Thursday, April 30, 2009
After I had left the home for the bewildered and my 28-day stay, I found myself near unemployable as my mind began the slow trudge toward sanity, rewiring its synapses, trying to spark without intoxicants. The State was a godsend, viewing my classroom experience a virtue when it hired me to run a clean-up crew of teens. The tipping point was that on Fridays, when the byways in the Olympic Forest were choked with weekend campers and logging trucks, we'd get the kids off the road and treat them to an educational day at an environmental site, a hatchery or recycling facility.
I went to Olympia for a week's training, gathered up my white van with state plates and a flashing orange light-bar, stocked it up with day-glo warning signs and highway cones, hardhats and vests for the kids, and a huge water cooler. We'd start at dawn at the county terminus near Brinnon and Quilcene, mark the road, and begin walking. We'd take lunch breaks along the Big Quil or the Duckabush, watching the wild rivers blast through narrow channels beneath a canopy of trees and giant ferns. We'd bag the recyclables in white bags and take them away, leaving the less savory trash in orange bags along the road for the state highway crews.
I needed humbling: I had been a college professor at a Big Ten university and now was bagging filthy diapers, beer cans crawling with worms and slugs, discarded syringes and secret stashes of porn magazines and whiskey bottles from along the road. But that university professor had graded student papers in the Esquire Lounge and helped himself to pills left by his landlord physician in the forest house where he taught in Alaska, and having the grace of working with kids at their summer jobs, cleaning up the detritus tossed from speeding cars and semi-trucks by drunks and addicts seemed like karma to me.
There were six boys and six girls on the crew--when they all showed up--some from poor homes, all a little distracted and in danger of wandering thoughtlessly onto the highway. So I spent most of the day herding them around, setting out traffic cones and signs, and discouraging the kids from picking up needles and dead animals. Along the expanse of pines and granite between Quilcene and Chimacum we found a discarded deer head, tossed out by a hunter, and a makeshift dump where locals had chucked busted refrigerators, stoves, boat engines, motorbikes, beds and couches.
Someone had made a parking spot behind a wall of wild rhododendrons with a firepit, a lawn chair, and a carton filled with girly mags. We picked up the empty beer bottles and magazines for recycling, dumped out his cache of whiskey bottles and bagged them, too. Along the route we found a discarded appliance box filled with Audubon Magazines.
I marveled at how long some of the trash had aged along the road: tin beer cans that had to be opened with a church key, newspapers and magazines from the 60s, cans and bottles of Bubble-Up, Falstaff Beer, other products long since discontinued in the marketplace.
On the last Friday of the summer, I took money we had received from the recycling center and bought the crew pizza and sodas. I asked if they wanted the balance of the money for their own pocket change. We hugged and went our separate ways. No one had been injured, although once I had to grab one of the girl's shoulders and heave her out of the way of a logging truck that blew down our sign and blasted through our line of cones.
For the remainder of my seven-year stay on the Olympic Peninsula I drove the length of Highway 101, knowing it better than most people, knowing parts of it intimately, and had the satisfaction of doing a full day of work for minimum wage, helping the forest to survive us, and befriending local boys and girls that called out my name when they saw me walk the streets in Port Townsend, waved at me in their caps and gowns.
It was a good first job back from the dead, all I could have hoped for in those early days when hope was but a glowing ember.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
We were poor, having saved very little on the kibbutz in the Galilee, and when the Appolonia steamed from Limassol that evening, we berthed in the bottom deck, a cavernous room in the prow of the ship decked out with airline seats where you reclined in your sleeping bag. There were no portholes in steerage, and the room pitched and rolled with every wave. The better alternative was to take your sleeping bag on deck and sleep on the gangway beneath the stars. We had bought honey yogurt, fresh baked bread, blood oranges, goat cheese, and honey wine in Cypress and shared our dinner under gathering clouds. She didn't mention the man she had left behind, and neither did I.
Sometime after midnight we woke to a storm, our sleeping bags soaked through, the rain pitching down in thick sheets and the Appolonia rising high by the bow and dropping like a stone. Water swept across the deck, slopping out the scudders and up the sides of the coamings, and the crew darted across the afterdeck to batten the hatches. They called out in Greek, shouting above the wind.
We had warm clothes below decks, so Caterina and I hurried down ladder after ladder until we stood dripping and shivering in the dim red lights of steerage where fellow travelers moaned with every swooping pitch and descent on the waves. It was hot and stuffy, and you could hear people choking down their nausea until you could barely keep down your own supper. When, finally, someone lost their stomach across the pitching floor, the smell was unbearable, and I bit down tight against my automatic urge to join in the chorus, racing up-ladder, seeking fresh air, wet still and cold, and looking for the hatch that led to the howling winds. Topside at last, I held tight to a camber thinking I had missed the worst, until I saw several of the crew, bent over the rail, moaning, and I lost it at last, surrendering.
