Friday, February 27, 2009

Angels in the Architecture

In the summer of 1969, barely graduated from high school, I suffered a massive heart attack after contracting a virus of the heart lining--a condition known as myocarditis. I had died in my hospital bed and looked down upon the living from a place that we shall all visit one day.

In this blog, just over a month ago, I told the tale of how a loving nurse helped me find the path back to the living. The essay was entitled How Myoko Sakatani Saved My Life. (You can click here to read it).

Years later, when I contacted the hospital where I had spent that eventful summer, I was told that Myoko had moved on. Today, the hospital itself has closed. I felt sad that I never had the opportunity to thank her for all she had done for me.

The blogosphere is an astonishing place. It seems that I average but 25 readers a day, and I have only been here since December. I'm a fleeting tick of a second hand in the digital ether. So you can imagine how I felt this morning when I opened an email, forwarded from my business website, where someone had apparently searched for me. The message read:

"My father emailed me a story about Myoko Sakatani. He contacted Myoko and she said that it was she that was in the story you wrote. Would you like to contact her?"

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Plain of Jezreel

Leaving Nazareth, you reach the approach to Mount Tabor passing through the the Bedouin village of Shibli. According to Judges 4:13-16, the 1,350-foot peak was the site of the bitter battle between Sisera and Deborah and Barak. Long considered the site of Christ's Transfiguration, Tabor stands alone in the Plain of Jezreel like an upended teacup.

Atop the peak visitors find the Church of the Transfiguration, a Greek Orthodox church, and several small, hidden chapels. Today, you can hire a Mercedes taxi and cruise to the top, but when Dave Green and I visited in the spring of 1978, we chose to hike to the peak, from which you could see the Hill of Moreh, the city of Afula, Mt. Gilboa in the Jordan Valley and, across the way, the mountains of Gilead.

To walk meant that you followed the goat path through the cypress trees and pines, up the same hard scrabble ascended by 10th century BCE Israelites, the ten thousand men of Barak's army, Jesus himself, then legions of Romans, Crusaders, as well as countless Arab and Israeli warriors of the post-partition era.

Dave and I took our morning bus from Nazareth, leaving the crowded lanes of Arab women in their black abayas and niquabs, parading along with bright orange or green Tupperware nested on their heads, up the steep hills between modern and ancient buildings chock-to-jaw, and out to the Plain of Jezreel. From the Bedouin village, the approach is tricky. You have to ask directions as often as you spot a passerby. The trek is by no means strenuous, but on a hot day--of which there are legion--you need to stop and take refuge in the shade of olive trees or verdant rows of cypress. The route scales the hillside through rugged switchbacks that progress ever upwards to flat, bright terraces of grape vines, wildgrass, and sprays of blue lupines.

We carried only water bottles in our packs and donned our kibbutz sun hats along the trail. Dave hailed from Croydon, a London suburb, but had more recently shuttled British trucks through Africa to aid businesses in the apartheid South Africa. I frequently reminded him of his sins, and he made note of mine. It had become customary for Dave and I to argue the finer points of British colonialism as it stacked up against routine American aggression around the globe. He would play his trump card: that the British were the only invaders to burn our Capitol. And I would remind him that we saved their yellow hides to end World War II.

Dave had a happy grin with a gap between his upper teeth and his eyes flashed when you mentioned his proclivity toward bedding any woman with a pulse. He had gratefully accepted the nickname "Plunger" that the other Brits on Kibbutz Ginosar had bestowed upon him. I was called "The Young Gazelle", an ironic moniker since I was the slowest runner on the soccer pitch, laid low by a self-inflicted machete wound early one day as I attempted to chop down a banana tree.

The hike up Mount Tabor, then, was designed as a tonic, a way to put fresh life into the clicking joint of my knee. We had recently gone to the Dead Sea where the saltiest water in the world helped close the wound, for even a small insect bite in the Galilee turned into an angry infection if you left it alone. We were celebrating my good luck with the Dead See, combining a day off from labor in the Ginosar banana fields with off-the-path tourism and non-stop banter about the ills of Vietnam and India, respectively.

After the first half hour, though, I was bushed and aching. The sun burst through the clouds over the Plain of Jezreel and our blue work shirts were stained with sweat. Below you could see the winding roads toward the Galilee and, above, the terracotta towers of the Greek Orthodox church. Peacocks darted in and out of the hedgerows, filling the air with wicked shrieks.

King Sisera, Dave informed me after reading through his notes on the place, had nine hundred chariots in his forces, adorned with iron wheel-fittings. Nothing, he said, compared to his love chariot back in his hut on the kibbutz. He was wont to remind me of my poor record in getting laid. For those keeping score, it was something in the order of Dave: 28, Gabby: 0. You could count on Plunger to shift all topics to sex after he'd exhausted his prepared remarks on history. It made for a singular experience amidst far-flung settings like Bethlehem, Caesaria, Tel Aviv, Masada and, much later, South Croydon, California, Washington, and Mexico.

But on this day, the banter gave way to concern when my knee began to fail on the slopes of Mount Tabor. We were more than halfway to the peak when I gave serious thought to giving up. But Dave convinced me to try again for the next terrace, just beyond a line of junipers and through a stone Crusader gateway.

"Come on, mate, you can do it," he said, and we labored up the next cutback, through a tangle of hedges, and burst out, finally, on the wide terrace that overlooked the valley.

I bent over, trying to catch my breath, and Dave handed me a water bottle.

"Maybe we can just stay here a little while," I said. "Get our batteries charged."

But there would be none of it. For across the terrace, black and very large in the mid-day sun stood a bull, eying us suspiciously, steam rising from his thick hide as he took a single step, eying us all the while as he took another, and then he broke into a tidy little trot on his undersized legs down the terrace like a twinkle-toed nightmare deftly hopping the dirt moguls en route to throttling two international interlopers.

"It's up or down, mate," Dave said, tossing the bottle into his day pack. "One way or the other."

And off we ran, doubling back, my knee suddenly working perfectly, smoothly, painlessly through the contours of scrub and slippery mud-track as we descended like the mighty Canaanite troops of Hatzor, running like school kids, down to the hill country of Ephraim, past the sudden, unexpected parking lot of tour buses where Christian pilgrims embarked for their ride to the summit of Mount Tabor along a private road we had overlooked that rose effortlessly to the uppermost plateau where the Church of the Transfiguration stood against the cloudless sky, beyond the reach of bulls and sarcasm.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The Druid City lies along the shoals of the Black Warrior River at the convergence of 19th Century trails used by Muscogean-speaking tribes led by Chief Tuskaloosa. When I arrived in the fall of 1983 the city had become home to 80,000 frenzied members of the Bryant tribe, typified by packs of crimson and white-painted devotees of the Church of Saturday Football. They arrived by recreation vehicles in the middle of the week, posted up revelry headquarters in the parking lots astride Bryant-Denny Stadium, and got their barbecue on.

For the rest of us--yankees and interlopers of confounded cultural identities--the pilgrimage resembled a tent meeting of elders from stratified sects as disparate as Birmingham (decked out in duck-head pants and expensive loafers) and Cottondale (casually attired in blue bib overalls, huntin' boots, and bright red ballcaps). Sunday you went to church. Saturday you prayed at the Shrine of the Everlasting Bear.

To fully attend a football game at Bryant-Denny you had to drink the Coach Bear Bryant kool-aid amidst a horde that doubled the city population for an afternoon. Not everyone was liquored-up to their Dixie gills, but most were. Certainly the sorority goddesses in their pastel formal gowns despite the raging heat and bone-melting humidity had a little bourbon at breakfast. By halftime, many would sport patches of sudden vomit at their breast. Fraternity lads, dressed in Sunday go-to-preachin' finery, would leap across sections of rooting fans to rip the dress tie off a real or imagined foe. And locals would craft clever stadium totems, such as the red and yellow box of detergent and toilet paper mounted on a staff of wood, a tale told by an idiot signifying: Roll Tide!

Along University Boulevard at dawn the merchants had already set out tables of iced beer and red and white pennants, the crackling loudspeakers playing "rama-jama, yellowhammer, give em hell, Alabama". You could dine from plates of biscuits in red-eye gravy (a tincture of ham fat and coffee), breakfast slices of pepperoni Bamabino pizza, trays of iced donuts, quadruple-shot tumblers of Long Island iced teas, throat-cauterizing delicacies from Wings n' Things, or purchase celebratory Bear Bryant effigies on coke-cola bottles and license-plate frames that read: "American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God". Say, hallelujah!

