Friday, January 30, 2009

Give Us This Day

On days my mother wanted bread, rolls, or cakes, she'd put a sign in our front window for the Helms Bakery Truck. It was a blue and white sign printed on cardboard emblazoned with the letter "H" in gold. Each weekday morning, the Helms truck would make its way slowly along Longridge Avenue, stopping at every drive where residents showed the sign in their windows.

The Helms man, in his fresh-pressed white uniform and sporty cap, would toot his horn, hop out, and open the side of the truck revealing tray after tray of freshly baked donuts, glazed and plump in the bright Southern California sunshine, sheets of white or chocolate iced cakes, and loaves of bread still warm from the morning ovens.

On days after mom had placed a specific order--say for rye bread or rolls--the driver would have it ready when we went to the curb. The smell was heavenly. On days I was home from school, I'd wait outside on the lawn for the Helms man. The trucks had no air conditioning and if you we lived near the end of the route toward the end of a hot summer's day, the Helms man would hand out free donuts to neighborhood kids. Was this going on all across America, or just our street?

The Helms bakery was established in 1931 near Culver City with 31 employees and 11 delivery trucks. Before the freeways carved ribbons of poured concrete from the sea to the inland deserts, Helms trucks would drive for hours each day along city streets and over the winding passes of the coastal range to deliver the bread to Angelinos, sometimes extending their routes several hundred miles north to Fresno in the hot San Joaquin Valley, or southward to San Diego and the Mexican border. Even the Apollo astronauts who first landed on the moon packed Helms bread along, crumbs floating like leavened snowflakes in orbit.

To have been a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s was to witness the end of personalized service by hard-working merchants and professionals. My father and mother tell stories of horse-drawn ice trucks of the 1920s and 1930s, clumping along the cobbled New York City streets bringing blocks of relief to hot and woozy residents. We still called our refrigerator an "ice box", and when I use the expression today, people tilt their heads and laugh.

The last vestiges of those days expired with my coming of age. But well into my adolescence, we still had a dairy man, who left bottles of milk and cubes of butter on our doorstep, taking away the empties in a metal carrier that jingled like a glass xylophone. Then one day the glass bottles gave way to plastic jugs. My sister, barely a year old, had her photo taken and put on a carton of milk that the Adohr Farms delivered to our door. She had been named an "Adohrable Baby". Adohr was founded in 1916 by Merritt and Rhoda (spelled backwards, it's Adohr) Adamson on acreage dating from the California days of Spanish land grants and grew for a while to be the world's largest milk producer.

Then, one day, the milkman stopped coming. Whether mom had canceled the route or if the dairy had gone out of the delivery business I don't know. But after that time, we began to visit a drive-through dairy up on Chatsworth. It was spanking clean, with shiny washed driveways, and you pulled your car to the door and picked up buttermilk, margarine, sour cream, and cottage cheese.

I date myself, but those were also the days, in the early 1960s, when you telephoned the doctor when you were sick and he came to your home. I remember him coming after I had my tonsils and adenoids removed when I was eight. I had been looking forward, of course, to the promised, endless bowls of ice cream that were said to soothe the ache. But I couldn't eat any of it, I was so sore. Then the doctor came to the house, gave me an injection with a needle so large it would make most present-day patients faint, and I fell asleep.

Of course, in summers the Good Humor truck would roam the streets every afternoon when school let out. The driver would play the familiar tune through a loudspeaker atop the truck and when you heard it coming, you raced from the street where you had been playing, into the house to beg for money.

The Good Humor man also wore a clean, pressed white uniform and cap, and opened heavy freezer doors at the back of the truck that smoked with cold and held Sidewalk Sundaes and King Cones. Good Humor was founded in 1920 after Ohio candy-maker Harry Burt created the first ice cream on a stick. After he patented the Good Humor Bar, Burt assembled a fleet of twelve chauffeur-driven trucks, all with bells that announced the pending opportunity for a sugar high. Even the company name reflects the ancient medical notion that body "humors" could be adjusted to make a person happy. And I was plenty happy after eating my Sidewalk Sundae, at least for a little while.

You got to know your milkman, your Helms driver, and the local Good Humor man. You gave them small gifts at Christmas. Like a good bartender, the Good Humor man would remember your favorite ice cream and have it ready from the freezer as you ran up with change in your hand.

But those were the days when the world came to you, and even the visitors to your neighborhood had familiar faces and names, were part of the fabric of your life, and promised that comfort and prosperity would flow like human kindness to your door.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Humbug Dharma

It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust! -- The Ghost of Christmas Present.

It may have been the oddest search for man's soul undertaken by a Jewish man in a Northwest mill town. But I was new to the realm of the spirit and was fanning through the arcana of world faiths that year in search for the puzzle piece that settled my doubt. In our Victorian seaport the mill filled the mornings with the sour aroma of soggy paper. I had little work, so spent my days reading spiritual poetry--Rumi, Kabir, Al-Muntafil, Li-Po--and walked along North Beach where the straits fanned out between Whidbey Island and the cloudy crown of the Mt. Baker volcano.

Rumi advised that when parading through the dizzying aisles of the spiritual supermarket it was important to come home with something. So I crossed the peninsula in search of a meal that would fill me, spending hours sweating in lodges of S'klallam elders, bashing drums at the men's wisdom councils in Seattle, sitting the nervous wreck through an Episcopalian Christmas mass as the priest advised that "we were unfit to eat the scraps that fell from His table", squirming in my seat in synagogues where I remembered the pre-gnostic chants but had no sense of what they meant to me. A year passed and I had yet to find my way.

Christmas was coming again and, pudgy with a heavy beard, it appeared I'd renew my role as local Santa, visiting public places and private homes where I'd issue my hearty chuckle as kids sat in my lap. But the holiday loomed as yet another occasion where I'd feel exiled anew from my Christian friends in town. Instead of feeling alienated, a friend advised, why don't you dive in headlong and see if you can have fun with it? So I auditioned for the town players' production of The Christmas Carol and won the part.

It was the perfect role for an over-the-top guy like me. The Ghost of Christmas Present wore his striking velvet robe and garland, spoke with an overwrought West-End accent, and boomed out grim speeches about doom and destiny and karma. I could relate. Plus, he had two spindly children hidden under the robe that, at the perfect opportunity, I'd sweep open to reveal the shuddering denizens of spiritual failure. How sweet was that?

I had taught theater at the university, but all notions of theory had apparently been lost on me the moment the lights caught my eye. Aside from several stand-still roles, I had never really acted. But as we neared opening night, I had waxed fully into the role, skyrocketing beyond the mark at times that made the director wince. But it was all in good fun--community theater, for chrissakes! And the message, that gluttony and pride goeth before the fall, meshed with my recent readings in eastern poetry. That I was embellishing myself more as a symbol of the very deadly sins rather than a herald of their dangers escaped me the moment the curtain rose.

All my friends and well-wishers packed the front rows on opening night as I paced nervously outside the dressing room, running my lines. I looked fantastic in those robes! The words would flow as nectar from my trembling lips. As Scrooge and I took our places behind the curtain, he tapped me on my shoulder and smiled. It will all be fine, he said.

We were to enter center stage in the dark, I would announce my opening lines, and the spotlight would find The Ghost of Christmas Present, dashing glittering dust over the front rows of audience as we proceeded down left. But the spotlight never came on after my opening, and Scrooge grabbed my elbow and steered me across the boards in the dark. I sprinkled glitter that no one could see and spoke in a frightened monotone, sounding more like a weak recording of the play on an old phonograph record than the boisterous ghost I had been for weeks.

We had traversed the stage fully when I completed my speech and the lights came on behind us, brightening on Tiny Tim's crutch where it lay in the fireplace.

"It may be," I said, "that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child." And instantly I was transported to the pew in the Episcopalian church where I was unfit to eat the scraps from God's table. I felt confidence draining from me like so much foul air and finally, went up on my lines, committing the unutterable sin of silence. Scrooge picked up and improvised like a pro as I stumbled along until, at last, I could open my robes to reveal the girl of "Want" and the boy of "Ignorance" clinging to my legs. It was over.

Afterward, Scrooge joked backstage. It was all good fun. He was a true saint in humbug's clothing. And my friends said I had been fabulous. I was sure they were snowing me. The stage was not for me, nor was Christmas. Let those better equipped to handle it revel in the hour!

It would take another decade before I found my calling in Buddhism and the truth that my friends had loved me, had indeed witnessed a stellar performance--just not the one I had planned for them. To believe that I am powerful enough to control the unfurling of days and nights is to create my own misery. That ignorance and want are my demons. That nothing needs to happen. That between the indelible past and unwritten future there is infinite grace where I am fully fit for all the crumbs--and for the banquet, too--so long as I take loving kindness down from the shelf, tote it home, and wear the world as a loose garment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Winter Soldier

Oh Camil, tell me how do you feel? You fought for your country, for God and for war, now your heart tells you that can't be real. So you tell me your story from beginning to end, all the blood and the guts and the gore. Will you tell all the people 'bout the people you killed, not for God, but for country and war? -- Graham Nash, Oh, Camil (The Winter Soldier)

I met the overwhelming force of unveiled truth that is Scott Camil while volunteering on the Congressional campaign for David Harris in the mid-1970s. Harris had served hard time in a Texas penitentiary for refusing induction to go to Vietnam. Now he was running against a Republican in liberal's clothing in Palo Alto, and Harris (former husband to Joan Baez) called in the leaders of the more potent anti-war movement groups of the previous decade to work the streets.