The next morning the winds were calm, but I still felt the rocking in my bones. The clouds broke into quilts of reds and dark purples and the prow of the Appolonia curved through a cool, clear sea. She was bound for Rhodes, an island frequented by Swedes, and so Caterina chose it for an extended call so she could hear her native tongue again. We showered, packed our gear, leaving the sleeping bags to air on deck. It would be days before I could eat hearty.
By then, we had a room overlooking a tranquil bay in the village of Lindos. The hill town curved around a stunning white beach and aside from taxis and donkeys that hauled tourists around, you got around on foot. The acropolis and temple of Athena stood atop the bluff, facing the sea, and the fishing village looked much as it had in the second century, save the bright blue and green umbrellas set along the broad strand.
We shared so little talk, but we agreed on a daily schedule that suited us: mornings, we went off for fresh bread and honey yogurt and coffee before a swim in the lagoon so clear you could see down into dark blue depths where huge boulders sunk into the sand. In the afternoons, we'd nap in the room, escaping the heat of the sun that angled down through the rows of whitewashed inns and glittered on the chipped mosaic tiles set into the narrow walkways between the shops. In the early evenings, we chose a cafe at the base of the acropolis to sip brandy and work up an appetite for grilled chicken, fresh calamari, and roasted eggplant.
We played a game--Caterina seemed too ashen to do much else--wherein we eyed the rows of tourists descending the serpentine path from the acropolis, guessing their nationalities by their clothing and mannerisms. The Americans were loud and gaudily dressed and as they came down along the wares sold by Greek women in their black cotton chemises, you could hear them talking nonsense. The Italians were an easy call, too, with their clean pressed, bright colors and oversized gestures; the Germans, their clothing plain and functional, their bodies large featured and fresh-scrubbed skin; and the English, complaining about everything in tones that echoed off the whitewashed walls and across the square.
After supper, we sat on the patio with our separate thoughts.
Caterina wore a grim determination now and was already checking the schedule for the return of the Appolonia. We shut out the light and tucked into our separate beds in the little room with the tile floor. On our last day I snapped a photo of her, standing before a field of bright green grass, the hills dotted with sheep and olive trees in the mid-day sun. She smiled for the camera.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The mountain is less imposing than Japan's largest volcano, Mount Aso, also located on Kyushu. Earlier in the week, we had taken a bus to the trailhead and climbed to the top of Aso, dizzy from altitude and the heavy sulfur in the air. On top, the Japanese had constructed concrete shelters around the caldera, small bunkers stocked with boxes of plastic hard hats that you could wear against the hail of rocks and magma. It felt as silly as it looked. The last time Asoyama had erupted, it tossed rocks the size of semi-trucks all the way into the center of Russia.
On this steamy summer's night, we sat in our room at the hostel mapping out our trek up yet another volcano scheduled for the following day. My calves burned and my lungs ached. We were on the volcano tour of a country with residents that we had been misled into thinking spoke some of our language. But in Kyushu, more than 900 miles from Tokyo, we found few residents who could say more than hello and goodbye.
Everywhere we went, dozens of kids, all adorned in black and white school uniforms and daypacks, flocked to us, asking us to sign their scrapbooks. I must have been an odd sight, towering over them with my black beard and shaved head. You could plan your entire trip around the punctuality of the national railroad, and whenever we stepped off the train we were surrounded by curious onlookers, some of whom would point at me and shout aloud the Japanese word for "beard".
Three or four volcanoes into our trek, we discovered that it was nearly impossible to be alone in Japan. We'd take buses from the train stations to the national parks, where we were instantly amidst a pack of students in their uniforms. No matter the difficulty, there would be hundreds of students on the mountain trails. We'd often look for unmarked paths or picked our way along streams and rivers to avoid the notoriety.
That night in Kagoshima, we decided to try our luck with Mount Unzen, a 4,000-foot smoker that rose in Nagasaki Prefecture. In the 1700s, Unzen had gone off and caused an earthquake, avalanche, and a tidal wave that killed more than 15,000 people. That's what you call a trifecta. Two years after our visit, it would go off again and kill more than 40 people, including a handful of volcanologists. But on the day of our visit, Unzen was in a quiet slumber.
To our delight, the cab we hired dropped us off in an empty parking lot. Where were the buses of students? We set off in earnest, passing through a long corridor of shrines that formed the beginning of the trail. Little grebes zeered between the trees and you could hear the faint gurgling of a stream. The sun slanted through the leaves and flickered as we walked, promising warmth through the morning fog.
Out on the ridge beneath the caldera, we paused to catch our breath. We heard the subtle wind and, from the distance, a train as it rattled northward toward the Inland Sea. Below, beyond the trees, you could see the orderly rice paddies and tendrils of smoke from the burning of husks.
The ridge went up at a mad angle. We made our way, stopping every few steps on the incline, then trudging off again. My shirt was soaked and so was the blue bandanna on my head. A set of wooden steps were wedged into the trail near the top of the ridge. And when we reached the summit, we stood gasping, hands on our knees, peering down into the steaming caldera.
The rim trail wended off in both directions, so we chose the route to the east and made our way into the shimmering waves of heat. The sulfur pierced our eyes and I tied the bandanna over my nose and mouth.