At kickoff time, you could drive 80 miles an hour down the deserted city streets, hearing only the sound of squealing tires and a cresting roar from the stadium. Tables were deserted with Bryant relics and platters of ribs still sitting on them, the merchants departed for their own stadium seat or tucked back into their shops where they listened to the game on the radio. Rag-pickers walked along under the hot fall sun in near solitude, plucking up recyclable cans, or sitting on the curbs under the hackberry trees with their scavenger's bounty.

We writers, out-of-towners, grad students with portfolio typically met up for cheese grits and eggs, then strapped plastic flasks of bourbon to our calves with duct tape, pulled down our cuffs, and walked undisturbed past distracted guards into the brilliant sunlight of the stadium, heat shimmering from the grass, all in a blur of crimson bunting and plastic pompoms. Loudspeakers blared "Sweet Home Alabama" as wave upon wave of footballers took their drills across the turf.

It is simply impossible to over-write the splendor, the fanaticism, the crowd rising as one to the kickoff with a growl that began in your belly and rose like the scream of some freshly pole-axed hog as the ball was struck. Roll-Tide-Roll. Stand up, my brothers, rise up sistern, feel the recollection of the blood of the lamb, see the bright parallax of angels guiding you skywards, light-headed in the blood-red sauce of barbecue and sweet nectar of warm bourbon in God's own humidor of fun, the smiting of foes, the crushing of heathens, the urpage of slight cheese-grit bouquet on the back palate of a scream, waves of helmeted seraphim a-flow across the turf where the ghastly visage of Barry Krause is forever staunching the goal-line plunge of Penn State, where the shadow of the Bear, dearly departed, still prowls the sidelines, frowning Gibraltar in his houndstooth hat...

... and in the end, you had a brutal headache.

You walked with friends in silence--no matter the outcome--having tithed more than you earned. Cars began to stir again along Bryant Drive, then the Tuscaloosa bars and cafes once again swelled to life and patrons burst out onto the sidewalks. But along Hackberry Lane or 10th Avenue there was just the sound of fall leaves crunching underfoot and the pulse of your heart pounding into your temples, and the hope of cool weather someday coming to the South. And that night, if you stayed awake, the line of lights from vans and campers still streamed toward the interstate en-route to Thomasville, Demopolis, Alabaster, and Selma. You could hear car horns blaring the Bama fight song, then the final whoops of desperate revelers and, much later, just the sound of cockroaches as they marched beneath the dried up leaves in the windless night. But you would have to sleep soon enough, dreamless toward Sunday, when the chimes rang from the steeples of Tuscaloosa and the rest of the world was deep in prayer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Consider the female shorebird, a bar-tailed godwit, who in nine days completed its transit from Alaska to New Zealand, flying 7,145 miles across the Pacific Ocean without a single stop for rest, food, or fresh batteries for its GPS. Every September, more than 70,000 godwits take flight from their arctic breeding grounds, flying at the average speed of 35 miles an hour in a trek equivalent to a human running ceaselessly at 45 miles an hour for more than a week.

How does she sleep? The godwit simply turns off one half of her brain in mid-flight, letting the gray matter rejuvenate while the other half runs the show, navigating by the sun at day, and the stars by night. Researchers imagine that she learns both the northern and southern constellations, since she traverses both ends of the globe. I'm damn good with a road atlas, but the half-functioning brain of the bar-tailed godwit outstrips my navigational capabilities by 120,000 years of evolution.

In my first fall in Fairbanks, we drove to Denali National Park to watch the migration. The tundra had already turned, and so had the birch trees, so that the entire landscape celebrated its abbreviated autumn all at once as burnished gold under bright blue skies. Denali spreads from the interstate toward Mount McKinley with more than 9,000 square miles of forest, canyons, glaciers, and rivers. It takes the balance of an entire day to drive to the McKinley overlook. Cars are controlled by a lottery system to keep the number of smog-belching vehicles to a minimum.

We were lucky. We camped at Teklanika the first night, planning to strike out at dawn for Wonder Lake, some 89 miles from the park entrance. By sunset, we stood at the edge of the lake where, across miles of glacial valley Mount McKinley rose into a dense white cloud of its own making. We sat on the warm hood of the car, training our binoculars at the black ribbons of birds that entered the valley to the north, sequenced en masse to an ancient choreography to the base of the mountain, rose in the vast lift of warm air, then southwards toward...New Zealand.

The was no way to prepare yourself for the sheer volume of birds. To the north, they entered the canyon as a spray of scattered black forms, like a puff of gunshot in the vast blue skies. But as they approached the mountain, they took the shape of the air, tracing the columns of heat, creating a whirling black bird tornado, rising in turn to the top floor, where they segued their way into the higher altitude, fanning out in spacious arcs across the south end of the valley.

Oh, the immensity of the plan, the native intelligence to find nature's express elevator to launch your campaign to warmer climes, the uncanny patience of disparate tribes among evolved dinosaurs in flight as they spun circles in front of grandfather mountain to await their turn, bent to the mad flapping of purpose to the celestial clock nested in genetic memory.

On the ground, the humans gathered in their tented enclaves, burning marshmallows, bundling up their provisions in bear-proof containers for the night before they crept into their sleeping bags to dream of flight, above the din of passing motorists, the growling of the mad earth, the insanity of full-brained living.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Last Ride of the Mic-Mic Men

The Beast was the gangsta-earthmother of the drive-by smile. In fact, she changed everything.

In the depths of the endless Fairbanks winter I wore the shroud of despair, creeping from my car where it idled in the parking lot of the Boatel, ducking into the all-day/all-night bar to meet the others who had momentarily stepped down from the train-wrecks of poor thinking to cloak themselves in the evanescent veneer of drink.

The Boatel itself arrived along the side of the Chena River much as we had, throttling along the current without a rudder, beaching on the rocks never to float again, re-opening instead as a round-the-clock tavern that appeared suddenly through the ice-fog like a ghost ship afloat on the vapor cast by idling trucks and cars that yanked aside into the parking lot as if by the steady autopilot of false remedy to the shoulder along Airport Way and stopped, with only the deep, black imprints of heavy boots leading from their doors to the port-holed hatchway to the Boatel.

From the back deck, you could hop up and down in your coat and fur hat to keep warm while you drank a toast to the aurora that streamed from the heavens, day and night, steaming through a black night that ached to the marrow, then blurred to a dull, steady pain the shape of everyday life.

By November, you couldn't tell the curbs and sidewalks from the center lane of the highway; the landscape was undifferentiated, where every color was a shade of white, and the roads, houses, hills, and dangerous gullies were all mixed in a flowing glaze, with the occasional raven hunched in the snow.

So to the Boatel we fled when we weren't writing, which became habit, leaving our engines running so that even a drunk could spin off into all that white without having to jump-start the car. It was bad enough that your tires flattened against the snow and when you pulled out they would thump altogether toward disaster until the air warmed and spread itself out again.

I was six feet and well over 260 pounds and Brian had played tackle for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. In the Boatel, we cornered a spot at the pool table and Brian kept us playing, or we sat wherever we wanted and military guys would come over, thinking we were specialists.

"You guys are 50 mic-mic men, aren't you?" some guy said while we were shooting eightball. He didn't add up to much of a threat.

"Sure," Brian said.
"We are," I said.
And later we'd ask each other, what the hell.

Later, after the Boatel died down, we'd drive over to Frank's Place, a biker bar over on the side of town that served the military: used car dealerships, gun shops, liquor stores, and strip bars where the new frontier met the edge of corporate brute instinct, spinning into view through the ice-fog as we drove along the misfiring beer signs and check cashing signs and signs that would never light again, driving slow and carefully until we got to Frank's, a biker bar that closed at 5 am and reopened an hour later.

We'd find a spot over by the roaring fireplace -- a visiting professor of English and a graduate student of writing-- looking a lot like 50 mic-mic men in layered underwear and plaid shirts and woolly caps, liquored up, and at just about 2 am, the strippers from across the way would thunder in to do some drinking on their tip money.

On any particular night at Frank's, you could count on collateral violence. I never got in a scrape, but I once witnessed the royal spat between two strippers slugging it out over a John. In the end, there were clumps of hair and ice-blood on the steps of Frank's Place.

One morning at five, after leaving for pancakes and single-malt scotch, we went for a light ski in 10-degree weather, Brian and I, although neither of us was really prepared. I wore trendy woolen gloves with the fingers cut out and after a half hour of skating cross-country through the woods off the Steece Highway, I had no feeling in them at all. I thought of the two- or three-fingered natives that wandered forlorn along the downtown streets in springtime.