Camil was a tall, muscular man in his thirties with a black pony tail and beard who had been twice wounded in Vietnam and once shot in the back by a federal DEA agent who left him bleeding to death in a Gainesville street just a year before I met him. The agent, working through Camil's girlfriend, grabbed Scott from behind as they were driving along, and the shot from the .380 Llama pistol blew Camil from the car with such force that his tennis shoes remained in the vehicle. The bullet damaged his kidneys, lungs, and liver. In the months before I met him, he had been acquitted by a Florida courts (which made no attempt to prosecute the agent for attempted murder), and had healed sufficiently to come work for Harris in the Bay Area.

Harris' staff put Camil and I together to canvas tough black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the otherwise shi-shi Palo Alto, and we drove in the van Scott brought from Florida, handing out leaflets and campaign walking papers. We ran errands for Harris, working late into the night sometimes buoyed by stimulants, sometimes accompanied by Scott's dog K-Bar, named after the Marine Corps killing knife he used in Vietnam. We both had been born in Brooklyn of Jewish ancestry, shared political views, but I had none of Scott's nightmares.

You didn't trade idle chit-chat with Scott. Having survived death times over, and living with PTSD and fully justifiable paranoia of authorities, Camil talked straight and blunt, and had utter disgust of political bullshit.

Justifiable. During two tours of duty in Vietnam, Sergeant Camil was awarded two Purple Hearts, nominated for a Bronze Star, earned the Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and was considered an ideal soldier. "I made the decision that I was going to kill every Vietnamese that I came in contact with," he said. "That way, even if I killed a hundred innocent, good Vietnamese, and got one guilty one, it would be worth it."

There were atrocities that would haunt him on homecoming. He still had two years' of duty, so he became a lecturer for the corps, but his honest recollections troubled college students and he was assigned elsewhere. He went back to college himself after honorable discharge and once he heard Jane Fonda speak on campus, he took to heart her words that the government wasn't telling the truth about the war, so it was up to the veterans. He began protesting, spending time in jail, where professors brought assignments to his cell.

A founder of the infamous Gainesville Eight, Camil was arrested for plans to disrupt the 1972 Republican Convention by staging Vietnam-style guerrilla raids on Miami neighborhoods, power stations, and area shops to show what the war was like for people at home. He reportedly was part of a radical arm of the Vietnam Vets against the war that planned assassination squads to take-out pro-war Senators in their offices on Capital Hill. "I was serious," Camil later said. "I felt that I spent two years killing women and children in their own fucking homes. These are the guys that fucking made the policy, and these were the guys that were responsible for it, and these were the guys that were voting to continue the fucking war when the public was against it. I felt that if we really believed in what we were doing, and if we were willing to put our lives on the line for the country over there, we should be willing to put our lives on the line for the country over here."

FBI records show they considered Camil a "dangerous and most volatile person," and teletype to the Jacksonville office instructed them "to completely neutralize subject without delay."

But the more time I spent with Scott, the more I understood what it's like to devote yourself blindly to an idea--one which involved slaughtering the innocent--in the name of some abstract notion of moral supremacy, and in watching him, as he ground away on yet another set of false teeth, his unvarying courage to carry misery in a warrior's body while fighting for a just cause. I hadn't gone to his war, yet Scott and I were friends. And he was a powerful ally if you were on the right side.

In 1971, Camil participated in the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit, where Camil got honest about what he saw while in Charlie Company, 1/1, 1st Marine Division. The actual term "Winter Solder" was coined by revolutionary Thomas Paine, referring to troops who served past their enlistments and fought through a long winter to help win the Revolution and build our nation.

At the end of the Harris Campaign--he lost to the Republican--I drove back to Gainesville with Scott. We made it from San Diego to Florida in record time, stopping only for a steak dinner and a dip in a Texas motel pool. Scott drove fast, had a radar detector, a Bearcat police scanner, and a firearm in the glove compartment. At his home in sprawling acreage in the woods outside of town, he answered the front gate at night with a flashlight and a shotgun.

I recently saw a photograph of Scott sitting beside a young soldier who had been wounded in Iraq. They had recently returned from the latest incarnation of the Winter Soldier hearings where the young man had testified. Our troops were killing Iraqi farmers who dared to work their crops at night--at night because that was the only time there was sufficient electricity in the country to power irrigation and other implements and, in so doing, became violators of the curfew. Many were shot dead with shovels in their hands.

Gray now, but still sporting his trademark pony tail, Scott looked damn good. Both men were smiling. Both warriors. Winter soldiers. Brothers all.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gonzo Instructs

Jane Fonda walked to where I stood in the aisle of the Liberal Caucus room and put her hand on my arm. For a moment, I thought it was a kind gesture.

"Miss Fonda," I said, reaching for the notebook in my jeans pocket, "Do you have a second?"

"No," she snapped and used my elbow as a fulcrum for shoving past me.

At that moment it was clear that I was a nobody. We had driven five days across country, Proton and I, doing our best to stay loaded all the way. We were intent on mirroring our Gonzo journalist idol Hunter S. Thompson. No matter that we had gone to see Thompson at Stanford and the guy was too drunk to speak. He wobbled at the microphone, uttered a barrage of profanity in a garbled rant, and left early. Nonetheless, Proton (a fellow newshound from the East Bay daily where I worked) and I packed our clothes, an assortment of illegal drugs, and a road atlas into his Volkswagen van, and drove to New York City where we had press passes to cover the 1976 Democratic Convention.

Now, spun out in the aisle of the Liberal Caucus room, I watched the aft end of Ted Turner's future bride disappear into the crowd and fell, crestfallen, into my seat. I wasn't much of a newshound anyway and the week of mindless driving had left me a dumb spectator. Proton had raced off after Candace Bergen, a strikingly beautiful actress who, cameras draped around her neck, was working the convention as a photojournalist.

I sat in my seat, listened to Rep. John Conyers review platform planks that in no way would ever be supported by Jimmy Carter. After the Nixon horror-show and brain numbing Ford years, you'd think the country was ready to try liberalism again, but the way the caucus was headed, it was clear that Reaganism was a suggestion away from reality. The liberals would have to accept a plate of leftovers here in New York, a reality that rinsed away whatever ambitions I had left to write anything of my experience.

I found Proton and we left to tour the streets of Manhattan. We went along the central post office, past buildings with lion statues and colonnades draped with patriotic bunting. We passed the throngs of protesters and lobbyists--signs proclaiming everything from legalizing prostitution to tirades against abortion--and made our way to Times Square. I had thought the convention floor a zoo, but walking the New York streets was more entertaining.

We came upon a movie theatre showing a crime drama. In those days there were no video trailers, so it was enticing to see a scene from the film played out on an outdoor screen. In the clip, a man had his victim pinned against a wall and was running the bit from a power drill in and out of his thigh. A closeup showed the bit corkscrewing into the man's bleeding leg.

"No big deal," said a passerby in a thick Brooklyn accent. "You see that stuff all the time."

Later in the afternoon we returned to the convention floor, sated with pizza and pretzels dipped in mustard that we rounded up from sidewalk peddlers. Reporters crowded around Senator Kennedy, who held forth, ruddy as a beet, at a corner of the hall. At the platform a speaker from Florida rambled along in tinny monotone about objections to the welfare plank.

That night in our motel room, Proton and I divvied up the four-way hit of paper acid that we had ferried out from the Bay Area. In the morning, Carter would announce his running mate, which everyone expected would be Walter Mondale, so there was nothing to miss. We would have breakfast, then gobble the acid and walk the convention floor for a while. I had already bought a ticket on the afternoon Metroliner to Washington, so I wasn't staying anyhow. I planned to take the high-speed train to D.C., where I'd stay with a member of Rep. Don Edwards' staff. Edwards was a powerful liberal--had led the Judiciary Committee's call for Nixon's impeachment. Edwards had an office in part of the Bay Area that I covered, and I had come to know his staff. In fact, I had come to really know two of his secretaries, which fully demonstrated my commitment to narcissism.

After breakfast, Proton and I loaded up the ponies of transcendence and went our separate ways. I would be flying home to the Bay Area while he would drive the VW to his family in Kentucky. I must admit, I never really liked LSD. The first hour of giddiness very much appealed to me, but the subsequent hours of melting at the whim of a drug I couldn't control scared me to death. I typically spent most of the time wishing it was over. But we had agreed to do Gonzo journalism and I wouldn't wimp out.

And during the hour of giddiness I found myself in front of the bank of microphones when Carter dragged Mondale on-stage. Mondale's face waxed and waned in acidic throbs. Mondale had a lion's head, huge and shaggy. My body rang like a struck temple bell. The blare of spotlights and the sudden bursts from motorized cameras made me dizzy. I had to go.

After a few hours wandering with dubious judgment through Times Square, I found my way to Grand Central and found my seat on the Metroliner. I had done well to book a plush chair by a picture window. Waiters came up and down the aisles with cocktails and snacks. And I raced along between New York and Washington at a furious clip, the countryside streaming out the window like a painting in rain. In fact, it had begun to rain. And when we pulled into D.C. there was a furious summer thunderstorm, lightening forking down atop the Capitol Building and all across the Mall.

I found the phone number to Edwards' staffer at the Rayburn Building and called from the station. Sadly, the staffer wasn't there. The Congressman himself answered the phone. I was dumbstruck. He was delighted to speak with me. He wanted to know the latest scoop from the Convention. I could feel another door of great opportunity closing on me, slammed shut by my own idiocy.