We were happy enough.
Then we spotted the remnants of a group luncheon at the edge of the crater. The diners had left 40 or 50 styrofoam trays, neatly arranged in a semi-circle, individual sets of chop-sticks keenly set across the tops of plates smeared with brown sauce and white grains of rice.
The bento boxes waited patiently for Mount Unzen to bear them away.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
So many of my favorite authors put in their time south of the border. In one year of literary studies I must have read a dozen writers who either lived in Mexico or wrote about it. I loved Kerouac's sorties and the tales of the revolutionary era that Katharine Anne Porter wove with Old Testament filaments of delicious clauses, and I thrilled in Malcolm Lowry's baroque constructions and disjointed plot lines. Then, there was Graham Greene's Power and the Glory and its non-fictional companion piece, Another Mexico, with tales of low dealings and a high exchange rate. I had been mistaken about Nathaniel West, author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, thinking he had been killed in a car crash on his honeymoon in Mexico. Actually, the accident happened on the American side of the border. And then there was Cortazar and the poets, too!
My first sweetheart in Porter Junior High was a Chicana, Cecelia, and whenever I hear the voice of Cecelia Cruz I think of her and get woozy. In our Spanish class she got to keep her name, while the instructor dubbed me "Ramon". I considered myself Ramon Navarro and lacked only a fencing scar to complete the charade. I had my cinematic crushes on Lupe Velez and Katy Jurado--both birds of paradise-- such utter strangeness for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, but somewhere my blood boiled. And I would have given my life for Natalie Wood.
Hence, I caught the wanderlust at an early age and as soon as I left home, I began visits to Baja and the Yucatan and the southwest Oaxaca coast. My writing mentor Don Hendrie took a home in San Miguel de Allende every summer in the cool mountains of Guanajuato to work on his novels. So when I finally entered graduate school in Alabama, I took advantage of its proximity to New Orleans and the cheap flights to the Yucatan.
My memories of the country have developed like a photo left too long in the chemical bath, with the details blurring over time and the contrasts sharpening into stark relief. While I had experienced great sweetness amongst the residents of small towns and villages, the exhilaration in the deserts, mountains, and beaches, the Mexican cities grimly coalesced around a gran peligro that one feels in the Baja of Touch of Evil. It was as if you could slip through a crease in the fabric of folkloric splendor into ugliness and violence without a moment's warning.
Let us wait for another day to talk about the ride in the taxi I caught on the outskirts of the bufadora blowhole on the baja coast where the driver only revealed his nearly downed bottle of tequila long after we sped away from the parking lot and into the sprawling dust of the horizon where the cacti went purple against the setting sun. And the story of the Yucatecan bus driver who added two hours to an already excruciating six-hour drive from the Mayan ruins of Chitchen to the Caribbean coast by stopping where he pleased to pick up black market shipments of stoves and other appliances in dark alleys for transport to friends and associates along the dusty lanes outside Valladolid.
Or, the night I slept on the concrete floor of the deserted bus depot outside Ensenada because I had missed the last bus and needed to slip from view of the federale who was tailing me--trying to entrap me by withdrawing marijuana papers from his vest and asking me to simply fill them with herb so we could smoke; as all Americans traveling the Baja night carried mota. Or the crowded cantina south of the Tulum junction where the beautiful barmaid who had an uncanny interest in me was -- as some laughing compatriots at the table warned me -- packing some male genitalia under her skirt.
But that said, we should talk about Dr. Z who joined me in walks about Merida and on strange nights sat talking to his half-drained mescal bottle as we lay in cheap motel rooms lit by bare bulbs to save money. And how at the end of a small street we found a cafe pressed in the alley between two buildings that served dirt-cheap fish tacos that we enjoyed until one evening, after the meal, a stray cat walked out from the kitchen and vomited on our table and Dr. Z asked the mesera to bring along a platter of whatever the kitty had eaten. And the following morning I awoke with a humbling case of Montezuma's Revenge that had me squarely where it wanted me in the latrine from dawn till late afternoon when Dr. Z and I went from farmacia to farmacia in search of the magic cure I had read about in a guide book.
It came in a small brown bottle and the doctor said to pour a tablespoon of the thick yellow liquid onto a mound of mashed green bananas in a plate and spoon it down. It was not one of the pro-biotics handed out today, but an old remedy redolent with opiates and belladonna and while the runs continued over the following two days, I sat in the small but clean tiled bathroom in great delight.
Dr. Z had brought back from his daily errands (rounding up mescal and some pan dulce) a stack of comic books that surpassed all my expectations. They were comprised of snapshots cut from hour-long television soap operas, pasted into linear plots, with outrageous dialog typed beneath each photo. The common plots were steeped in trickery, infidelity, alcoholism, gambling, and firearms, with out-sized dramatic gestures (popping eyes and rivers of tears) and verbal exchanges orbiting the grief planet (by my limited translations): "She was MY woman!" or "You have brought us all a veil of tears, may Christ forgive you!"