But the mic-mic man pushed me up the trail while I warmed my hands under my armpits. And when my fingers were warm again, we went back to Frank's.

And so it went, night into day, never-ending winter of aurora storms from horizon-to-horizon, the noon-day-sun the tease of everlasting dopamine, or hope, then more weeks of students sleeping at their desks in the afternoon science-writing class, being arctic hibernation season, despite my endless rants about Berryman and Rilke and Hugo, claiming that, as poets, we had no allegiance to any syllabus. The examination of spacial narratives and confessional strings of meter outweigh all considerations of clock and date and sobriety.

Then sometime in the mid-winter we went to the outhouse races north of town, and on another weekend, drive north on the Steece toward the Arctic Circle to view the running of the Yukon Quest. Brian and his girlfriend and I drove White Pass, where highway stauntions stuck precariously from the drifts, designating chaos, and the road disappeared into the dim white soup of everything.

We found the turnoff to the race where deep ruts slashed away from the main road into a forest of permafrost pines. Spectators sat in folding chairs along the sled-track. At the first sight of the pack, they put down their mugs of coffee, stood and whooped as the dogs yanked their sleds into the firelight.

The huskies knew it was a stop because they pulled in-place, staked to the ground on beds of hay so the sleds could not be moved. There were bowls of hot gruel and fresh water for the dogs, and the drivers sipped coffee. And once the dogs had eaten, the driver aligned the sled, unpinned the stakes and the sled lurched off, blending into the horizon as a drying dab of paint.

In a photo from the day, I'm framed in the center of the image, shaped by a red patch of jacket, black snow-machine boots, black muffler and fur cap, suspended as if I had been parted out from construction paper and glued into a white backdrop.

My memory of the entire winter is blurred-- by alcohol, by infinite dark, by 68-below temperatures, by the occasional stump of caribou or moose left on the side of road where it had wandered into a snowplow, or spotting things you only thought you saw as you drove along the steady road that folded into the fog.

And yet, and yet, two weeks before Christmas and quite out of the white of everythingness, the Beast parked beside me in the lot at Khalsa's and flashed the drive-by smile. The I'm on-your-side-even-if-you-don't-think-you-have-one smile.

One time we had coffee. Another time we ran errands.

"Alaska," she said that afternoon when we had parked in the woods in search of a Christmas tree and she hopped out with her chain saw. "Alaska. Where men are men...and so are the women."

Before she disappeared into the snow and trees, the Beast threw another grin. It was a grin for traveling, a bolt you could tuck in just about anywhere, especially if you hoped to blend into the wood panels and cigar smoke and the furious, spinning wagonwheels of beer signs down at Frank's and still feel the faint pulse of spring, somewhere, some day.

And in the fading sun of an otherwise stingy afternoon, at the end of a year that faded out as if bent to the machinery of some cosmic dimmer switch, despite it all, etc., the smaller 50 mic-mic man opened like a late-year afterthought of bloom, white-upon-white against the biggest flurry of of the year, a Christmas universe of flakes streaming laterally along Farmer's Loop road so that you accelerated through snowy constellations toward the life that lay waiting, on the other side of the Earth maybe, where it was already dawn.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Marrying Kind

It takes leather balls, read the bumper stickers of the golden age, to play rugby. More rightly, I was to learn at my own peril, it took the willingness to receive a blinding scissors kick to them and keep running as if your village--its wooden towers just peeking up over the horizon--had been set aflame by Vikings and you carried the only bucket of water.

At San Jose State I was, for God's sake, the drum major of the marching band, not a football legend. But we met on Saturday mornings at the ROTC field with our heavy cleats and bottles of orange juice laced with vodka, and taped up to celebrate touch football between the scribes of the school paper and the tuba section. I was always matched up at guard or blocking back against the short and fleet Gary Rubin of the Spartan Daily, who would rush the quarterback with the finesse of a junky finding a smoldering roach on the turf. I was never quick, but I loved to get in Rubin's way if I could and deliver a glancing blow.

After one muddy battle, a trumpet player came up to me and said I might make a good candidate for the rugby club. In the mid-1970s, colleges on the West Coast fielded rugby sides, but were prohibited by the rules from competing as NCAA teams. That meant you formed a collegiate "club", an informal team that under any other moniker were madmen who loved to pull hair, gouge out eyes, and take a tasty bite of an opponent's ear all in the name of the local colors. Incentives included after-match drinking parties that involved opening kegs in team cars as you sped to the local sorority house to gather spoils much like the Mayans disrobed their opponents following ball games and tore out their hearts.

The game of rugby, legend goes, was born in 1823 when a soccer player at England's Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, plucked up the round ball "with fine disregard for the rules of football" and raced with it in his arms. Nice mythology if you would have it. As far back as the Middle Ages, villagers across the English countryside beat each other senseless in games called mob football or Shrovetide footie, finding every manner of habit in dragging an inflated pig's bladder across a felicitous boundary. These were the people who invented culinary delights such as blood sausage, kidney pie, and haggis. Even the Vikings (evoked earlier) had a their game of knattleiker in the 9th Century, a rite where you passed a stone, ball, or anything else that would bounce using hefty sticks. Who needs both eyes, anyway? Isn't that why the good Lord gave you two?

My civilized brush with rugby came at a time when universities allowed you to wear rubber tooth guards, shin guards (if you were a true wimp), and you could wrap athletic tape round your head to pin down your ears so an opponent couldn't rip them off in a single attempt. We met on the south campus fields at San Jose State, far from other organized sporting conclaves, on freshly mown grass on fields that ruggers called "the pitch".

The very first practice I was beset with dry heaves that left my ribs aching. You ran the pitch like a soccer player but slammed into each other with the ferocity of American football athletes. You ran, then ran with the ball, then ran laps around the pitch for an hour, then ran some more, and when you had worked on your conditioning for a while, the coaches would blow a whistle and you'd scrimmage the game. Unlike brutish American football, you just didn't go around hitting somebody on every play. Rather, you only hit the fellow with the ball, and then fought like two hundred paupers over a feeble penny to win its possession. This was called a "ruck".

When a ball carrier was struck or tackled, he immediately released the ball, in a gentlemanly fashion that clumsy Americans would consider a fumble or horrific loss of ownership. But in rugby, the two sides would converge on the fallen ball, bind themselves together by gripping loose uniform parts or (quite without shame) any available limb or muscle, and attempt to push the other team off the ball.

I would go home after play to the billowing pot clouds of Allen Hall and climb the stairs to the second floor in my cleats, clattering especially loud to announce that I had survived another practice, and sit on my bed, my heart pounding madly, so much grass in my clothes and receding hair that I resembled a chia pet with bruises. I looked with great fear and wonderment toward Saturday matches, always playing with the knowledge that I was smaller, slower, and an easy target on the pitch.

Because we were a club, a sad step-child to organized college athletic teams, we played the universities around the Bay Area, regardless of their distinct NCAA athletic affiliations. Translation: we were a small, eager side from San Jose State that routinely held matches with gorilla monstrosities hailing from Cal and Stanford, sides that regularly were comprised of pre-steroidal banshees that played on Stanford's Rose Bowl football squads, or on Cal's national championship rugby sides or, worst of all, out of work professional football players who maintained affiliations with their alma maters and thoroughly enjoyed turning us into muddy pancakes across the pitches in Cal's Strawberry Canyon or in Stanford's sprawling fields.

Dave So-and-So, a backup linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers took great relish one Saturday afternoon of punting the ball in a "up and under" with a vicious slice of his leg, following through without impediment into my right thigh. For a week, you could trace the cleat pattern from his shoes in the blue-cum-yellow Rorschach of blood pudding beneath my flesh.

Week after week, it was like watching from on high while the man who possessed my body kept going back for more, driven by some unseen force to seek glory in a game that fled back through time to when angry villagers cracked each other on their crowns with Shillelaghs in some pagan dance of idiocy.

There were enough morons to go around, apparently, so we fielded three sides at San Jose State, and I was never good enough to play for the A-team. I was happy to play the position of second row for the B's. It was a thankless position. Sides began play with what was called a scrum. You lined up facing your opponents in an inverse pyramid: three men in front, two behind, and a final man at the rear. The two largest men, called props, held the third man--a swarthy dwarf with quick legs-- between them. Then the rest of us crouched low, and pushed the entire pyramid against the opposing side. Confused yet? The referee would wait until both pyramids joined in a brutal smack and tossed the ball on the ground where, at once, the little guy held aloft by the props would rut around for the ball with his legs, winning possession.