I told him I would come see him in the morning, that I couldn't talk now as I was under the weather, which was amazingly true on many counts. The storm crashed down around me and after I hung up, I took a cab to the staffer's home in the Virginia suburbs.

What had seemed so glamorous in Thompson looked shabby on me. Of course I would not go see the Congressman in the morning. I had nothing to report, save to say that in the name of God I would never try acid again. Even so, I still had plenty to experience in a long career of self-sabotage. It was July 1976, the nation's birthday.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Peace Is Hiding

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life. -- Gerald Stern

TD went to a different high school than I had, but was a dear friend through music. He was a tuba player and we'd spend hours at each others homes, playing 33 1/3 recordings of the symphonies we loved. I had my Russian phase, and we'd darken the room, put on Shostakovitch or Tchaikovsky and imagine the Tartar hoards blazing across the steppes. While our friends were tripping out to Cream's Disraeli Gears, TD and I would light incense, lie on our backs in the dark, and imagine the fat worlds created by Gustav Holst or the bubbling streams that ran through Elgar's lush England.

We ran with a crowd of devoted musicians and lived for the most over-the-top symphonies. Louder was always better. And while we loved rock n roll, too, we spent more time discussing The Merry Wives of Windsor--or even the advantages of Hurst shifters in your Chevy--than we did the British Invasion.

TD would catch fire over a hobby, then quickly lose interest in it. Once he bought a 16mm movie camera. We went to the desert and made student films. Then, one day, I found the camera on my doorstep in a cardboard box. It had been completely disassembled down to turn screws and springs.

After high school, TD and I took divergent paths. Frankly, he startled all of us by enlisting in the Army and shipping out to signal corps training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I thought we were all in total agreement that the Vietnam War was illegal, immoral, and unnecessary, and that it was plain stupid to let yourself get drafted if you could get a student deferment. My friends were deferred, I was spared service because of a heart ailment, but TD followed the stern advice of his father, who believed the military would teach him proper discipline. His father said he needed straightening out.

TD shipped out and I moved into the only co-educational dorm at college, a three-story hall on campus so filled with pot that you got high just walking through the halls. It took a while before I joined in earnest, but when I joined, it was most certainly in earnest. And while I became drum major of the marching band, my interests had shifted to protest marches and rock 'n roll. I jammed on sax and flute with the dorm band and we covered anti-war songs: "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."

TD's first letter from Fort Gordon arrived in my dorm mailbox in mid-year. It was a thick letter, stuffed into an envelope with a dove painted on the back flap with the notation: peace is hiding inside envelopes, let it out!

In sum, TD was completing training, preparing for an overseas assignment. He would not say exactly what signal school had taught him, and he was worried about shipping to the war. He asked questions about college life, what we were listening to in college, whether I had discovered pot, if I had joined the peace movement. Strange stuff, I thought, for a soldier to ponder. But that year, as we exchanged letters at least every two weeks, I realized I had become part of his lifeline.

The letters always bulged in their envelopes. He had studied photography and sent pictures of the Georgia countryside, inventive landscapes and experimental exposures. There were no self-portraits in uniform and anything in the letter to suggest TD was in the Army.

Then, early in the year, the first letter arrived from Garmisch, from a military base in Bavaria. The back flap had several doves and the words: Let It Out. He had been spared! The letter was thick with descriptions of German beer, photos of the rolling hillsides and woods, and descriptions of off-base food, how amazingly fast you could drive on the Autobahn. I couldn't tell what he was doing there, officially, or how he really felt about the Army.

I wrote about the marches up Highway 101, the demonstrations at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco with Joan Baez and Stephen Stills, the heady mead wine we squirted from bota bags as we walked along the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, the mounted police with long billy clubs and how it felt to have one poked into your back. There was nothing remarkable about what I was doing; it was what everyone did, wasn't it? Mid-week I was a college drum major in a uniform with bright buttons, and on weekends I smoked weed and wore blue overalls without a shirt and marched in protest.

By my senior year, there was something disturbing in TD's missives, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. His prose had gotten truncated, bitter, and stayed off topic. One envelope had a wad of hashish in it. Another came later that said he had been in a horrible off-base accident, that he had rolled a jeep off the road. His lip had been damaged and he might never play brass instruments again. There were no pictures inside, nor any tangible peace to let out. Our letters trailed off, then stopped entirely.

A few years later I heard from friends that TD had come home. In fact, he was moving to Davis with another friend, to live in the town where I was working as a journalist. We gathered together and got mightily high and listened to Pink Floyd. We especially loved Atom Heart Mother, which was a rock symphony done in atonal measures with brass, strings, synthesizers, and raging guitars. TD never spoke about the military. If I had felt guilty for not writing at his darkest hour, the pot took it all away, and he seemed to harbor no resentment. After a while, though, the blush had worn off. I had a reason to be in Davis, and they did not, and soon they went back to the San Fernando Valley.

Not long after that, I received a call that TD was in a bad way and I flew down for a visit. He was hearing things, saying things that did not make sense, and was flying off the hook at apparently the slightest remark, my friends reported. I could see it for myself, buy we seemed to be of little help. One of the fellows called county mental health and we got an appointment to bring him in. At first, TD got in the car, seeming happy to be getting help, and he walked into the interview as we took seats in the waiting area.

When he emerged, followed by the worker, he was all smiles. "There's nothing at all to be concerned about," the worker said. "There's no reason for him to be here."

I felt shaken to the core. But we walked with TD back to the car where he instantly turned on us as a stranger, threatened to get even with us, to teach us a lesson. We spun him around, marched back into the facility and reported his remarks to the intake worker who immediately found him a room. The last time I saw TD I brought him a paper grocery bag filled with his clothes. I had gone to his house and his mother would say nothing to me.

I flew home to my journalism job, still unsettled that we had done the right thing. And later, after Tim had gotten out, moved far away somewhere, we all lost track of him.

For the longest time I felt guilty for not going to Vietnam. But I also have befriended men who had gone, who told me I was lucky to have missed it, and that there was no sin in a medical excuse. To this day, Steve cannot sit in a public place unless he has a view of the door. In Vietnam he buried civilians alive. More recently, William came home from Afghanistan over a year ago and cannot keep from getting drunk and putting his fist through walls.

I don't know what you needed to get straightened out in Germany, TD, but wherever you are today, wherever it may be hiding, no matter how many pieces have come apart into so many boxes, I hope you've found a way to let peace out again.

Friday, January 23, 2009


The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. -- Hemingway

Though he has fallen into so much disfavor over the last 50 years, Ernest Hemingway remains the most accessible and immediately emotional author of contemporary American prose. Most of us who wander sideways into literature from journalism identify with his lean and muscular style, although our university professors hammer home his brutal sexism and defiance of more textured literary conventions. When I taught at the University of Illinois, I loved to use his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, as a brilliant example of how setting amplifies character. The protagonists share an oblique argument over abortion. For the man, anyway, it's an idea. A baby would crimp his style. For the woman, it's real and she has heard enough. They wait on a station platform, railroad tracks moving off in opposite directions. In the end, he believes he convinces her, but what he has done is kill off any remaining love she may have had for him.

In his time, Hemingway's language introduced a wide American audience to the experience of literature. There is little doubt that Hemingway became a caricature in the end, crippled from successive concussions and alcoholic depression. His suicide is deconstructed as a death wish, but anyone who feels his prose -- the rhythms of Bach beneath repetitions of sentence structures, the vivid Cezanne brush strokes in Hemingway's landscapes -- understands that he had a thirst for life. His prose ignites the Now-ness of things.

While in graduate school, I wrote about Hemingway's homage to painting and classical music. and my professor sent the paper to the New York office of the International Hemingway Society. I was invited to present the paper to the society's annual meeting in Lignano Sabbiadoro--a small beachfront resort near Venice.

I landed in Milan and took a four-hour train to the sea, speaking my poor Spanish with fellow riders, sampling Italian cheese and bread, and chocolate laced with liquor. I reached Lignano at dusk. The following morning, the convention met in a conference hall shaped like a conch shell at the end of a pier that stretched out into the Mediterranean. To each side of the pier women from northern Europe sunned topless on the strand while Italian men scurried about indelicately with cameras. In the afternoon, racing boats raised their dazzling sails against the sky.

On the afternoon I was scheduled to appear, I was terrified. I was the only graduate student selected to read a paper. All around were full professors and authors who had written critical books and biographies on Hemingway. I was certain I was a fraud. Local dignitaries filled the tables, sipping regional wines and working through plates of cold cuts and melon, city elders who wore their suit coats draped over their shoulders and pinky rings that caught the overhead lights.

I worked through the paper without much flair, but in a steady voice, looking my public in the eye. And when I was done, there was great applause and two professors I had met at my hotel spirited me off for cocktails.

We were seated at a seaside cafe in the blush of sunset, aperitif saucers piled neatly in the center of the table, and I praised the mighty gods for carrying me across the prickly seas of academe. My two table-mates, Roger and Mary Grace taught at Canisius College. Roger suggested that I consider pursuing my PhD immediately. I was beaming.

The night settled down about us and the lights came on the masts of idle boats in the harbor. We had finished the antipasto and settled on our dinner order when two critics marched up under the arc of the table lights.

"You know," one of them said rather drunkenly, "everything you talked about has already been done."

The other pointed his finger at my chest. "Been done," he said. Several critics at the conference who had written books on the subject, he said.