Or, perhaps, the comics never existed at all. The days and nights went by in a blur of bottled electrolites and the belladonna-opium tincture. And I had developed a profound respect for clean restaurants.
There is another tale, too, of being arrested by federales for passing a funny cigarette on a sand dune one evening along the Sea of Cortez where my fellow wanderers--Plunger Dave and Yossi Raz of the Israeli army, ret. -- had to cough up enough funds to "pay the ticket" or spend the night in a San Felipe jail. The federales were kind enough, and young, and despite Yossi's notion that he could get the drop on the three that held the automatic rifles if Dave and I took down the fourth, let us off for $40. And the wheels were then greased for the remainder of our stay, during which time they returned in civilian clothes to share our pot with us and joke about the wealthy American couple that they had busted in a nearby travel trailer with cocaine aboard. That "ticket" went for a bargain at $6,000.
On our last morning in camp, I repaid Yossi's offer of violence by spiking his breakfast omelet with magic mushrooms, waiting to catch his reaction when his brains began to melt. It was a hot day and the tide along the Sea of Cortez yanked the water out for nearly half a mile, exposing the rocks and squirting mollusks and fish, flopping, gasping for breath in all that sudden air.
But those are other stories and, besides, it was another country.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Since chemical companies have no inclination of owning up to their egregious criminality, I'll hold up my slender end:
I have no idea what got into me. I came home from that trip to the writer's conference in Chicago to find that your sister drank that bottle of rare rum that I brought home from the Yucatan. I tossed an electric fan out the second-story window. I know you had your car parked and ready to go the following morning. And I went to the Tuscaloosa community counseling center that afternoon, where the counselor told me I apparently just didn't have enough outside activities and "oughta just go fishin' more often." I appreciate that you gave me another chance. My behavior could very well have been attributed to the blood thinners, nitroglycerin, or sex hormones dumped into the Black Warrior River. Or it may have been that time I was jogging along the Alabama streets when the mosquito district truck drove past and coated me in that insecticide fog. But I finally found out it was unchecked alcoholism and a mood disorder! You deserved better."
You never did give me that whopping bonus you promised. In fact, you killed off the entire staff in layoffs because the twenty-somethings running the company burned the gift horse into the ground with endless parties in Vegas. I must have been out of my mind from all the blood thinners in the San Jose water supply when I believed your tech guy when he said you wouldn't notice the laptop of yours that I took when I quit as equity against the unpaid bonus. I know I brought it back to you when I got into recovery and made financial amends. But it could have been the blood thinners and head-lice insecticides that made me act like a petty thief. Just sayin'."
We had been so dang careful, too. And, with all those contraceptives they'd been dumping into the water in Palo Alto, who'd have thought you'd get pregnant? It's been easy for me despite living in a culture that apparently has its head up its ass to accept that your decisions about your body are yours to make. But hardly anywhere is it written about the hole in the heart that men feel when the woman they love decide not to have your child. Today I'm grateful that they had been dumping antidepressants and nicotine into San Francisco Bay so I could keep a smile on my face and hold your hand as you had to cross that picket line of righteous assholes that tried to make you feel like Charles Manson as you went into the clinic, slamming their placards against your body with all the disregard to human life they protested. I love you still, and I'm delighted to see the photos of the grown boys you've raised with your steady hand."
"Dear Valley West,
I'm sorry about that night in my 20s when I had tequila for the first time and went out, apartment-by-apartment with a screwdriver, removing everyone's locks in an effort to "set them free from corporate greed". You made me pay, and I deserved it. But instead of the tequila, it may have been the codeine dumped into the drinking water that flowed out of those designer taps in your upscale kitchen. But if it was my fault, please know I never did anything so close to stupid as that again."
"Dear Corporate America,
I had some serious chemical dumping problems those messy years. They were all of my own making. And while I did a great many things I'm not proud about, I've since cleaned up my own waste. I'm far from being the poster child for a well-centered, well-mannered individual, but I have found exceptional grace in owning up, paying back, walking straight, and changing the way I act to those most precious beings who share this fragile, tender, crowded space.
Try it sometime."
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In the summer in a very humid June in Virginia, I waited outside the baseball stadium to buy a ticket for the Triple-A class team of the New York Mets, the Tidewater Tides. The sun grilled you like a flatfish and the stadium, located adjacent to the zoo and airport, was built on recovered swamp-land, swarming at mid-day with gnats and mosquitoes.
I was renting a cottage in the woods outside Colfax, on a meadow at 2,000 feet with a brook and tall pines. We were so far from town that you couldn't get internet service, save by a satellite hookup that was spotty at best. But my desk looked out a sliding glass window on a broad field, with a narrow bridge over the creek, and a single Japanese maple that had blushed brilliant red in the snap of fall weather.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Of all the world's religions, Buddhism made sense to me in its fundamental idea that suffering (dukkha) forms the axle around which the human condition rotates. The purpose of life, as I came to understand it, is to take action every day to eliminate desires to cling to things. I once thought that the principle applied only to material possessions, but later realized it also referred to clinging to other people or to expectations for the future, the wellspring of my own misery. But, that's now.