Of course, you were kicked. It was like bedding down with a team of mules in rut. And by the time the ball was won, you ran off as a pack, chasing the ball carrier, your eyes tearing and head afizz from receiving more than your share of kicks in the leather.

Our last match of my rookie--and only--season, we were bussed down to southern California were it was said we would play Occidental College at the Rose Bowl. I was buoyed by the prospect of playing ball on this halcyon field where John Wayne, Frank Gifford, and O.J. Simpson toiled for the Trojans in the glory of their times. But when we arrived, it became crushingly clear that we were to play our match on the uneven grass of the Rose Bowl parking lot where the pitch was measured out and our narrow goal posts erected.

No matter that the lot was strewn with jagged rocks and bits of broken glass left behind by tailgating revelers. No matter that the stadium towered behind, rather than around, us. We set to work against our adversaries from, as we joked, Accidental College, and afterwards, our gashes stitched in unprofessional creases by volunteer trainers, so many pebbles yanked from shins and raw-rashed buttocks, we shared a keg with our new-found Occidents. We had won by two tries.

I never scored a try in my abbreviated career, taking the ball across the line and touching it down in the act that gave American football the name for a score. But I played out every game, ignored the raging voice that said to play possum, sit on the sideline nursing a faux injury against the beefy ruffians of Cal or Stanford, and when the year was out, I had really done something that none of those fellows from the Saturday tiffs between band and news-rag could even imagine. Only once, concussed in practice, did I pass out and tumble down the stairs at Allen Hall.

You may wonder (though I doubt it) about the title for the spindly fellow who would kick like a newborn demon for the ball in the midst of the scrum. He's called the "hooker." He hacks for the ball like the weekend chef with a barbecue fork who jabs at tri-tips; and after all is said and bruised, it's the hooker who leads us in song at the post-match drink-em-ups, igniting a tune that doubtlessly has been crooned drunkenly for ages on the pitches of Marlborough, Cheltenham, and Shrewsbury:

"If I were the marrying kind, and I thank the lord I'm not, sir,
The kind of man that I would wed, would be a rugby hooker.
and he'd strike hard and I'd strike hard,
we'd both strike hard together,
we'd be all right in the middle of the night
striking hard together...."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Random House swept in and bought a digital bookstore start-up that I worked for in order to kill it off before it became competitive. Two days later, nearly broke, I was snapped up by Eufemizm, a multinational web consulting firm opening an office in the heart of Silicon Valley. This was the era when Stanford minted technology degrees as quickly as the Bush Administration printed money. Twentysomethings were CEOs, leading the charge of consulting companies that took your idea and converted it into a concept for millions of dollars.

I was interviewed in the San Francisco office by Monkeyboy, a pathological liar who could sell famine to India. He danced about, speed-clicking through a presentation about the company, weaving fast chat around the notion that I had "the perfect skill set" to become the senior content strategist at the new office the firm was opening in San Jose. When I told him I had no experience in writing business briefs, organizing a web site in concert with information architects, designers, brainy technologists, and C-level executives, Monkeyboy reassured me I would have comprehensive "on-boarding"--not to worry.

To wit: he sent me down to Silicon Valley with a fat paycheck and marching orders to lead the editorial and content role in a multi-million-dollar project designing a new website for a major player in the software field. I had "deliverables" due immediately, writing a strategy for the new website, understanding the kinds of visitors (users) it served, the kinds of products and services the company sold (circuit board testing and design equipment), and the best way to write their "brand message across the entire user experience".

My training? To visit the internal repository at Eufemizm where documents that were prepared for previous clients could be cannibalized into fresh "deliverables" for the software maker. I'll be down soon to help you get going, Monkeyboy promised, but in the nine months I worked for Eufemizm, he never showed.

In principle, we were a team of writers, digital designers, technologists (back-end code writers), and over-caffeinated business managers that created websites for Fortune 500 companies, cataloging so-called business and technical requirements, producing reams of paperwork and reports, creating sample designs, and handing over the finished product in record time. I was entreated to handle every aspect that involved nouns and verbs, while the rest of the staff handled dots and dashes, ones and zeros.

In the office, the Twentysomethings zipped around the floor on Razr scooters, yakking all the while on cell phones, dressed in the customary black slacks, black shirts, and Eufemizm caps. The fridge was stocked with junk food, beer, and soft drinks, and you were encouraged to work late into the night, napping in any number of beanbag chairs piled into cubicles.

I lived in a 250 square-foot studio apartment near the San Jose Airport. You entered the door, tripped over the couch, and passed out from exhaustion after one of Eufemizm's 16 hour days. I heard every 737 that coasted to the airfield, its engines roaring in reverse thrust to slow to a taxi. The Eufemizm office was scarcely three miles away, but it took 45 minutes every morning and eve to join the lemming dance of sports utility vehicles and little black sedans that choked the city streets.

Toward the end of the year, I had somehow cloned myself into my own version of a Twentysomething, extending the contract with the software maker by handing in my deliverables on time and parroting the sophisticated lingo of the Valley. I was a thundering success. My champion had been right: I had the precise skill set to do this work. I came in late and left early.

But the Twentysomethings had miscalculated their reach. Overseas offices began to fall off the email menu. A new manager was hired to butcher the staff and sell off furniture. One day I came into Eufemizm and found myself alone in a corner wing. We were downsizing. We were consolidating our assets. We were taking the lead in slenderizing operations. My friends were cutting and pasting themselves into the offices of new employers.

Eufemizm had nearly failed by the time I left to take my new-found talents to the web team in the California governor's office. But that's another story--of sloth and greed and payoffs. This ends as suddenly as it began. I emailed my resignation to San Francisco. Monkeyboy--who still works for Eufemizm--was very, very busy that day and had no time to reply.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lucky Life

Lucky life isn't one long string of horrors and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows. -- Gerald Stern

On days when I have nothing, I hold the yellow pad in my lap and look out the window and remember days up the upstairs classroom in Morgan Hall with Bad Gerry. We called him that behind his back because, in the mid 1980s, the word "bad" meant great, and because he made you feel that poetry, while written by devoted madmen channeling God through quirky filters of discipline and learning, was accessible to all of us.

And Stern tempered his rage at Reaganism and its echoes of McCarthy with a heart that bled like a great viola. In the late afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Stern--bad sciatica and all--would lie on the classroom floor and read Howl aloud. He wore glasses with soda bottle lenses and with his thick lips was often mistaken for Allen Ginsberg. When I later met Ginsberg, I saw there was no true resemblance. For Ginsberg's was the syncopated flurry of Coltrane, a cool hipster rap sung in crowded bookstore reading rooms thick with tobacco smoke and a counterpoint of cheap Mexican weed. Bad Gerry was sung to Vivaldi played on a sturdy hi-fi set as you gazed out a dormer window across the Monongahela River where black sparrows alit like a puff of factory smoke in a tree laid nude by winter.

Big-Head Tom, Devens, Chilly Willy and Dr. Z (of the spider-wife-nerve disorder) would fill our overcoats with cans of Dixie Beer and walk across the quad to appease the writing faculty whenever poets came to town. You went through the darkened first floor of the natural science building, past fossils and dioramas of nocturnal riverbank critters, up the marbled stairway to the room reserved for the reading.

If you sat in the back of the hall, you could sneak sips off the beer between poems. Poets would often spend more time weaving a listless tale about the poem (Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so!) than it ever took to read it. Or you'd get the personal poet who used their finger to trace the meter of the poem as they read aloud, assuming you either lacked auric acuity or that you had a secret love of mimes.

One night Phil Levine raised his water glass in homage to the tire plant that spread its stink across the Black Warrior River. "Good year," he proclaimed after taking a sip.

Afterward, we'd retire to a student's apartment or faculty house where the reception coursed on the heavy tide of whiskey as we watched the visiting writer finesse a student to bed. If we made fun of the poet on Friday nights, the sing-song rendition, the absolute fawning over a well-honed article, we drew ourselves up with genuine glee when Bad Gerry's class reconvened the following week.

Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Poland and studied in Paris in the early 50s. If there were honors in the craft--the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lamont Prize--he certainly snagged them. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. But in our upstairs room, he was simply Bad Gerry, ranting about "that bastard Reagan" who chose Alabama for his only campus visit during his re-election campaign.