I looked down at the plate of olive pits. Mary Grace put her hand on mine.

Just as suddenly, the critics turned and walked arm-in-arm into the night. If there was more to say on the subject, neither I nor my dinner companions choose to bring it up.

We had four more days in Italy, traveling to Harry's Bar, where Hemingway had held forth with peach bellinis, toured the countryside in WW1 trucks courtesy of the Italian army, and I shared laughter with one of Hemingway's granddaughters at the villa where Hem had written Across the River and Into the Trees. She had his high forehead and melting smile. And I got to tell her that I loved her grandfather for other than the obvious reasons. That I heard the footfall of his sentences in my ear. That I dipped my hands into his icy rivers and threw water on my face when it felt too damn hot to walk on.

And when I flew back to Alabama, I vowed to shun literary criticism for the rest of my days.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

From Small Things Big Things One Day Come

This is a very short story. After all that's happened I am amazed at days when I am fully alive here on the blue planet. In Buddhism the experience of loving fully without attachment is called metta. The word has so many near misses when translated to English, by turns suggesting unconditional loving kindness, good will, friendship, non-violence, unbridled warmth for others and self.

In even a long life, it can take forever to cultivate metta. I owe my understanding of it to E--, who appeared one night in response to a selfish online ad I placed after months of sober living. Our rules were simple, though I complicated them at every turn. But staying as present as possible was a challenge for two lovers who were addicted to self-erasure.

One night, E-- came by very late, rang the buzzer to my apartment building, and I let her in, then waited in the darkened bedroom, my giddy heart pounding. But she came in my room as a total stranger, dark with brooding. We lay together in bed, separated by thought, and I rummaged my mind for the clue to what I could have possibly done wrong.

Suddenly she bolted from bed and pulled on her clothes. I was disappointed...frightened. But she smiled, kissed my forehead, and said, "Let's try this again."

She went out of the apartment and I could hear the elevator going down to the lobby. Moments later, my phone rang as E-- buzzed me. I heard the elevator rising, my front door opening, and in the darkness of my room my lover came back to me. I felt her hair on my face in the dark and as I opened my eyes, I saw her smiling above me.

We went on through the winter and into spring. Months later, she seemed distracted again. And one night, after we went dancing, she broke into tears and said she could no longer love me.

I was devastated. Pulled angrily to the side of the road. We were miles from the nearest town. I said some angry things. Then a highway patrol car pulled up and the officer came to see why we were stopped.

I put on my stone face, said all was well, and drove E--- home. I followed her into her living room, thanked her for all that she had given me, and drove off. I wish I could say that it was what I wanted, or what my mind was telling me to do, how I could make something awful immediately worse, but I found myself automatically doing something quite against my nature.

When I wrote E--- recently to tell her that I had discovered Buddhism -- a practice she had been following for years -- she was delighted. She told me that the evening we parted her heart had simply been exhausted. She signed her email, "much metta." I think of that some days when I sit and try to quiet my mind. I remember that I can change my trajectory at any time by stepping out, taking the elevator down, then buzzing myself back in.

Not long ago E-- took a research position on the plains of eastern Montana. It's raw and cold there and I know about deep cold. I still had my rabbit-fur hat from my days in the heart of Alaska. I dug it out of a crate in a storage locker and packed it in a shipping box. The chinstrap is broken, the ear-flaps hang loose, and some of the fur is falling out. But I know you are a whiz with a needle and thread.

Stay warm.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sudden Light

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me -- Bruce Springsteen, The Rising.

The road out of the darkest woods can begin with a flicker of sun through a tree parted years ago by lightening. I had sought out my cabin in the isolation of the Olympic Forest with gusto. I was certain that the world and its people were the cause of my woes. And when I left the cold and dark heart of interior Alaska, the woods of Washington State promised the wilderness I had come to love without the brittle temperatures and malingering night.

The circular cabin had fourteen windows and skylights, so that you were part of the woods by day, when pileated woodpeckers hammered their beaks into the cedars, and by night, when heavy footed critters broke through the underbrush in the utter darkness. I learned to split my own wood, taking chunks of pine or madrone from the stack and getting my back into it. In the early dawn, I would climb shivering from the sleeping loft and blow fresh life into the glowing coals of the woodstove.

By day the woods were dark, streaked with shadows in the fall air. I could walk to the bright sun along a forest service road, and found my way to a grove of old growth cedar where I'd wrap my arms about the widest tree and sob. I had no idea if I was sad or grateful, or whether it was about another thing entirely.

The nearest town was 14 miles away, and I drove to its feed store and bought rubber boots, a new splitting maul, and a 50 pound sack of wild bird food. I shoveled out huge scoops of feed and spread it across my front porch. By mid-day, thousands of Oregon juncos hopped on the hardwood planks, fighting mightily over the seed. At dusk, mule deer with whited tails walked through the clearing, sipping water from the pond. Herons flew overhead, tossing huge shadows across the salal.

It was a bucolic setting I had dreamt of most of my life, a place where I would have the quiet to write my novel, the peace from battling academics who disapproved of the authors I chose to use in the classroom, and the stream of unhappy students who thought they could barter for better grades with sexual innuendo or simply an endless barrage of excuses.

I had surely gone to the bottom in Alaska, where the combination of never-ending dark, cold, and a fling with pain pills made my life miserable. I had begun hearing voices. Once, when students in the lounge were muttering my name, I burst in on their table and demanded how they dared to talk poorly about me behind my back. One of them shrugged and said they were chatting about what a lively, interesting man I was and a great teacher of writing.

I thought the voices and dark would drop behind me as I drove the miles to the Haines Ferry and took the ship to Seattle. But weeks into my solitude in the woods, they found me again, and I had no one else to blame.

Every morning I got the fire going, made coffee, and sat down to work on my novel. It was a sustained narrative about a mental health counselor who had never resolved his hatred for his father. When his lover leaves him, the counselor goes on a quest across country to find her and, so doing, discovers great truths about himself. But even though the protagonist was piling on the miles, the novel was going nowhere.

In the afternoons, I drove to town to pick up my mail--more rejection slips, bills, supermarket coupons--then drove out to the Sound where I walked the wind-swept beach in the snap of fall cold. I had no friends here, and seemingly had lost the ability to make new ones. I tried the taverns, where my drinking companions were farmers and loggers, and none shared my views of the world. I drove back to the cabin lonelier than ever.

After a while, I couldn't even sit to write anymore. I made my morning fire, had breakfast, paced for hours--it seemed--then left angrily in search of companions. Back to the taverns, back to the seeming indifference of my peers, back home at dusk with a carload of sadness and self pity.

On Thursdays, I'd drive to the feed store and purchase the local newspaper. I suppose one would get a chuckle out of the small-town charm, the trifling struggles of country life that hardly made a scratch in the world's most dire ills, and the classified ads for quilting bees, salmon fishing derbies, dueling appeals by the churches, and community theater productions of Thornton Wilder. It had no such affect on me. Each waking day seemed to dogpile atop a mountain of anger.

One morning I took a razor to my face, cutting off a beard I had worn for 15 years. I hated what I saw and briefly imagined taking the razor to my throat. The man in the mirror was a complete stranger. And I saw only pain and terror in his watery eyes. I drove out to Discovery Bay and sat on a cliff overlooking a beach strewn with rocks and broken deadfall. The ashen stumps and branches poked between jagged stones and ribbons of kelp. I imagined my own body going over the edge, falling with the sudden knowledge of irrevocable decisions, and shattering on the rocks. The pain of striking the rocks seemed greater than the pain I was hoping to quash. Or I was just too afraid, and I drove home with a sense of great failure.

I had begun to sleep in, tucking deep in my sleeping bag, too lazy to get up and light the fire. It was only when I saw that the juncos had run out of seed that I rose, pulled on a coat, and went out to empty a fresh sack on the porch. Oh well, I was up. I made coffee and drove into town for a paper.

As I sat in the tavern that afternoon, I read a classified that caught my eye. There was just a headline and address. It said: "Men's 12-step Writing Group, Thursday 7 pm, St. Paul's Episcopalian Church, 1020 Jefferson St."

Other writers! Companionship. Writerly support. Decent conversation. I could dazzle them with my well-hewn sentences and snappy dialogue. I had no idea what they meant by their title, but I assumed that they had discovered the 12 steps in creating fiction that the masses would buy. I showered and shaved and tucked a notebook under my arm and set off for town.

St. Paul's Church stands on a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet and the Puget Sound. The water wraps around the town on its way from the Cascade peaks to the Pacific ocean. Across the bay you can see a string of islands and, beyond them, the snow-capped peaks and the Mount Baker volcano. The path to my meeting led from the sidewalk along a hedge of Rhododendrons, through a well-tended rose garden, and to the door to the basement.

When I entered the room--appropriately late to make my entrance--I saw a dozen middle-aged men seated at a conference table. Several looked up, but they went back to their studies, gazing at a coffee-table-sized book as one of them read aloud. I took an empty seat and listened.

I had no idea what in blazes they were talking about, but the language was baroque, strange, and held no terms I would ever describe as literary. They read a series of questions about a higher power, how they viewed this power, and what they did on a daily basis to connect with it. I was baffled and crestfallen.

During the break, the men introduced themselves--John, Jerry, Pete, another John, Curt--and asked my why I was there. When I said I had expected a writer's group, they laughed and I was more uncomfortable than ever. But, oddly enough, they were friendly, had an uncanny twinkle in their eye, made me welcome, and I decided odd company was better than no company at all.