Eerily enough, when I was in treatment for addictions in 1991 I heard the message for the first time, although I perceived it as a shaming remark. In recovery, you assess your life up to the moment, listing things that people had done to you, the things you had done to them, the things you did to yourself, and all the things in-between that you only imagined took place. The latter of lists held the greatest number of items.
At the end of my stay, I was to share my discoveries, along with my deepest secrets with the treatment center priest. I had never deliberately taken my soul secrets to a priest in my life and, aside from accidentally working my way to the front of a communion line at a friend's funeral service only to escape ahead of the ritual, I had never even spoken with one. But I craved for the fresh expanse of a new beginning, so I told the priest everything.
"You decided at a very early age to be miserable," he said, summing up. He shook my hand and that was that.
If you don't know the location of the source of your misery, you can spend a life rummaging around your mind in search of it. The mind likes this, since it helps preserve the illusion that the mind is the remedy. And as I walked the verdant lanes of the treatment center after my housecleaning, I fumbled insanely for the magic bullet to remove the blood stains from my hands.
Avoid the deliberate manufacture of misery, says the recovery literature, based on Christian doctrine. Nirvana, the Buddhist tradition says, is the act of blowing out the mind like a bad holiday candle so that the wind of eternity can waft through. It is in dying to self, St. Francis says, that we are reborn. It felt as if every faith I encountered prescribed the same solution.
What a rub. After treatment ended, I drove back over the Cascade Mountains to my little cabin in the Olympic forest and pondered my navel. My brain rushed forward with useless remarks. I was so troubled, I couldn't stand my own flesh. I planned a trip to the coast.
The road to La Push spun out of the Quimper Peninsula beneath the snow-capped peaks and wild river valleys, flattened across the Sequim highlands, dove into serpentine loops around Lake Crescent and the darkened lanes where loggers had clear-cut the old growth forest, leaving a few rows of pines along the highway to block the view of stubbled fields.
I stopped along the way to sit beside Ray Carver's grave overlooking the Straights of Juan de Fuca. I had come to love Carver after all. His later stories contained a gracious expanse of love that burst from the mean figures of early prose. He had found recovery, too, during the last years of his life before cancer claimed him. A small temple bell fitted into his headstone jangled in the wind as I sat quietly viewing his last poem, etched into the concrete:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
I couldn't sit more than a moment, my thoughts racing. I looked at Ray's grave. I said some things to him. I asked him to help me learn some things. I looked out where a freighter from the Far East turned into the center of the shipping lane. I looked across the straights to the whited strip where Victoria lay on the belly of land. Then I said goodbye to Ray.
At the coast, I took the turnoff to the second beach at La Push. There was a wood-plank trail through towering, dripping old growth forest, ferns that seemed to burst out green and wide, and white fungus clinging like bright ears to the sides of trees. And then descending the wet stairwell to the beach, I gazed out at the mist where it spread between the hanging branches. Red and purple sea stars held fast to the sea mounts and kelp drifted freely in the surf.
I walked without stopping the length of the beach to where it narrowed into spray at the southern end where the rocks blocked the way. Then I turned and walked my way back, my heart pounding, and took the steps back into the forest, gasping for air at the incline, wiping the light rain from my forehead. And then, finally at the parking strip, I climbed into the car and sped home.
I had driven several hours to get to the coast, spent less than an hour walking, and several hours driving home. There was no way I could sit quietly at the coast with all that brain noise and, back in my cabin, I lay in the sleeping loft, listening to the wind in the trees and the critters stumbling around outside in the dark until I finally drifted off.
It was Easter morning. And when I rose, I blew on the coals to get the wood stove going and boiled water for coffee. Friends had invited me over for supper after the noon recovery meeting. I had no sense of what Easter was about after the burying of eggs and the people who dressed up and went to church and the ham afterward. And I really didn't want to fit in. It was all fine the way it was.
But I set out for my morning walk along the Egg and I Road, heading north toward West Valley Road and the wide fields of horse farms between the ridges of fir and madrone. The road was wet and icy in patches and my breath came out in frosty pillows. I wore my blue mittens that I had bought in Fairbanks.
When I came to the bluff, I looked out at the Beaver Valley with its quilt of trees and fields dotted by cows and horses, and the whited crests of the Olympic peaks beyond in the sharp rising sunlight. You'd hardly know people lived here, save for the string of telephone lines that came up behind me and dropped down the long hill into the valley, then stretched out across the valley and up the hills on the other side.
They looked like so many crossed tees to me, strung up for all the ills, the black thoughts I had entertained for so many years, the lies, the rage (and I'd be damned if I'd buy into any of that Christian symbolism), but for a moment it all made perfect sense to me that I didn't need to call it anything if I let my mind drift away and welcomed the warm thrill that started around my knees and spread out like wings across my chest.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
In the spring of that year, I found myself sitting alone in a wing that made up half of the consulting company's Silicon Valley flagship office. The shark they had hired as new V.P. to sack the ship and toss the crew overboard was halfway through his charge. When I spoke on the telephone, my voice echoed across the empty room, bouncing off the concrete walls that once had been decorated with bright posters or flow charts describing the work on Fortune 500 company websites. I had to walk the length of the office, through the doors to the lobby, and into the doors for the adjacent wing to catch a glimpse of another employee.