I'd stop by Stern's office every time I walked through the English building, just to see his face, to share a complaint about throwback idiocy and racism after a cross was burned on campus to protest a Black sorority petition to have a house on frat row, to talk about the Beats, to sit where I was never judged or unliked for my threadbare poetic bandwidth.

Years afterwords, I'd read Lucky Life or Paradise Poems, or Lovesick to my students, showing them that poems entered the soul through the ear, not the brain. That everyone could have poetry. That on the most droll days of our lives a beam of crepuscular light could part the clouds and raise us from the shit of mediocrity.

And on days when I have nothing, nothing to say, and the yellow pad looks like an impossible list of demands from my kidnappers, I can turn to Bad Gerry and think how nice it is to think of you, kind father, tears running as polliwogs down your face, my favorite cardinal hopping in the Tuscaloosa dirt, the red dust rising like an arpeggio where the pain had been.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Angel Beach

Rain or shine, I would pull on my sweats and windbreaker and drive to North Beach. From my house on the bluff, you took Cherry Street across town to the Chinese Gardens Lagoon and parked at the end of Kuhn Street, where the trails sloped down to the sand or wended up into the forested lanes of the state park. I'd pull a woolen cap down over my ears and set off into the prevailing wind, picking my way between rocks and foam and seaweed.

If you turned west, the beach would narrow and the path would bend around glistening rocks and sun-washed stumps of dead-fall, ducking into the freezing shadows of the bluff, and suddenly out again into the bright sun. You could watch the broad neck of the Admiralty Inlet where specs of cargo ships on the horizon made their way through the morning fog, moving at a crawl with precision through the passage, tendrils of smoke in the morning light, their superstructures taking shape as they neared, their bows pushing a mighty wake before them. You could feel the vibration of their heavy diesels through the dark gray sand as you walked.

On lucky days, I would walk five or six miles west to Glass Beach on the ebb tide, counting herons along the way or laughing at the splashing play of otters as they coasted on their backs in the carpet of the seaweed. When you rounded the bend at McCurdy Point you could see Hurricane Ridge and the jagged spine of the Olympic range where it thrust into the blue sky. If it was a clear day, that is. And yet, on days unfit for sunning, an eagle would round out the sky above you.

When white settlers chose the Port Townsend area for a home in 1851 they found a bustling trade route used by Chief Chetzemoka's Klallam tribe. By the turn of the century, Port Townsend was a booming seaport, and residents used the beach beneath the towering cliffs at McCurdy Point as the town dump. You can still find shards of pottery, bottles, and china at the bottom of the bluff. I'd find marbles, in perfect condition, buried under a few inches of sand. I'd try to imagine the life of a settler's child.

I liked to gather feathers, dried wood, blue and purple glass, and the occasional sea-star shell. Some days I'd carry them home, other times I'd build a small shrine of Earthly delights and pray in gratitude for my new-found sobriety. If I went out early, I'd have the entire stretch of beach to myself. We tried to keep Glass Beach a local secret, but you'd find hikers galore out there on weekends.

If you turned east at the parking lot, the beach trailed off toward the inner curve of the inlet, with the Mount Baker volcano rising into the clouds. To the farthest end, where the peninsula curved south, stood the Point Wilson lighthouse and its booming foghorn. I liked to go this way in the evening, when the beach was still and quiet save for the susurring of the waves and the rhythmic wail of the horn in the dark, misty air. The light would spin its bright eye at you as it swept across the channel.

I'd often stop near the point and sit in the dark and talk to my grandfather. I had lived in Port Townsend about a year when my brother and I visited Uncle Mort in Eugene and he told us the terrible secret of my grandfather's suicide--hidden from us for all our lives. Scarcely fifteen years later, Mort would take his own life.

But here, on the beach below the Point Wilson light, I'd sit and ponder the good luck of my finding a way out, a town where kids shouted to me in the street, and friends called my home if they hadn't seen me in several days just to see how I was. And I'd sit beneath the whirling eye of the Point Wilson light and talk to grandpa Max, telling him how I had come this far, that I had lived through the madness that at times seemed only a paper-thin moment away, how I had found this house on the bluff where Klallam friends helped me build a native sweat lodge, where my dearest friends would come and sweat and pour water, and pray for the earth and our ancestors and our loved ones and, afterward, eat sumptuous food and laugh about how easily it could have all ended in disaster.

One night I sat beneath the lighthouse until dawn and in the the drizzling fog of morning thought I saw an angel perched in a lone cedar where it rose on the bluff. The tree had been struck by lightening and in the shadowy shape of dawn, I saw the slow unfurling of wings where the stump had been cleaved through the heart.

Though I often tried, I never saw the angel in that tree again, though she was there, as certain as the wind-swept bluff and the hissing tide. I don't know where I'm going, but I have ruled out certain options, ending one legacy with my piece in the line. And now, hundreds of miles away, I am forever on Angel Beach, grandpa Max, dear Uncle Mort, a noose and a bullet, and I'm so damn sad that you never found the path that led me home.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Umpirical Evidence

The first time I worked the bucket I got hit in the face a half-dozen times. The hurler was a stout kid, taller than most 12 year-old boys, and his fastball would tail into the left-handed batter. The catcher would duck, or make a feeble effort to reign it in, and the pitch would blast into my mask somewhere between my nose and forehead, bringing tears to my eyes.

I never played organized baseball, and never had a boy of my own, so umpiring seemed the perfect way to palliate the ancient ache to father a tribe of sons. I was in early recovery, having moved from the distant cabin in the woods to a hill-top cottage in Port Townsend that overlooked the golf course and the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains. My best friend Warren had two boys in little league and after watching a few games, I was determined to get involved. I was embarrassed to admit after a lifetime of playing softball and attending major league games, I had no deep knowledge of hardball nuances and regulations. And I had not played in little leagues as a boy. Hence, I was perfectly qualified to umpire.

Another man at my recovery meetings was a jack of all officiating, working as a little league umpire and basketball referee at the local high schools. He offered to go over the rule book and get me started, and he lived just a few doors away on Willow Street. I learned when to apply the infield fly rule, about the secret world of umpire hand gestures that helped coordinate our placement on the diamond, and how to keep track of the pitch count using a hand-clicker.

I was started at first base, where it was thought I'd avoid tricky calls and the ire of unstable egos. When you had a close call to make, you were to make it decisively and walk away. By and large, the coaches accepted your decision, but the parents in the stands were ugly. How dare you toss out their little angel. Let the boys play, they'd scream. Get some glasses.

The key to umpiring was to head directly to your car in the parking lot at the final out, escaping with your hide intact. Before each game, I would head to the equipment shack and strap on the shin guards, chest protector, ball caddy, and mask, tightening the straps and screws and kneeling to make sure the gear wouldn't cut off my circulation.

When you work the bucket, you crouch behind the catcher, tapping him gently on the shoulder when he blocked your view. These were kids, but the ball could leave a welt on you. I learned that an umpire could set his own strike zone--the imaginary rectangle that marked the location of the ball as it passed across the plate--but you had to be consistent. If you called a strike on a pitch a few inches too high in the first inning, you called the same pitch a strike in the seventh inning.

I went to major league games in Seattle, taking the ferry across the Sound to the Kingdome--to watch the umpires, rather than the players. I saw how the crew positioned itself with hand signals, how umpires walked the foul lines to get the best view of the action, how they turned and crouched to see bang-bang plays at the bags, what they said in conferences between innings, giving each other notes like fine actors.

In little league, you towered over the boys in your black uniform and mask, and you could shatter them with an untoward remark. I decided that when I called a kid out on strikes--letting my voice boom out the call and jerking my right hand skywards--I followed up with quiet, but persistent encouragement that only the batter could hear. I loved them "out".

And someone had to do it, because the asides from a frustrated father could wound you to the marrow. Some dads would operate video cameras from the stands or behind the screen. If they stood behind me, it was certain I'd hear about it. Sometimes I'd turn and walk over calmly, remove my mask, and tell the dad he had better go wait in the car or I would call the game and his son's team would forfeit and lose. Occasionally, a lurker would track me to the parking lot after the final out. There's no adequate explanation for that kind of pettiness.

One August afternoon I had the honor of calling a game in which Warren's boys took the field. Warren came out of the dugout once to argue a call. Whether I had it right or not was inconsequential. I said to my best friend, "I don't want any more guff from you."

"What's guff?" Warren said, his face flushed and rigid, his nose close to mine.

"That's guff!" I said and tossed his ass off the field. Later we howled over it.