They had an extra workbook and I bought it at the end of the meeting. Reading it at home, I discovered that I had stumbled into some kind of support group. They were drug addicts, or drunks, or had other kinds of trouble. And yet, I was oddly attracted to their company.

I went the second week, too. John took my phone number and called me to see how I was doing. It was the first personal phone call I had received in my cabin. John said he had a counselor for me. I had done counseling. I doubted I could be helped in any way. No counselor had truly understood what I felt; hell, I had no idea what I felt. In Alabama, after I had broken some furniture and terrified my partner, I went to the community counseling center where the counselor told me I needed to develop outside interests, you know, go fishing some?

But John had a good counselor, he said. And now I added a counseling appointment to my weekly meeing with the bizarre-writing society in St. Paul's basement. At my first session, Judy asked me why I thought I needed counseling. I told her what I knew. I reviewed my well-grooved stories and family histories, after which she pronounced me an alcoholic and that she would not work with me until I had been sober a year. She recommended that I visit the community counseling center to get a professional evaluation.

Once more, a woman had rejected me. I was sure about that as I drove home in rage. But I found myself oddly complaint with advice and drove to the counseling center for my appointment. The counselor handed me a questionnaire, which I answered to the best of my ability. Then we talked for a while. I was certain that I had narrowly evaded an addiction to pain pills in Alaska, that I had a long-time love affair with pot, but that I never drank so much that alcohol was a problem.

The counselor had a different idea. She told me there was a bed at a treatment center in central Washington, that the state would foot the bill if I willing to drive over there tomorrow. "You need to say yes when you're willing," she said, "because this moment may never come again." Surely, this was a dire measure. But my mouth--quite unattached to my mind--said yes and I drove back to my cabin in the woods thinking that some small piece had fallen in place and that I might not have to kill myself.

The next morning I got up without lighting a fire and packed my car. I put two volumes of poetry on the seat and a suitcase of clothes and toiletries, then went back to lock the cabin. I emptied the entire bag of feed on the porch. If the seed ran out before I had completed my 28 days, the juncos would have to go it alone.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Above the Chena

You would need one of the many Athabaskan words for winter to adequately describe the depth of cold. Perhaps the word "heyii" will do. Some days, the thermometer outside my bedroom window barely climbed above 68 below. At noon, the weak sun threw beams above the Chena River and dashed the skies with the color of roses, but not high enough so you could see its yellow disc. The frozen river was filled with the color of blood and the trees, clad with ice for months now, took in all the available light and glimmered like glass. Then, an hour later, it was pitch black again.

I was living in a three-story log house built by a Scottish surgeon at the top of Puffin Place, just beyond Farmer's Loop Road. In the summer, you could play golf on the carpeted excuse for a course that wrapped around the birch tree forest. But this was winter, and the course presented long fairways of crusted snow where an occasional raven, fat and jet black, sat alone gazing into the fading light.

The doctor had taken the winter off. He flew away to the warm veldt of central Africa, leaving me to care for the house, to keep the furnace fueled and lit, the circular driveway plowed, and to feed the tanks of tropical fish and the doctor's golden retriever. Even the heated garage was freezing cold. Once I dropped a bottle of distilled water on the concrete floor and it shattered. By the time I returned with a mop, the water had formed a sheet of ice.

You could feel the moisture in your eyes begin to freeze the moment you walked outside, and your sinuses would crackle. You left your car running when you stopped anywhere for fear it might not fire up when you returned. Or, you plugged the car into an electrical outlet to heat your oil and radiator while you were gone. You packed your trunk with extra clothing and a sleeping bag to keep you warm in a breakdown. It was illegal to drive by a motorist stranded by the side of the road.

Steam rose out of the Fairbanks heating plant, but refused to rise into the frozen sky. It hovered like a white anvil just hundreds of feet over town. And you pasted plastic sheets into your car windows to form a layer of air between the inside of the car and the frozen glass. It was like peering out a porthole of a submarine into a foggy sea when you drove.

On days when the temperatures climbed into the minus 30s, I bundled up and took Goldie for a walk. He loved the snow and scurried around the darkened yard of mid-day after crows. You even left your garbage bags piled in the open yard. In minutes anything you left inside them would freeze, rather than rot, and had little allure for passing moose or arctic fox.

That winter we would drive up Goldstream Road far enough out of town to see the aurora without the haze of city light. We'd sit in the idling car, rubbing our hands in the blast from the heater, fortifying ourselves with Russian vodka, then risking five minutes outside to watch the curtains of blue and pink light that stretched across the entire sky from horizon to horizon. When you stood beneath the corona, the descending light seemed to originate directly overhead, with veils of particles streaming down around you as millions of glowing starflakes. Four of five minutes, then you'd hurry back into the car to defrost your eyebrows.

Some days I would take Goldie with me as I skated up the dogsled trail in my cross-country skiis. Even with layers of polypro and down, it was cold. Once, in 20 below temperatures on a clear, dark day, I had overestimated my stamina and on the way back, barely a mile from home, I was exhausted. It took another hour to get back, taking a step, then resting, then rubbing my mittens up and down my legs to get the feeling back into them, then taking another stride.

Some days were just plain stupefying and I sat in the dark vastness of the heated house listening to the bubbling aquarium, gazing out the plate glass window at the endless whited trunks of birch trees where they faded into the forest.

In the early spring, the sun crept back above the horizon like a lost friend and hovered as hope for longer days. One morning it actually occurred to me that I had survived the winter, and I fell to my knees in the snow and wept.

But the doctor had been gone much too long, and I had discovered the black medical bags he had stashed throughout the upper floors of the house, the bottles and bottles and bottles of pain pills he had prescribed in his own name, a sufficient number of bottles that you would hardly notice if a few were missing. And in the springtime, I was missing too, and it would take more than the re-emergence of a tired sun to help me feel warm again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I recently received a very kind letter from my Aunt Naomi. She had been divorced from my Uncle Mort when I was in my early teens and I had not had any communication with her since. In her note, he remarked that she heard that I had become a writer, that I had always been a writer and had wanted to be one when she and my uncle gave me a thesaurus when I graduated junior high school.

At Porter Junior High we celebrated career dress-up day once a year. You'd come to school wearing the clothes that best reflected your highest aspirations. Mine had been to become Edward R. Murrow. I found a fedora, wrote the word "press" on a small index card, and wedged it into the hatband. I imagined myself trooping up the steps to the CBS studios on Manhattan, notepad in-hand, hurrying to beat the competition with my latest scoop.

By the end of my first year of college, I had already amassed a considerable portfolio of stories, culled from interviews with Katharine Ross, Ray Bradbury, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I had a press pass that let me into the great venues of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl, the Cinerama Theatre (where I attended the opening of the film Woodstock), the Pantages, the Greek Theatre, the Ice House in Pasadena (where I'd brush elbows with emerging bands and comics), and the Shrine Auditorium. I had been to the opening of Hair, a concert of little-known Loggins and Messina, and covered anti-war marches along the Sunset Strip. By my senior year, I had transferred to San Jose State, where I amassed clips of anti-war riots, marches for Civil Rights, and the burial of a brand new Ford Pinto to wage an environmental protest. I was ready for great things.

Hardly a week following graduation I took a job with a small-town daily in Davis, a college community just west of Sacramento. We had an afternoon deadline, which meant I drove to work around 5:30 am, wrote six or seven news stories, then drove to Woodland, where a competitor paper was printed in the morning. I'd buy a copy, race back to my newsroom along Route 113, and re-write any stories that we might have missed.

My editor at The Enterprise was young, energetic, and a great mentor. But our publisher believed that the role of the paper was to echo the concerns of business and advertisers, which meant that everything I wrote passed through his heavy filter. He would re-write quotes or facts that cast the slightest aspersions on local businesses and their push for economic growth. Not an unusual role for a paper, but in a town exceptionally devoted to preserving the environment and stemming growth in the mid-1970s, it was the kiss of death. The mayor, Bob Black, had been arrested for laying his body across the railroad tracks in town through which munitions trains carried weapons westward to the Vietnam War. Now he led an effort to stem town expansion and spur the development of open space and parks.

I would cover a meeting where the council voted to stem growth, write the quotes accurately only to have them corrupted by my publisher. After a fashion, it was difficult to get anyone over at city hall to talk to me. But on the morning of September 15, 1975, I finally had my coup.

I drove to Sacramento to witness the arrival of President Gerald Ford at the state capitol. I wore my press pass in my coat pocket and carried a large format camera. Shortly after Ford arrived, I took positions with the press corps, and followed him and his secret service agents across the capitol grounds. Just outside the east entry, we passed a woman dressed in a hooded red robe.

It was Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, former member of the Mansion Family, who muttered something about the country going to pieces, pulled out a .45 Colt pistol and took aim. Two secret servicemen tackled her while the rest formed a wedge and spirited the President into the Capitol. I ran to a telephone and phoned in my story. We were an hour ahead of deadline and it would make the afternoon edition.

But my publisher, unsure of my ability to get facts strait, or with the right slant, decided to hold the story, awaiting confirmation of the assassination attempt by the wire services. He held it beyond deadline, and my account ran a day late.