So when my college friend from Sacramento called to say he had a lead on a job with the California Governor's office, I assembled a resume, a slide presentation of my web design and writing abilities, and drove the two hours to the capitol to treat the bureaucrats to my best dog-and-pony show.
The trick, my friend explained, was to get in tight with advisers and consultants to the governor who were of Mexican-American origin. They had, my friend assured me, the governor's ear. They were called, as a governmental bon mot, the Mexican Mafia.
I met my friend's friend in a small office outside the capital area. They were golf buddies and did some consulting for the state. My friend's friend had a friend with government contracts in the technology staff and could act as a kind of Masonic sponsor to usher me into the tribe. It didn't matter that I was a Russian Jew: my friend was Portuguese, his friend was Mexican-American, and the friend in the technology department was Latino. The Department of Technology, created in 1995 to oversee all technology and software purchases, was under the direction of a Mexican-American bureaucrat.
It was arranged for me to meet with a Hispanic member of Governor Gray Davis' staff to present my wares. The department had a website that had been poorly cobbled together over several gubernatorial administrations and looked it. Visitors complained that it took hours to find what they were looking for on the site, if they were lucky to find it at all. I told the staff that I could straighten it all out for $70,000.
They agreed, my contract went to the Mexican Mafia at the Department of Technology, was approved immediately, and I moved to Sacramento. This was in a time when technology was king, the state was buoyed by revenues, and the Department of Technology, housed in a formidable black palace known as the Darth Vader building, approved contracts with the same aplomb as a California medical marijuana doctor tosses prescriptions like confetti.
My quarters were less threatening. I worked across the street from the sprawling Capitol Building in a quiet office with friendly people. The office was run under a formal director, a southern California attorney of note who wore an impeccable tan and, on Fridays, Hawaiian shirts. But the troops took their marching orders from a career bureaucrat, a Hispanic who had come over from the FDA. I had privileges of walking the capitol grounds, visiting the governor's office for formal affairs, and attending to my own business without the apparent care of others so long as I made routine progress on re-organizing the website and turning in my time sheets regularly to the Mexican Mafia in the Vader building.
The pace of the project, one might say, schlepped along like a glacier. I was used to turning around a major website in a matter of months or less for a Fortune 500 client. At the state--where the unofficial motto among career workers was "vest in peace"--it took months just to push initial planning paperwork through channels. I surfed the net, handled outside clients, took leisurely walks in the trees lining the capital mall. They were happy with my work, and I was happy to have it.
Then, suddenly, the man in the Hawaiian shirts resigned and dark chatter smoked like a vapor throughout the building. Something, somewhere, was wrong. I got a call from my man in the Vader building with an urgent request for lunch at one of the fancy restaurants along the mall.
"Do you know anything about Oracle?" my insider asked me between courses. I said I knew they made customer relationship and business software. He nodded. If I heard anything about Oracle I was to call him for a meeting.
Frankly, I had preferred to hear nothing about the office, about software, or even the government. I had met Governor Davis, a New Yorker with the personality of an fish Popsicle, and I cared as little for him as anyone could without having a real opinion. So back to the slow crawl I went, enjoying my noon walks in the rose garden or workouts at the local gym, then back to my cubicle for an afternoon of shuffled paperwork. But the hush-hush atmosphere began to peal like a shame bell through my hours.
After the lunch date, I started to read the Sacramento Bee, particularly a conservative columnist who had little talent and blustered like a wounded rhino at the Democrats. The scuttlebutt was that the Administration had paid $42 million more than it needed to pay for Oracle software to serve a staff of 270,000 workers. A year after the no-bid contract had gone out to the bay area giant, not a single state employee for whom the buy was intended was using Oracle's software.
Not long afterward, three members of the Department of Technology resigned. I had my lunch date with my sponsor and he assured me all was well with my work. Then, the Bee dog-piled on a story that wouldn't go away: In May 2002, Davis returned a $25,000 campaign check cut by Oracle and passed to a staff member in a restaurant just days after the no-bid multi-million contract went out for the software no one used. And someone we knew, it was whispered through the halls of so many buildings in the capitol, was the man who accepted the check.
I completed the project, was shuffled into another office in under the Governor's umbrella and quietly laid off shortly after Davis barely survived a re-election campaign in 2002. But a year later Davis was toppled in a recall effort led by body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had worked with Arnold on the set of End of Days, spinning a teleprompter machine for a message to film distributors. He was short, intense, had all the personality that Davis could have wished for, and in short order led a state to near-complete, economic collapse, having gutted fundamental programs for education, the less fortunate, and elderly.
Oracle, it must be said, has never been accused of wrong-doing in this matter, especially not here. But the company name is historically suited for the dramatic stage.