In the end, I got promoted to work pony league games. These boys were older, wore real spikes, and ran longer distances between the bases. I never worked the bucket in a pony league game, but I loved doing them. You could hear the runner as the spikes went in and out of the infield sand, and you could hear the ball pound into the pocket of a glove or shoe pop into the bag when the runner passed. It was a joyous, sober summer. One day a bald eagle circled the park and two outfielders fought over possession of a tumbling feather. Some days the fog would slip into the late afternoon and the sun would sport a halo. When the wind was right, you could hear the bell from the buoy off of North Beach and the jangle of halyards from boats in the yacht harbor.

In the end, the calls I received--rather than made--were true blessings. When I walked the hilly streets or the waterfront of Port Townsend in the fall and winter, the umpire gear hung up and locked in storage, kids whose games I umpired would shout out to me from front yards or open windows of passing cars. I was somebody big in the world's smallest town.

"Hiya ump, how ya doing?"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The High Register

If there is anything potentially more embarrassing than, say, the admission of a amorous proclivity for farm animals, it's the confession that I play the clarinet. In the early 1960s, it seems, the clarinet, easily portable and more abundant than tympani or sousaphone, was the instrument of choice for families who had children in Los Angeles County schools. There were three sections of clarinets in band--adding up to more than 20 musicians--compared with the random bassoonist or trio of euphonium players. For a boy who measured his entire life on being mentally and bodily different from his fellows, the clarinet promised little more than anonymity and an opportunity to create screeching sounds that would scare off all sentient creatures with ears.

To wit: in my last year of elementary school, I was issued an silvery clarinet--save for its wooden mouthpiece--that was forged from a single piece of metal. It went whole into its carrying case. I'm sure it was crafted from surplus World War II aircraft parts, soldered and shaped, then had nine holes punched into it for the keys. We stored our instruments in lockers in the music room where other students had a chance to blow into them during the day.

By the time I entered Porter Junior High in Granada Hills, I had graduated to a wooden clarinet, which broke apart into two main sections, along with a barrel, bell, and mouthpiece that you sorted into proper slots in the velvet-lined storage case. It took months to learn how to play it without hitting one of those bone-chattering screeches. The instrument was powered by a slender bamboo reed that you soaked in your mouth for five minutes before assembling the clarinet. Once moistened, the reed vibrated evenly and if you built up an embouchure (training the muscles of your face to clench securely about the mouthpiece), you could avoid unwanted notes that diverted highway traffic for miles.

My father used to ask if I took requests, to which he'd add, "Can you play "far, far, away?"

Whenever relatives came for a visit, my mother (who had been a successful child violinist) trundled me out to abuse them with squeaks and screeches. I was proud--and horrified.

Day by day, semester after semester, I rose to the challenge. With 25 clarinetists in Mr. Schackne's band, it always came down to Howard Goldberg and I. We fought like dogs for the first chair of the section. One semester he'd sit at the top, the following semester I wrested the honors away. We played musical leap-frog for several years, rising to Schackne's challenge to play complicated parts from Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite or Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor --a death battle of woodwinds while our band-mates looked on.

In our last year of junior high school, I joined the Porter Polka Dots as principal clarinetist. Russ and Bruce played trumpet and Matt played tuba. We wore white dress shirts onto which we carefully pinned red polka dots cut from construction paper--and green-felt tyrolian hats with feathers. Proud then, I can only look back with horror. We sawed our way through "The Beer Barrel Polka" and other delights.

Following graduation, mom and dad took me on a visit to relatives in New York City. It was an astonishing trip for a 12 year old. We visited Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, Chock Full of Nuts, Coney Island, and the Empire State Building. But the highlight of the trip was a visit to the crowded district in Manhattan where merchants sold musical instruments. In one store, the clerk showed us a new Buffet clarinet. It was made of rich, brown pearwood and the quick action of the silver keys took your breath away. I nearly died when we walked out, the black leather carrying case in my hand.

But the following fall I entered high school and all would change. I improved my playing, but at the same time, it was clear that the clarinet was decidedly not a sexy instrument. We were listening to "Eight Days a Week" and "White Rabbit" on our .45 rpm records. Moving to saxophone was an option, but really, anyone who was "boss", "bitchin'", or "cool" was studying guitar.

I had a brief flirtation with bass clarinet, a horn more than twice the size of a clarinet with low notes that shook your whole body when you played. Since bands and orchestras only had a single bass clarinet, it was my only chance for distinction, and for a while I played for the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic, rumbling out bass clarinet parts written by Shubert, Mahler, and Brahams. But in a world that orbited about the blazing sun of rock and roll, it simply would not do.

In the marching band, I turned to bass drum, since there was only one of those, and I could wear a kilt at half-time shows. Then, when I graduated and went off to college, I became the drum major, leading the band on to fields at Stanford, Cal, and the Rose Bowl. I twirled a five-foot long mace and high stepped in front of more than 50,000 drunken fans, which made more sense than playing that squeaky clarinet. But it still was not the same as mastering the guitar cords to Disraeli Gears.

For the better part of a half-century, the Buffet Crampon languished in its case, toted about the globe through my many professional incarnations. It found a home under my bed in towns like Fairbanks, Norfolk, Champaign-Urbana, and Tuscaloosa. It hid in the closet up in the Olympic Mountains and near the bustling airport in San Jose. I held onto it through times where selling it would have helped pay a month's rent, or when I thought it would finance a road trip.

I held to the notion that someday it would make sense to take it out and play something. And I was plagued by guilt whenever I recalled the day my mother and father walked me out of that store in Manhattan.

Recently I borrowed a guitar with the idea that I would finally learn the cords to Thunder Road. But my fingers hurt and I could barely eke out a note. I boxed up the guitar and reached beneath my bed for the clarinet case. The cork that lined the barrel and bell had curled off in decay and the pads that secured the tone holes were dry and cracked. It cost $150 to have it tuned up to playing condition, and I brought it home, tapping the case on the seat beside me as I drove.

Reeds are made of plastic or bamboo composites now, but you still have to lay them on your tongue and soak them before playing. I fitted the reed into the mouthpiece and tightened the ligature. My fingers knew exactly where to go, and I started in on Rhapsody in Blue, with that long glissando that rolls way up into the high register as if I was born for it.

I played for a good fifteen minutes before my embouchure collapsed. And I'm proud to say that I didn't squeak, even once.

Friday, February 6, 2009

After Sundown

After 24 days at the Sundown M Ranch near Yakima, I returned to my cabin in the Washington woods. You come out of treatment and it feels as if you had slid down a mile-long sheet of sandpaper. If you dropped a glass in the kitchen, you'd weep for hours.

The cabin was still there under the shadow of the Olympic Mountains when I drove up, and the juncos were still around, although they had eaten all the seeds from the 50-pound sack I left spread across the porch. I was home again, alone with myself. But I felt buoyant, able to look at myself in the mirror, and ready to see the world through fresh eyes.

The recovery meetings were in Port Townsend, fourteen miles away, and I began working anew on my flawed novel, breaking at eleven to drive into town. My cabin was on the Egg and I Road, named after Betty MacDonald's book about Ma and Pa Kettle and their chicken ranch here at the base of the Olympics during the late Depression era. I thought it was prophetic that I should be writing my novel again, reborn here on the Egg and I.

You drove down the hill into Beaver Valley, along the narrow winding green road between farms and stands of old growth forest, past small farm implement businesses and auto yards until, finally, the road emerged on a majestic bluff overlooking Port Townsend where the town spread out over rolling hills surrounded on three sides by the waters of Puget Sound. Sails glimmered in the bay and the Keystone ferry steamed across the channel.

The recovery group, on the other hand, met in a squalid setting, in the basement of a furniture store at the rear of a strip mall that overlooked a parking lot with trash dumpsters. You went through a solid wood door into a room thick with cigarette smoke and filled with the din of excited chatter. The black coffee would melt the enamel off of an elephant's tusk.

But after a few visits, I shook hands with John B., and was grateful that he became my friend. He had been a colonel in the Army and now had a small ranch just off the Egg and I in Beaver Valley. He invited me down for coffee and football on Sunday mornings and we'd stand on the back deck, gazing at the snow-capped Olympic mountains, happy that we'd lived long enough to stand here in the cold morning, steam rising from the rain-soaked deck, the horizon shimmering in the warming day.

