammered as the VW lurched and died.

At the end of her stay in America, I took Maki-san to the San Francisco Airport, hoping I'd be invited to join her back in Nagoya when she settled. No such fortune. I was heartbroken and sent her tape recordings of the waves rushing against the sand at the beach. The cap had finally deteriorated and I put what was left of it in a mailbag and sent it, too.

She eventually married a German doctor and raised a family on the coast of Australia. In the photos, the children look hale and inquisitive.

Do you think that associations can morph over time? One of my fondest memories of my extended tour of Japan was the smell of rice fields when farmers burned the husks after harvest. It reminded me of the smell of wild dormitory parties at San Jose State in the early 70s.

Today, whenever I smell a burning campfire, it reminds me of the scent of smoldering paddies, and that, of course, makes me think instantly of Japan, and instantly of Maki Yamada... and then I see my hat as good as new.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Us He Devours


A few months ago I received an email from a former student who had been in my fiction writing class at the University of Illinois. It began, "You may not remember me, for I was an unremarkable writer." When kindness drops into your laptop after years have passed, it's a remarkable gift. I only taught for a few years and probably had no more than 1,2o0 students. Not many. And I left the profession feeling that I was not good enough, that I had not published much, and while I had been a good lecturer, I was something of a fraud. The email wiped the last notion clear, and I cried with gratitude.

At the beginning, up on the hill in Santa Cruz, I studied writing with James B. Hall. He preferred to be called JB. Born in Midland, Ohio, he served in the Africa campaign during WW2. A wry, inventive writer and brilliant scholar, Hall was one of the first to attend the legendary Iowa Writers Workshops in the late 40s, and spoke of his classmate Flannery O'Connor. He authored a half dozen novels, five books of short fiction, a book on craft, and several books of poetry before passing this year in his home in Portland.

He had started the writing programs in Oregon (where he mentored Ken Kesey), at Irvine, and Santa Cruz. He gave Ray Carver a faculty spot for a semester when Carver was struggling with alcohol and beginning to publish his tales of mean suburbia in The New Yorker. Hall liked me from the start, possibly because I was older than most students, returning to school for a second bachelor's in my 30s, or because I had a newspaperman's experience, which had served many fledgling authors. I was insecure among the youngsters, and more insecure trying to speak the rarefied language of literary studies. So, I hid out in JB's office, where he never minded when I showed up or how long I stayed.

Once, when a young freshman came to visit, he nodded for me to remain seated. The visitor told JB she wanted to study writing, that she loved writing. I could see the twinkle in his eye. He asked her about her favorite authors. She told him that she loved James Joyce most of all.

"Can you tell me the opening lines of Portrait of the Artist?" JB asked. She could not. He looked over at me.

I said, "Once upon a time, and a very good time it was..."

Hall smiled. Then waved his hand dismissively. Visit over.

He could be brutal. He uttered outrageously bizarre or unnecessary things. He called my Japanese lover "baby doll". We were riding in his Volvo wagon on a way to a reading once, an open bottle of wine on the seat, when he spun an illegal U-Turn. "Hall's Law," he said.

Once he was in your corner, he was there for keeps. I had never read literature with a discerning eye before and had two years to learn as much as the four-year students. Hall would look over my short stories, pen in hand, and announce: "I can make this bleed anywhere." Or, he might say, "It's good, except for the whole thing."

I found one of his novels in a college office and stole it. It was out of print. When I took it to him for signature, he asked where the hell I had found it. Stupidly I said I discovered it at a local garage sale. He had that look in his eye, but wrote in it: "For Gabby, who has drive, initiative, and that other thing going for him."

At the end, I was to sit for an oral exam with three professors who would grill me on the 20 books of prose, poetry, and drama on my list. The idea was that you'd answer most of the questions. As the hour ended, one of the professors asked me the origin of Faulkner's title for The Sound and the Fury, and I said, "Macbeth, Act Five, Scene Five." With that, it was done.

I was to wait out in the hall while they deliberated, but it wasn't long. When I came in, I saw tears in JB's eyes. He informed me that I had earned high honors.

In February of 1991, I was living in the woods in Washington State. I had been to rehab, was trudging through a rough patch of things, and from the blue came a letter from JB. He had moved to Oregon after retiring from Santa Cruz, for there was better healthcare in Portland to assist his ailing wife. I wrote back, explaining my departure from academe, my struggles, my hopes.

A week later an envelope arrived from JB with money inside.

We wrote occasionally over the ensuing years, but our letters eventually tailed off. My mistake. After receiving the email from my former student, I was searching for JB's address when I came upon his obituary.

I have found that kindness begets kindness--but I had to have my teachers. And I need frequent reminding, for I often default into selfishness. What I know for sure is that my unremarkable writing student grew to become a remarkable woman. And perhaps JB thought the same of me, the lost orphaned lamb redeemed.

Hence, this message out of the blue is for you, JB--even though it bleeds everywhere. I hope you get it.