As for my initial contact in the Mexican Mafia, the man with the small office outside the capital was arrested and convicted for drunken driving in a quiet residential area, resulting in the deaths of several members of a local family.
This is all anyone should write about it. The story would make for fantastic, tragic drama, except for the whole thing.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
There were several kinds of slips: simple printed form letters, usually sent as postcards; printed letter-size rejections; quick notes from an editor and signed in ink suggesting that they actually read what you sent; and, if you were lucky, an extended missive with critical remarks about the writing along with reasons why it was declined. My favorite slip came from a little-known university literary journal that had boxes for the editor to check, with witty remarks such as "feet smell", "dog peed on it", or "thanks for the paper cut."
Writers have thin skins, especially this one, and I once was told by an author, since deceased, that I'd never make it if I took umbrage with being kicked around a little. Besides, he said, you could send the same story to the same magazine on different days, using different typewriters, and one would sell while the other drew rejections. If your envelope was opened after a hearty staff lunch, they probably fell asleep reading it. If it landed on a Monday morning, the staff may well be hung over.
To show I have no hard feelings, I'm going to present a selection of my more successful failures from the cornucopia of slips from my over-the-transom submissions.
"Dear Ms. Hyman. As before, I admire the writing, which is energetic and stylish. The story, however, doesn't add up to very much, and we'll have to pass. Please try us again." -- The Atlantic.
"I'm sorry our tastes here are so particular and that I can't take any of these pieces, but the work is vital, energetic and accomplished, and I'd say you're just about to take off with publications. Please stay in touch, I'd be glad to read more." -- Esquire.
"The writing style itself was excellent but the pace of the story was just too slow. You do have a lot of talent. Sooner or later, it's going to break your way." -- The Missouri Review.
(Printed on a stock reply card) "We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it." The Editors, The New Yorker (signature and note at the bottom: Sorry, and thanks.")
"Sorry that your novel chapter was not for us. Obviously flashbacks can work well in a novel, but to have so many in the first chapter is a little disconcerting. Thanks for the look." -- Playboy.
"This story came very close. I sent it through four blind readings and while two readers (new persons here) didn't recommend it, our senior fiction editor loved it." -- Prairie Schooner.
"We loved 'Oh, Burning Power...' and want very much to publish it. Please assure us it's available, so we can go to the printer. Many thanks for the story." Paul Lyons, Carolina Quarterly.
But wait for the punchline. The story that the Carolina Quarterly loved and published was written in a single sitting, in a bar, as a satire of the kind of short, hyper-real fiction of the late 1980s that I loathed, and included the use of a character modeled to poke fun at people who loved the genre.
Not long after that, I stopped submitting fiction to the magazines. I won't say I'm bitter, because I'm not. These are rejection slips to die for. But I'm sensitive, and the dead fiction writer who lectured me was right. That a writer should have such little tolerance for caprice, the green fuse that flowers all creative life, is an unlovely thing.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
How could you fuck us all over
Rape, steal and murder
God bless the almighty dollar -- Ozzy Osbourne
Clever entrepreneurs in Campbell in California's Santa Clara Valley must have been drinking all night when they stumbled on the brilliant notion of opening up a shop with the name Psycho Donuts. I can imagine them sitting in the garage, passing a beer bong between them on a couch, the stuffing bursting from a worn cushion, when one of them explodes to his feet, the idea flaring like a cartoon image of an early Edison bulb, filaments sizzling. The owners deserve cheap caricature, since that's what they're about.
They opened the place not too long ago, investing who knows how much, branding it with delight in selling their boiled fat and sugar concoctions with decorative names such as Psycho, the Bipolar, Massive Head Trauma, and the Cracker Attacker. Hilarious. A belly buster.
Inside, they built a small platform, the size of an old telephone booth, into which they erected a stark chair and called the stall "The Padded Cell", where they entice young children to pose for photos while adorned in a straight jacket. When you belly up to the counter at Psycho Donuts, women in nurses' uniforms and sharp white hats take your order.
It's clever, right? Ask any soldier with Massive Head Trauma.
For the first time, soldiers in record numbers are returning from combat with massive head trauma. In previous wars, their armor could not spare them from fatal head wounds, but today, they survive explosions from insurgent devices rigged--like so many glazed donuts--in some Baghdad garage. Head trauma affects vision, hearing, and cognitive faculties--often for life. They experience fatigue, impaired memory, depression, lack of focus, emotional outbursts, loss of libido, faulty judgment. Facing redeployment, many commit suicide. More American soldiers than in any previous era are committing suicide in the comfort of our neighborhoods and mini-malls stocked with all-too-many donut shops.
Psycho Donuts' brilliant entrepreneurs, according to their website, have "taken the neighborhood donut and put it on medication, and given it shock treatment." Sounds like a baker's dozen of glazed and nutty confections are just the thing to cure the aftertaste of whatever truths you see behind the veil of mercantile insanity and prisoners of war in our own homes.