John worked at a small oil supply company, but his wife Dixie insisted that I come down after writing in the morning and spend time in the barn at the J-Bar-D Ranch. They had four Palominos and one waddled around in the hay, pregnant and uncomfortable. My favorite horse was Laddie. I gave him carrots and he bobbed his head every morning when I walked through the corral in my rubber boots. One time I was late and Laddie stamped his foot and snorted. I tried to hide the bunch of carrots behind my back and he came up abruptly and nodded directly atop my head, dropping me to the turf like a sack of stones. Out cold! It was love, Dixie later explained, expressed in the language of horse.

I had always been all-thumbs and, now with my brain circuits heavily searching to make new connections after years of living in a bath of toxic chemicals, I would simply bang into things. I had bruises and welts all the time though I couldn't quite remember causing them.

It was Johnny's own mistake to trust me with the spreader. But one afternoon in early spring he asked if I'd take fertilizer out to the pasture while he ran errands in town. It was simple, he said. You dumped three or four bags of it into the bin, drove out to the field, and used hydraulics to open the spreader. It seemed straightforward. I knew how to run a tractor from my days on the kibbutz.

But I had no idea how to set the feeder, and after dumping an entire bin of fertilizer on a narrow strip of field, I came back in for more. Dixie looked horrified. I had used nearly half the supply for the entire pasture on part of the field.

John rolled his eyes when he came home. I could see he was damming up a torrent meant for me. But he only said, "there goes that!" He later predicted that the fertilizer would burn the section all the way to China and nothing would grow. But the following summer, to our surprise, the strip grew thick with hay that rose bright and green like nature's mohawk in the midst of the field.

That was about the time that the mare went into labor. I had been on the phone with Dixie every day that week, between my recovery meetings, my walk out to the old growth where I hugged trees and wept in gratitude, and the five pages I would write on the novel. The baby was coming.

Sunday morning, about 8, Dixie called and I drove like a madman down the winding Egg and I, spun out in front of a logging truck, and sat on the side of the road, my heart banging madly until I gathered myself up and drove the rest of the way to the J-Bar-D.

Dixie and a few neighbors gathered at the stall where the mare was pushing out the white envelope that surrounded the foal. In all, it took over an hour, but out she came, stepping with outsized legs into the world, rising to her feet in less time than I could ever imagine, the memory of centuries working on her behalf, rising quickly in nature to escape predators that might come to eat her or the placenta. And before the morning was out, the foal was walking, staggering comically on those spindly legs, wobbly, straining with uncertain eyes to find the mare's milk.

Dixie took the afterbirth to burn and bury in the field, lest it attract coyotes and, afterward, we sat in the kitchen, John B. and Dixie and I, sipping coffee, feeling the enveloping warmth of the fire from the crackling wood stove, smiles all around, three friends peering at the world through new eyes.

There would be hard times to come, and Dixie would pass away, leaving John B. twice a widower. And I would descend into a long depression, now freed from the substances I had used so long to mask it. But there was no hint of any of these things on that day as springtime came to Beaver Valley.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marching Orders

If there was anything I feared and hated in childhood more than having to climb the metal ladder up to the roof it was the rare, but impressionable sting of my father's belt. Considering how few chores I was asked to perform on a regular basis, it makes any rant about weeding, clearing the table, mowing the lawns, and taking out the trash cans an awfully telling detail about how well I had it.

But my father lacked--shall we say--essential communications skills when it came to issuing directions, which made every small deed into a fully evolved emotional trauma. On weeding day, he would march up and down the driveway, pointing at the ivy, indicating which sprouts you missed. He'd supervise as my brother and I would descend into shame. We'd pout and toss weeds and cuttings on the driveway and dad would ensure that we'd rake them into neat piles, stuff the piles into bags, and carry them to the street. No matter how you did it, you did it wrong. And dad, former chief petty officer, would make sure you knew about it. "Move out!" he'd say, as if we were shouldering our packs and rifles and making our way up Mount Suribachi.

But the order I dreaded most was the one to climb up that miserable ladder to tend to the swamp cooler. We had moved into the house on Gaviota Avenue in 1963, and my mother and father never had adequate air conditioning until 2003. Homes in the San Fernando Valley were chilled by central air conditioning or by swamp coolers. The cooler unit was a metal box that sat on the roof. Cold water was pumped in and showered down over bales of straw. A fan drew air over the moistened pads and the cooled air would feed into the house. In theory.

Pads dried out, pumps failed, and the cooler would stop in the middle of a 103 degree day and everyone would share the misery. There was plenty to go around.

That was when dad would ask me to head up the ladder and help him diagnose the problem. I was good on the way up. The last rung of the ladder was well over the eave and you could step down onto the roof. The roof was covered with white rocks. I couldn't look down, so I focused on the metal cooler.

I don't know exactly how I developed a fear of heights. Perhaps from my mother's genetic contribution. Once we vacationed along the northern California coast and while my dad drove along scenic Big Sur with towering cliffs over the Pacific, mom turned green and refused to look out the window. (I even took hang gliding lessons to get over my fear of heights, but quit after the instructor killed himself in a wicked dive. It's not flying that scares me; it's the dying part that rankles.)

When we were done swapping out pads or clearing the pump on the swamp cooler, dad would be the first to the ladder and over the edge. Once safely on the drive, he'd hold the ladder and issue his orders for me to descend. If I looked at the top of the ladder, I managed to make it to the side. But if I looked down, it was impossible to step off to the ladder. And the white rocks would slide around, weakening what little resolve I could muster to make the edge.

"Move it," dad would say. "Let's go!"

For years I'd hike the Sierras, the Olympic Range, volcanoes on three continents, stand in the wind atop the Hancock Towers, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building. I'd close my eyes on looping roller coasters. I'd fly in small planes and tolerate rolls and stalls. I've survived near misses in heavy commercial jets. Last year, I took the small cable car up the interior leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and peered out the slat of a window at the ground below. But little has changed. It's sad to have been trapped in so much angst when you consider I never fell, or came close to falling. It reflects some discredit today to confess to being an adult roof wuss.

Ask anyone in my life and they'll be delighted to recount the many ways in which I am brave. I can say that with utmost confidence.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Axminister and Esplanade

The first telephone number that my mother had me memorize began with the word Axminster. In Brooklyn, phone numbers belonged to a number of exchanges, and ours was Axminster, shortened to AX when you added the last five numerals that combined to make our home number. Axminster is a town in Devon, England. After our family moved from New York to California, our exchange was Esplanade, shorted by the telephone company to ES.

In those days, there were no such contrivances as call waiting, voice-mail, or text messaging. If you weren't home, the telephone rang until the caller hung up. Our rule was if we were eating dinner, you let the phone ring its brains out. If it was an important call, my mother would say, the party would call back. The other rule was that if the phone rang, my father would wait for someone else to get it.

We had one phone and it sat on a counter-top in the kitchen. Later, when the phone company offered a slender rotary model that offered revolutionary back-lighting on the dial, my mother put one on the nightstand in her bedroom. Now we had twice the number of phones that my father would let ring themselves out.

The technology was screwy: sometimes you could pick up the phone when it was idle and listen to the nearby country western radio station. In those days, the San Fernando Valley still had horse ranches and orchards scattered between the creeping subdivisions, and a listening audience that preferred Gene Autry to Gene Pitney. I'd listen long enough to recognize that the announced was ethnically and aesthetically as far flung from my Russian-Jewish roots as a Martian, then hang up the phone.

Sometimes the phone would ring but no one would be on the other end. Or, when you were lucky, you could pick up the receiver and eavesdrop on the private conversations of unknowing parties. When I lucked into those, I hung on as long as I could, turning the handset to the side in case they could hear my breathing.

When the man from the phone company came out and installed our first push-button phone, it took a while to get used to it. But you were less likely to dial a wrong number with it. I hated when you were dialing a number on the rotary model and your finger slipped out on the last digit, forcing you to have to re-dial the entire sequence again.

Those days, you made every call away from home at a public phone. I hated it. In my youth, you actually went into a Plexiglas booth, closed the door, and the light went on inside. It gave you a false sense of privacy as traffic sped around you and people walked to and fro on the sidewalk. But the booths smelled of urine or vomit and the mouthpiece reeked. You hated to imagine who had used the phone before you. There was always a half-empty soda bottle crawling with ants on the counter or a crumpled cigarette box.

More than half the time, the phone was out of order, left dangling on its metal cord by the previous user. Sometimes the connection was lousy and you'd reach your party and try to understand what they were saying between the static hiss or pop, shouting atop your lungs to be heard.