Seventeen days later, I took my notebook with me to San Francisco. Ford was speaking at the St. Francis Hotel and I hoped to run into Megan Marshack, a college friend who was now covering the White House for AP Radio. As we waited for Ford outside the hotel we watched the secret service prepare Ford's limo. The moment the President emerged, Sarah Jane Moore was barely 40 feet away when she fired at shot at him. She was carrying a .45 automatic, 113 rounds of ammo, but the secret service got to her before she could fire a second shot. Again, my paper held my account until they could get a wire story. I had been an eyewitness to two assassination attempts and lost two scoops.

The summer of '76 I went to the Ford White House, courtesy of a press pass from Megan. As I sat in the press office, I saw a bunch of hard-drinking, bloated correspondents who awaited for "official" documents to come from the Press Secretary before heading to their typewriters and telephones. At that moment I knew that even at the apex of my career, I would be a fetch-it scribe for the interests of people in power.

It soured me. And four months later I walked into my office at my new daily paper in the Bay Area and pasted up a huge poster of Nelson Rockefeller. Under the portrait was a refrain from Daniel Webster about preserving the health of the union by breaking up large, corrupt interest groups. My editor, pissed, took it down. There was a clear rectangle now on a wall, a spot surrounded by bumper stickers, posters, press releases, and sports photos.

In the place where the poster had been, I pasted my resignation letter.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Hearts of Soul

“If you ain’t got no money, ain’t nobody calls you honey,” Bo Diddley.

Granada Hills High School still stands at the north end of Zelzah Avenue, the same street where the first oil well in the San Fernando Valley was drilled in 1916. Granada Hills had been home to the Sunshine Ranch, where farmers tended well-manicured orange groves and grew apricots, walnuts and beans. In 1959, the same year my family moved to California, that Soviet shoe-thumping demon Nikita Khrushchev visited Granada Hills. He had wanted to go to Disneyland, but U.S. security forces were concerned for his welfare, so they chauffeured him instead to witness suburban splendor on Sophia Drive.

You'd hardly find a whiter place to live. Driving up and down our block on Gaviota Avenue, you'd see tidy lawns, each dotted with an orange tree spared when the orchards were paved for subdivisions. A Japanese-American family lived across the street. But other than the Kotas, every family resembled characters from 1950s situation comedy shows--in other words, bland beings of varying shades of white.

Over on Zelzah, we had two Blacks in our high school class. The boy ran track and the girl was a cheerleader. Among our massively huge graduating class of nearly 1,000, there were many Hispanics, reflecting the bussed-in students from neighboring Latino communities of San Fernando and Sylmar, but just our two Blacks. It would have been insane then--one year following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.-- to even think that America would ever elect a Black President.

Raised in a progressive Jewish family--my mother loved Sammy Davis, Eartha Kitt, and Jackie Robinson--I had great love for Black players on the Dodgers and Rams, and loved Elgin Baylor. But we were frightened of "Negros"--or as my father called them in unbridled Yiddish racism, "shvartzers". During the Watts Riots in the mid-60s, ash from the burning Los Angeles neighborhoods wafted over the hills and dropped like heavy snowflakes on our lawn. It snowed hatred for weeks. My parents locked the doors at night and worried that the burning would come to Granada Hills.

I had a sense of excitement for it, hoping something grim or powerful might explode into the vanilla calm of my staid adolescence. In my senior year, I took serious action: I joined Rinn and the Hearts of Soul.

Rinn wasn't very Black at all. In fact, she was Armenian. With her kinky Afro cut and wide nose, she may have passed for Black if you closed your eyes when she sang. Her two brothers played guitar and drums. But if they wanted to complete their soul band, they needed brass. So they recruited me to play tenor sax and heavily nordic Bruce Classpill to blow trumpet.

At first, we sounded like disparate parts of a rusted farm implement. But Rinn could belt out the standards. What we needed was rehearsing--and rehearsal space. Rinn said she'd look into it, and we were stoked when she picked us up at the high school band room and drove us to a house off of Chatsworth Street. It was a swell house for the neighborhood, on a large lot, with a cast-iron gate where we entered the yard. Rinn led us to a small studio that stood just beyond a wide, glistening swimming pool.

I was amazed to find myself inside a recording studio with sound-baffles in the walls and ceiling, an array of tape-to-tape equipment, microphones, mixing boards, and a genuine wonderland of guitars, saxophones, drum kits, and amplifiers. Rinn said we had the run of the place, but we had to take loving care of the instruments.

We'd work for hours on our set list: Knock on Wood, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Tracks of My Tears, My Guy, Chain Gang, In the Midnight Hour. Rinn had worked out choreography, too, so when we were playing, Bruce and I would kick our legs in a Slauson rhythm or Mashed Potato, raise our horns, and end with a two-step shuffle. We were Black as ignorant whites could be.

There was a baritone sax in the studio and I found a way to work it into the repertoire, especially during Do You Love Me and Come See About Me. The bari took all the wind you had, and when you played the low notes, your entire body vibrated with the pitch. You were part of the instrument.

When we broke, we usually went out through the iron gate, but once we went through the house, having been invited inside for lemonade. The owner was a tall, strikingly handsome Black man with gigantic hands that wrapped all the way around when he shook mine. His name was Bo Diddley.

I had no idea he lived in the Valley. In fact, he kept the house for two more years before moving to Florida, where he passed away in June 2008.

Sadly, Rinn and the Hearts of Soul never performed a live gig. We played to friends at Bo Diddley's backyard studio, but eventually fell apart.

During that senior year, our student newspaper was invited to interview members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers. But no campus organization would host them, and the principal forbade a visit on school grounds. I'm not sure I asked their permission before volunteering my home, but my parents were great sports about it, and one evening toward the end of the semester, four Panthers drove out from Watts and held forth in our living room before a group of students and teachers.

I can't remember the details, but one of the Panthers said something that terrified my parents. My father left the room and disappeared into the den. He later said I shouldn't "try a stunt" like that again. My mother said something about their suggestion that my parents give them our television and jewelry, but I wonder.

During my first semester at college in San Jose, I was asked by the Spartan Daily to cover a meeting of the Panthers on the east side of town. It was held in a small house, packed with Panthers and revolutionaries. The speaker was Angela Davis, and when she spotted me in the crowd--which must have been easy for her--she pointed to two bodyguards and they ushered me outside. They were polite and insistent.

I am certain today that if those misguided men had only known that I had blown bari for Rinn and the Hearts of Soul they would have let me stay.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Myoko Sakatani Saved My Life

It was the summer of 1969. On August 15, thousands of the Woodstock nation gathered at Max Yasgur's farm for the greatest music festival of the modern era. A month earlier, on July 16, the Apollo 11 spacecraft carrying astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins blasted off for the moon. That same day, I had visited a friend's house in Granada Hills. We had graduated high school just weeks before and we opened a few cans of Old English 800. I got drunk for the first time.

I went home to sleep, the world swirling at a nauseating clip around the bed. Around three in the morning I woke to a blistering headache, took some aspirin, and went back to sleep. The following morning, the 17th, I felt woozy, and still nursed a powerful headache. It was lawn-mowing day, and I was in the backyard with the push mower, running even rows across the grass in the hot sun while listening to updates of the Apollo flight on my transistor radio.

That night I went to sleep with an unabated headache and an odd twinge in my left arm. No matter how I turned in bed, it wouldn't go away. And around dawn, I woke to a suffocating chest pain. My mother woke and telephoned the doctor, who recommended in customary fashion that I take some aspirin and go back to sleep.

But I couldn't sleep, and the pain grew worse. My peripheral vision was flagging too, and I felt like I was descending down an ever narrowing crevasse. My mother got me up and into the Rambler, then we drove for the emergency room.

The doctors took one look at me, wheeled me into the coronary care wing, fitted anti-embolism stockings on my legs, and injected my stomach with a blood thinning agent that burned like a wasp sting. I spent the rest of the day in a blackout.

In the morning, the Apollo astronauts had begun orbiting the moon, and I was far from Earth as well. I woke as a cloud, floating on the ceiling of my hospital room, washed in a purple cloud, gazing from what seemed miles away at my inert shape in the coronary care bed, wires and tubes running out of my body to a bank of machines. Considering the brutality of the pain of the previous day, I felt wonderful. Peaceful. Joyous.

But moments later my mother walked in, the doctor behind her. She sat on the bed and wept. The doctor was talking to her. And at once, I felt as if I were tumbling, sucked down into a whirlpool of graying light, spinning deep into darkness.

The next time I woke, I was back in bed, listening to the beep of the heart monitor, gazing at the dull morning light streaming through the window. The Eagle had landed, and Neil Armstrong was taking humankind's first steps into moondust. I didn't know about that. What I knew was that my chest ached, my head spun, and that I felt very alone in a small room where nurses watched through a plate glass window.

One of them was Myoko Sakatani. She spent hours at my side over the following week, talking softly, reassuring me that all would be well. I was surely the only 18 year-old to ever have occupied center stage at the coronary care unit.

Edwin Zalis, head of the UCLA heart team, was brought in to diagnose the trouble. He said I had myocarditis, an infection of the heart lining. Usually fatal. Cause uncertain. I would need plenty of undisturbed rest. I was lucky, he said, to have been an athlete on the high school track team my senior year, running the hills above campus and strengthening my heart.

Myoko came in and out of the care unit in her white uniform. She held my hand. And when I asked to see my girlfriend she said that there were orders that only my immediate family could have access. I asked again, and she shook her head. The days and eves were a long blur of intravenous meals, bedpan interventions, and powerful drugs. There were other patients in the room now. I recall a man dying in the bed adjacent to mine and his monitor alarm ringing with sharp insistence until the nurses turned it off.