Phones had no slots for credit cards in the day, so you had to walk around with a pocketful of change, or visit a shop or gas station attendant to cash out paper money. Often, the phone would gobble up your coins and refuse to connect to your number. If that was all the money you had, you were screwed. The booths had white and yellow-page phone directories, but someone had always ripped out the page you needed to find your number. And men--for women would in no way do this--drew profane expressions or near-anatomic renderings on the glass. It was tough to take refuge of a phone booth in a rain storm.

When I was in Italy, you went into an office, gave the receptionist your long-distance number, and then sat in a quiet, clean, comfortable booth--in which no one had apparently urinated--until the phone rang with your call home.

Later, in Los Angeles, the booths gave way to half-booths, plastic kiosks that covered the phone but provided no shelter for the user. You often found a handset missing one part or another, having been slammed in rage by a previous caller. Sometimes you'd pass by the kiosk and the phone would ring. I could never let it go. Usually it was the operator asking for more money and you'd explain you had just picked up the phone, that you were not the guy who tried dialing Romania on a quarter.

The first cell-phone call I ever received came from Bobby Dubois in 1991. He was sitting in his four-wheeler truck, idling outside my home, yakking into a phone the size of a walkie-talkie. It made his day.

I held out, long after cell phones were in-vogue. I had a recorder on my home phone and if anyone needed to talk with me, they could leave a message. If I was late for an appointment or broke down on the highway, I'd find a phone at the gas station or convenience store. But my employer--a trendy web consulting firm--required that I have one, and they bought a cell phone for me to carry in my car. I hated it.

When I finally bought my own, I still hated it. I was pretty sure I had a small number of friends, but the damn thing rang day and night. For a while I was getting calls at 2 am from a woman in China. She kept calling until I asked a friend how to say "Wrong Number" in Chinese (Dwei Bu Chi , Ni Da Tswuo Le). Later, when I moved to the mountains, I found a cabin out of range of service and was forced to pay the company $200 to get out of my contract.

Last year my niece, Jess, graduated from college. I sat in the rows of well-wishers with my brother, his wife, and their two boys. Jess was in the long line to receive her diploma. My brother swapped text messages with her throughout the entire ceremony. The two boys swapped text messages with their pals. I was sitting in a row of constant typists.

Recently, my friend Joey advised me to sign up for a social networking website where people publish their sudden thoughts to hundreds of followers. Say you're in your car at a stoplight and suddenly understand the String Theory. You text your brainstorm into your phone and it instantly sends it to a website and the telephone's of your buddies. The entire world is texting the quality and frequency of its bowel movements to minions of foot soldiers in the army of insignificance.

Count me out. Many days I leave my cell phone home when I go out. If it's important, they'll leave a message or call back.

Today, when I call my parents at the old number, I can imagine the same phone they've had all along, hanging on the wall in the kitchen. It's a few steps from the sink and the mini-greenhouse window where my mother tends the houseplants she's collected over the years. If my father answers the phone--a rare occurrence--he can't waste more than a sentence or two before he hands it over to my mother.

Every so often my mother calls to alert me that I haven't been calling. She says the same thing even when I do call. So I tell her then, "This is me. This is me calling right now."

You want the honest-to-god truth? I have never, ever answered my own phone and heard the voice of my father calling.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


When I leave home most Tuesday nights, the sky is pink and the road across horse country glows with the fading sun. I pass fields where paint ponies and Arabians bend into their evening hay. Hares and skunk dart across the road and families of mule deer scamper into the trees at the sound of tires on the narrow pavement.

I turn right on the county road, pass into thickening subdivisions and mini-malls, and descend past the interstate into the Sacramento Valley where lights from the city on the horizon spark into life in the gathering dusk. By Folsom Lake, the road swings hard left into the town where its high-priced shops and cafes line up along the American River and over the bridge I go, beyond the sprawl of large lots and manor homes to East Natoma Street where it wends left into fields of oak trees and dark rolling hills.

Suddenly the walls come up in the dark like the outer buttresses of a Japanese castle and the sign says to darken your headlights where the road comes up to the guardhouse. I am at Folsom Prison, first opened in 1880 some 20 miles from the California state capital, a million miles away from wherever you are reading this.

To enter the facility, I register at the guard house, then am marched to a second guardhouse inside the old, original tower where I hand over my pass and id to a second officer who buzzes me through the gate. As I walk beneath the towering granite walls, they're watching every step, and gate after gate magically clanks as it's unlocked before me.

More than 4,000 medium and maximum security prisoners are stuffed into overcrowded tiers of cells, two prisoners in each along with bunks, toilet, and sink. This night, I'm inside the cell block, walking the yellow line between the five-story high bank of cells and the outer wall--but the prisoners are not in them. They're sitting on the concrete floor in front of the cells. If one were to stand up, he'd be shot with a rubber bullet. Just before I arrived one of the Hispanic gangs discovered a rapist in their midst and beat him senseless on the yard. A rubber bullet, meant to disperse the attackers struck the rapist in the eye. Now, as I walk down the stairs, descending past the dining hall and out into the chill of the yard, I can see more inmates sitting on the ground waiting for the all-clear.

Just as the guards finish looking me over and giving me the nod, the alert ends and I join the population on the yard as inmates rise and dust themselves off. A few recognize me and nod. A few smile.

This is where I belong on Tuesday nights. Doing alcohol and drug outreach to the precious few inmates who choose to seek it. The United States has the single-highest documented incarceration rate and the largest prison population in the world. More than one in 100 American adults were in prison at the start of 2008. Three out of four inmates in this country have substance abuse problems, but only 10 percent of them receive any kind of treatment before their release back into society. More than 75 percent of California parolees find their way back into prison within a year.

On Tuesday nights, we meet in a schoolroom just off the main yard. California prisons are operating now at more than 200 percent of the planned capacity, and the yard is packed. Out here, the Blacks are lifting weights or shooting basketball, the Hispanics gather at their end, sharing food and blasting music out of a boombox, and whites gather in small groups walking laps around the field. It's chilly winter and they all wear woolen caps pulled down over the ears.

The classroom is warm and I usually stand at the door, shaking hands and greeting the willing ones as they come in from the cold. Michael remembers me and as he reaches the doorway, his face opens up, dropping out of what he calls his "yard mask". Considering the statistics, it's heart-breaking to see only 25 or 30 men at the meeting. But the ones who are here come consistently. Michael says the hour he spends at the meeting is the only time during the week that he feels as if he's no longer in prison. Hearing that is enough to keep me going.

For an hour, we speak openly about the madness of substance abuse. One inmate says he never had a problem but since he committed his crime under the influence, he's been ordered to attend the meeting by his parole officer. He has a life sentence and hopes by complying he may someday walk free. He's already been here 27 years and was arrested just after his 22nd birthday. Another inmate talks about the insane amounts of dope and liquor on his tier. Guards sell some of it. A third inmate talks about his cellmate, how the guy is in his face over staying sober.

I recognize one of the inmate's accents and ask if he's from the South. "Mississippi," he says, grinning. "My mama said if I ever left there I'd end up in jail. She was right."

One of the Hispanic inmates recalls downing his morning bottle of cheap wine and passing out on Market Street in San Francisco where tourists would step over or around him, or miscreants would urinate on him where he slept in the bushes. When you're beyond human aid, it's not a pretty sight. Now he's here, sitting beside whites and Blacks that he'd never acknowledge on the yard or in the cell block.

Christmas is coming and the suicide watch is on. Jeff shows me the tattoo of his eight-year-old daughter he has never held. Martin talks about what it's like to be free from the shackles of alcohol, but that his mind can sometimes still be his judge, jury, and jailer. One of the men reports that Governor Schwarzenegger hopes to kill the funding for our meetings, and it's all I can do to bite my tongue.

At the end of our hour, we stand up, hold hands, and recite the Lord's Prayer. Then, one by one, they file out of the classroom as they pull on their jackets, wool caps, and yard masks. Every man I have come to know through the hour disappears into the crowd of inmates in blue trousers, blue wind breakers, and dark wool hats. The guards peer down from the towers.

I climb from the yard into the warm cell block, past the open showers, beyond the desk where the guards are sharing ribs and french fries, along my yellow line where I walk as the only person who isn't wearing an inmate's clothes or carrying a deputy's weapon, past the tiers of cells that reek of marijuana and tobacco, and down the flight of stairs to the walkway that leads to the main gate. I hand my visitor's badge to the guard and sign myself out. It's Tuesday night, 8:30 pm here on the West Coast, and I'm in my car, back along the bright lights of Folsom's bustling waterfront bars and restaurants, heading home.