A week later, I had been wheeled out of the coronary care unit into the regular population. Even so, Myoko came to visit. And one evening, after everyone had gone and the halls were dark, Myoko opened the door to my room and led my girlfriend over to the bed.

* * *

I had been released at the end of the month. My father collected news magazines of the Apollo triumph and brought them to my bed at home. As I learned to walk again and build strength, I toured the neighborhood, hand-in-hand with my sweetheart. We watched the throngs at Woodstock on the television.

That year America sank further yet into the mire of Vietnam and my draft number had been called for the lottery. I was chosen 19 out of 365, destined for active duty. But Dr. Zalis said I was in no condition to serve; he wrote a letter to the draft board, and I was excused from military duty. I would go to college in the fall to study journalism at the end of the summer of 1969 when Myoko Sakatani saved my life.

Years later I contacted the hospital to try and find her. But the personnel department reported that she had left the hospital and there was no way to track her. Since then, the hospital itself has closed. But I found my own way. When I look at the moon and think of men walking there, I think of my longest summer and say a prayer of thanks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From the Balcony

Elizabeth Anne Bloomer was born in Chicago in 1918, the daughter of a traveling salesman for a rubber company. An Episcopalian tomboy, Ms. Bloomer took a job teaching the fox trot to young girls when she was only 11 years old following the stock market crash. Four years later, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning--an apocryphal occurrence that may have been a suicide. Later she studied dance with Martha Graham, actually appeared at Carnegie Hall, and following a disastrous first marriage and divorce in 1947, she met a veteran pilot and former Michigan football star named Gerald Ford and married the future President in October the following year.

Megan Ruth Marshack was born in Sherman Oaks, California in 1953. She had wanted to be on the boys football team, and kept her aggressive edge long after she completed her two year degree at Valley College and her journalism degree at California State University, Northridge. Tenacious, she took at job with Associated Press radio and worked her way into White House coverage, where she undoubtedly met First Lady Betty. Not long after presenting Vice President Nelson Rockefeller with a individually-wrapped supply of Oreo cookies, Megan came back to her apartment in Chevy Chase with his gift of the elegant sculpture of a Chinese jade horse.

I know, because I was staying there that week. I had been in college with Megan and admired her quick success. She was exceptionally talented, a voluptuous stunner with striking long hair and yummy lips...and the temperament of a bulldog on your cuff. She was brilliant, knew art of the Ancient Near East, and conversed with White House reporters on their own turf, on their own topics, mano a mano. She was great friends with Helen Thomas. And that summer, the summer of the Bicentennial, she had finagled a White House press pass so I could stand the following morning with the media on the White House lawn during the visit by Queen Elizabeth.

The next day, I put on my suit and caught a bus from Chevy Chase to Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. It was a stunning, sunny day with a light morning breeze. You stopped at the security kiosk on the side facing the Executive Office Building and presented your credentials, then walked the circular drive toward the press entry and the south lawn.

The entry to the south portico was roped off and the press corps crowded against the apron. Press Secretary Ron Nessen appeared on the balcony briefly, summarizing the schedule for the visit, then out came the Queen, Ford, and Betty into the brilliant sunshine. The Queen wore a blue suit, white gloves, and matching pillbox hat. As the cameras flashed, the Queen issued her stiff royal wave and plastic smile, then posed between the President and First Lady. Betty had a wide grin plastered to her face as she waved, her body uncomfortably stiff as they stood together.

After the photographers had sufficient opportunity, Ford put his hand at the Queen's elbow and steered her back toward the open door to the White House. The pair ducked inside and for a moment we were stunned. The First Lady, who apparently had no idea she had been abandoned at the rail, continued to wave and smile at the press corps. Reporters began to twitter. After a deadly odd moment passed, Ford reappeared, took his wife by the arm and escorted her off the porch.

Later in the White House press room, a reporter from the Detroit Free Press explained to me that Betty had a bad back, had been on a course of pain pills which, perhaps, accounted for her quirky trance. Later, of course, the nation learned the truth about Betty.

She had long been an anomaly among Republican First Ladies, speaking candidly about CB radios, mood rings, divorce, abortion, and drugs. Her breakthrough candor about her struggle with breast cancer and 1974 mastectomy made her a national heroine. But I am more impressed about her open struggle and victory over drugs and alcohol and her founding of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, not far from where she and President Ford retired and lived up until his death in 2006. Renowned as a treatment center for Hollywood personalities and other wealthy people, Betty's center has flat out saved families, saved lives, and brought peace to countless others.

Here's sufficient irony if you need it: On February 8, 1940, financier John D. Rockefeller hosted a dinner for Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The watershed event helped publicize the organization's new treatment for alcoholism while lending it credibility among New York's highest social circles. Unfortunately, Rockefeller fell ill that evening, so he sent son Nelson to host the event.

As for Megan Marshack, when I finished my Bicentennial Tour I lost touch with her forever. What I do know is that she was hired as a research assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and was the woman who called 911 as he lay dying from a heart attack. Her New York co-op was only two doors down from where the former Vice President was living, and she suddenly disappeared from public view shortly after his death, fueling suspicions in cities where suspicion is king.

It could not be as easy or simple for Megan to have escaped the limelight and achieve the peace that Betty found following that awful day on the balcony. Her name flickered briefly in the news during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. I'd rather associate her bravery, intellect, zest, and panache with the angels of Betty Ford's highest nature. After all, albeit briefly, Megan played tackle football with the big boys.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fifteen Minutes

I had lost my savings, was living in a room at my parent's home in Los Angeles, struggling back to my feet--for who knows how many times already--when my friend Mike gave me a part-time job lugging audio and video gear around to conventions and business conferences. I broke a few windows in nice hotels and restaurants schlepping the heavy video monitors and speakers around tight corners. Mike took it all in stride, but you knew it bothered him to have a guy on his staff that had the dexterity of a moose.

We were working the control room at an entertainment fete honoring Gregory Peck when I asked Mike about the teleprompter. It was a computer screen that mounted directly below a camera lens so the "talent" could stare at the audience and seemingly recite long strings of text without a flinch. The screen was wired to a portable computer into which the operator had uploaded the script. You spun a small wheel to move the text down the screen, timing it with the natural speech patterns of the actor.

Mike didn't have the gear but I introduced myself to the woman running the prompter, and she gave me the number to her agency. I went down to the small studio in Hollywood, tested out at 70 words a minute on the keyboard, and was hired immediately. The owner showed me how to mount the screen beneath the camera, how to run the timing wheel, and adjust the type size since some actors had vision issues. The larger the text on the screen, the faster you would have to spin it to keep pace.

I was hardly trained appropriately when I was sent to Warner Brothers to run the prompter for a weekly sit-com with Norm MacDonald. The actors typically had their own prompter operators for the show--if they used one--but I was there to help with the production of promos or commercials. The camera gear was delicate, and I feared messing up an expensive lens, but the director of photography helped settle me down and, aside from a system crash that required a reboot, it went off famously.

Next, I was sent to run the prompter for a lawn fertilizer commercial starring James Whitmore. Whitmore was a hero from my childhood, had starred in Them!, one of my favorite horror films about giant nuclear ants that attacked Los Angeles. For the fertilizer ad, we set up on the lawn of an elegant mansion overlooking Los Angeles' elite Riverside Country Club. I was scared shitless.

The director brought Whitmore over so he could run through his lines on the prompter and Whitmore, now in his mid-70s, needed extremely large type if he were to read without the aid of his glasses. He was distinguished, smoking away on a fragrant pipe, looking over the top of his glasses at me as I spun the wheel. He was generous and kind, wishing me well in my new job, in the "industry", as everyone called it. I told him how much I loved his work, and how I scared the crap out of my brother those Saturday evenings when we watched the horror movies. It had slipped my mind that he had recently completed an Oscar worthy performance in The Shawshank Redemption as an elderly convict so troubled with the chaos of life on the outside that he hangs himself. Later I would regret commenting on his role as a hunter of giant ants.

It went so swimmingly that the production company put in a good word for me and my boss sent me out again, this time to a lot in Culver City where Arnold Schwarzenegger was completing a role where he fights the Devil incarnate. I was to film a spot he was sending distributors, encouraging them to sell the daylights out of the movie. He arrived on time, puffing away on a cigar, and decided he didn't need me. He would wing his lines. I was astounded at how short he was, despite his muscles, and four years later he would lead a recall effort that ousted California Governor Gray Davis and cost me a job at the capital.

Next, the agency sent me to Maria Conchita Alonso's house in the Hollywood Hills to shoot a promo for a charity. Sweet and elegant, she provided a great counterpoint to Schwarzenegger's pompous indifference to people around him. She had starred with Schwarzenegger in the horrible sci-fi failure Runnning Man. Alonso held a coochie dog on her lap, encouraging the crew to relax between takes, wishing me well as I boxed up the teleprompter and wheeled it carefully out the tiled entry.

For my part in "the industry" I was paid $15 an hour. The teleprompter operators, so far as I was led to believe, were not organized in an entertainment union, and so I would have to find something else to do if I were to climb out of self-inflicted debt. When I hitched my abilities to the emerging dot-com business, I found relief.

But before I quit "the industry", I had a last brush with stardom. I had acted before, as one of the thousand extras in the movie Hello Dolly. My claim was that I appeared as a member of a marching band in the parade sequence with Barbra Streisand. You can see me, age 15, with the huge bass drum in-step next to Dolly Levi. And my moment: during one of the takes, I accidentally whacked Miss Streisand in the ass with a drum mallet and it was tangled in her gown. Director Gene Kelley shouted "cut" from atop his boom, and we went back to our starting positions. Streisand had been brittle to everyone and suddenly, I was a hero among the extras on that hot August day. Even Walter Matthau gave me a wink.

So my second brush, then, came when the teleprompter agency sent me out to run the gear for a lesser-known television show called Crime Strike. The segment was to focus on home invasions, on how to protect yourself from nasty intruders. But the "heavy" had not shown up on set once I had the gear in place and the director, spotting my shaved head, the shoulder tattoos emerging from my tank-top, pressed me into service. No, I would not receive equity rates, but I would be paid for stalking a businessman, following him home in a white Torino, bursting into the house behind him and holding a knife to his throat while his poor wife looked on in terror.

I still run my copy of the video from time to time to impress my friends. I don't tell them what is coming. In the opening moments, the uniformed police adviser to the show comes on camera and discusses how creeps will stalk business owners and follow them home to rob them.

Cut to a low angle. The owner lock his business gets in his family van and heads home. The shot: framed through the window of a nearby white Torino. In the foreground: the hairy hand of the criminal tapping on his dash. Pull back to see: the Torino following the van through the streets of Glendale.

Once home, the business owner opens the front door and, in the street behind, a bearded man with a shaved head and obvious tattoos bursts from his vehicle and races up the driveway. He's really holding a plastic knife but, in the closeup, as he shoves the owner to the floor and presses the blade to his throat, the knife is real metal and flashes under the bright lights. The bearded intruder grits his teeth--he's going to get what's coming to him--and the wife shrieks...

I'm a star.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

After the Galilee

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. ~ James Baldwin

Every morning we would rise in the dark and cold Galilee and walk to the tractor shed for coffee and cookies. We divvied ourselves into work teams, climbed into the kibbutz wagons, and Yossi or Bennie or another leader would hook up the Fordson tractors and drive us up to the banana fields. The sun would toss up a broad announcement of light behind the shadows of the Golan Heights, then burst up suddenly behind a wave of wind that swept across the sea and up the ridges where we bounced along the rutted lanes. Swallows exploded from the trees and sent up volleys of squawks and fluttering wings into the brightening sky. To the south, Mt. Arbel sliced through the morning fog like the ghost-prow of a ship.

At the first crossroads we stopped to wave at Reuven, who stood motionless in his own shadow, his eyes tucked under the wide brim of his blue cotton cap. The first day when we passed, David pointed to Reuven and whispered about the faded cobalt numbers that had been tattooed into his forearm at Auschwitz. His fingertips were stained dark orange from decades of holding cigarettes, his lips drawn into a thin line, a face devoid of palpable emotion. He had lost his wife and children in the camps.

When I inquired if he ever hopped in the wagon to help harvest the bananas for export to Europe, Yossi told me he wanted nothing to do with Europe. And besides, he was too spun out to work anymore. The Hebrew word for it was masugga. It was close to the Yiddish my mother used for the same expression, meshuga. I knew it well.

We merely drove past and let Reuven be, stopping on the way back to drive him to the kibbutz commons for lunch. It was as good as it was likely to ever be for him. And if he was out in the fields contributing to the effort--in his own way--it was honorable of the kibbutz to sustain his life with food, medicine, shelter, and love. But seeing him in that state did little to unravel the decades of hatred I had mustered for the Germans.

Every fall, the Jews of the San Fernando Valley gathered at Devonshire Downs for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thousands of us would huddle in huge halls and tents at the fairgrounds while the Rabbi read the service and the Cantor blew the sacred ram's horn. I hated it because it typically fell on the same dates of the World Series, it took me out of class during those precious get-to-know-you days of the new fall semester in school and, worst of all, you had to fast from sunset to sunset. Everyone had headaches and was miserable with atonement.

During the service, the Rabbi typically moaned about intermarriage, how it was killing off the precious bloodline of the tribes of Israel and, of course, how the Arabs were bound to push all the Israelis into the Mediterranean Sea. This moment, coupled with years of hearing diatribes from family members against Germany, German cars, blond people, the Wagnerian operas I loved to play on the stereo, etc.--added to years of watching documentaries on the Holocaust, piles of shoes, of bones, of eyeglasses, of living skeleton survivors in rags--well, I was sure the enemies of Judaism had us right where they wanted us, all assembled under one roof in the San Fernando Valley where they could turn on the gas.

So naturally, when I left Israel in the spring, when I took a ship across the Mediterranean and later boarded a bus across Europe, I would have nothing to do with Germany. When my fellow riders got off to tour the German cities along the way between Athens and Amsterdam, I stayed aboard, determined that none of my money would fall into German hands. A cavity search in the icy rain at a German border post (because of the terrorist Bader Meinhoff threat--not because there was a Jew on the bus) further set my heart and soul against them.

* * *

It took me many years to concede that I was not born with hatred, that I learned how to loathe others as a way to remain a victim in my own flesh. It was a way to take poison and forever wait for the other man to die.

In retrospect, I cannot accept my breakthrough as coincidence. The melting of the hardened heart may take a lifetime, but the suddenness of how my perspective was altered continues to astonish and remind me to search out where blindness blocks me from grace.

In early 1991 I was diagnosed with severe depression. That in and of itself was no surprise to me, given the suicides in my immediate family, or that I had spent years attempting to treat my full-body gloom with alcohol or drugs. The doctor sentenced me to cognitive therapy and a medication that felt initially like a lousy batch of LSD that some crazed hippie had concocted in his garage. It was humbling to be meshugga. I couldn't stand the counseling, which was cut-rate and run by an amateur at a county medical clinic. One time she asked me to "walk through the fire" with her support in going cold turkey off my medication, and I ended up in the hospital with toxic shock. She was fired and the facility is lucky I was too depressed to sue their hide.

That winter, I wrote a poem by the wood-burning stove in my cabin in the forest near Chimacum:

On the Promenade of the Seasonally Affected

The last Canadian goose six weeks into fall
rises off the putting green, all
business, and dives behind Mt. Townsend.
The November moon ends
all hope this year we shall not go down into winter.
We trudge through town
hands in our pockets, facing down the wind,
the raw-toothed leaves and sand.

Down in Chimacum the ensilage for cows
weeps methane. Crows pair up in rough-hewn boughs,
school girls rummage through strewn hay
gone to loam in shallow lanes.
Girls are much too new to feel the ache
of natural ruin and fall, arctic air
smokes from their lips, their hair
flared into the draining light of the season.

The rebellion of human chemistry betrays reason.
It’s early dark, dawn’s too late,
& in the collapse of the year We Affected contemplate
fatality, our blood thick beneath the ice
of dim temper, curt hearts out of practice.
A feather on the sidewalk, eiderdown,
and you weep for nothing. (The pulp mill lays down
heavy over the hills a wet black stench of paper.)

The doctor said if medicated you will need to taper
off the elixir and let the Visitor exit as he will.
How lucky to be common for just one season, spill
over into autumn, then skim the black ice of winter, into spring,
the summer light splintering in sheer white threads across the lawn.
Then you drift into fall, falling, nesting like a naturally grown
creature, family around you, friends, Christmas bright,
no sneering thief to filch you off to night.

Early in the new year, I moved to town to be closer to people. I found a lovely little place overlooking the countryside and the Straights of Juan De Fuca. You could see the masts and stacks of large steamers that sailed past town beyond the line of forested hills. Through friends, I discovered a group of depressed people who were looking for company. They sought a safe place to feel temporarily insane in a world with little tolerance for the meshugguna. We began meeting at my house every Thursday night.

There were six of us, and we all came from elsewhere. Claudia spoke with a heavy German accent, wore her hair pulled tightly into a braid, and her eyes flashed on you like a heat ray. I liked her, but felt the old interference rise up like a powerful wedge between us. Each week "We Affected" met to discuss our highs and lows, our walk among the "normal" people. (Normal, my friend Don says, is a setting on a clothes dryer). We'd end each session with prayers and hopes, holding hands, and we'd agree upon a project to complete during the upcoming week. In one case, we settled on creating art that reflected our experience.

The following Thursday night we assembled again in my candle-lit living room. We concealed our projects in a paper bag or box until it was our turn top speak. We went around the room, laughing, applauding each others audacity. It wasn't much for art, but each piece took a chink from the wall. When it was Claudia's turn, she peeled back the brown butcher paper...

It was a bird cage from a pet store. Inside the cage sat a blond-haired doll with blue eyes, alone on the floor, painted tears streaming down her face. The door to the cage was fastened tight with a padlock. "She doesn't know," Claudia said softly, "where is the key."

We sat silently a while in the candlelight, sparing the empty platitudes and false starts at meaning. We held each other.

* * *

A few months later, our group disbanded. The meshugga were all doing well, moving out into the world again in widening orbits. It was spring and the Casablanca lilies rose in the bed beside my front door. Ants marched up and down the long, green stalks and the cherry blossoms broke into fragrant faces in the trees.

Claudia and her husband left town suddenly, quite without fanfare. But before she left, Claudia dropped by to give me a gift wrapped in plain brown paper. Inside the box I found the Native American tapestry she had made, a dream catcher of dazzling threads and beads with feathers streaming from the sides. It hangs on on my wall today, helping me remember precisely how we are freed.

Dreams and wings, dear Claudia. Ich liebe dich.