In 2004 I took a freelance job editing the website for NAMI California. It's the state's chapter of a national organization devoted to fighting the stigma associated with mental illness. When soldiers fear harassment or demotions for admitting PTSD, they eschew reporting their condition out of shame and resort to eating a bullet. And they're not alone. In a culture that hands out anti-depressants like candy to help people who have mild depression or who are trying to quit smoking, what's truly insane is that so much stigma is attached to individuals who suffer from grave mental illness. We think of these people as twittering imbeciles, foaming at the mouth, sitting on the eaves of their roofs in aluminum foil hats, channeling alien broadcasts.
They're not. Nor are they violent, as the media and film industry would have you believe (for box office revenue). Most are victims of violence done to them on the streets, where they're often homeless and looking for hope in tobacco or a bottle, products sold over-the-counter with clever names and colorful packages. They're among us everywhere. And so are the members of their families who fight a valiant struggle for normalcy in their daily affairs. I lost a grandfather to suicide--before I was born. My own father was only 17 when it happened. And last year, my uncle took his own life the day before my father's 89th birthday.
Excuse me for not laughing. Our father's justice gets closer, and I'm on a sugar-free diet.
Friday, April 3, 2009
When I left graduate school to take a job with an association of creative writing students and teachers, my boss would sing Springsteen lyrics all day. Good Liam Rector, a poet from New England, boozily belted out lines from My Hometown: "There was a lot of fights between the black and white/There was nothing you could do." Rector, who was struggling with cancer, took his own life a few years ago after championing writers and The Boss for decades. To Liam I owe my introduction to Bruce and the E Street Band and swear forever friends.
A year later, I left Virginia to take a visiting professor's job with the English Department at the University of Illinois. I taught two sections of undergraduate fiction writing by day, spent my evenings in the Esquire Lounge with two graduate students who got dewy at the idea of seeing Bruce--which they had been doing along the Jersey Shore since he started at the Stone Pony.
Lauren and Pat (who went on to become full professors in English) spun Bruce albums on the stereo to my utter consternation. I liked the rock okay, but couldn't see their devotion; besides the band was jangly with accordion and glockenspiel sounds of the boardwalk which meant nothing to me; and Bruce's long speeches between songs seemed like a terrible pose.
For three summers we stuck together, Lauren and Pat and I. We drove hours up to Chicago to grab last-minute seats behind the baselines at Wrigley. I had the touch: I scored dozens of prime ducats simply by walking up to the ticket window just before the first pitch. Once we nearly got tossed for riding an umpire. It was boozy, too.
Finally, I agreed to see a show when the band was playing the Rosemont Horizon in the suburbs of Chicago. We had terrible seats, I hated the mugging between Bruce and Clarence, and whined all the way home. But I did like road trips, so we piled in the car and drove from Champaign to Philly for the Amnesty International shows with Bruce, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman. And by the end of the show, the moon busting out over the open night above RFK stadium, the band played Jungleland and I was a goner.
I have not missed a single E Street tour since. And I'm late to the scene. Stand in line for a place in the orchestra pit before the stage at any show and Boss fans wear their pedigrees, reciting their total number of shows, recreating from memory the set list of songs the band played on any given date. (Yeah, I drove all night, too.)
Nearly 20 years after finally seeing what Pat and Lauren had been clamoring about, I joined them again in Jersey, for the opening of The Rising tour in the Meadowlands. You could gaze across the Hudson at the bleak south Manhattan skyline, robbed of its two towers, as you walked the parking lot of E Street die-hards who had been tailgating for days.
I met my friends again in the Midwest for the tour, taking in shows in Columbus and Indianapolis on successive nights. To get a spot in front of the band meant (back then) that you had to get on line days before the show, where fans took down a list of names of people in the order that they arrived. You were in a fatigue spiral by the time the band took the stage.
By the end of the Columbus show, I had my shoes off, dancing in my socks, when Pat tapped me on the arm. We were leaving before the encore, to drive in the freezing rain across Ohio to Indy where we'd jump on line for the following show. I ran for the car, a rental I had picked up at the airport, hopping on one foot, then the other, as I put on my shoes.
It was about 2 am when we took the exit off the interstate in a light snow flurry, making it to the Conseco Field House just as the line was lengthening around the sidewalk. The car in front of us braked suddenly--to release its passengers to the line--and I ran into it, crinkling the hood of the rental. I turned around in my seat, but Pat and Lauren--true friends , but (face it) Bruce fans--had already leaped out, leaving me to deal with the car. Fortunately, it was insured.
When the roadshow moved to California, I bought an extra ticket online from two women from the Bay Area. They became my second set of Bruce angels: Susan and Phyllis. They're unabashed fanatics, racing to the back of the arena before the show to get an autograph or log a Bruce sighting, pressing to the stage to touch him as he mugs with the crowd.
We were in my local gym the day of the show when Phyllis and I saw the Big Man--saxophonist Clarence Clemons--working out with a trainer. We had to go on over and shake hands. And that night he gave us a wink and chest thump as we danced beneath the stage. I got an email later from a friend who had seats above, declaring me "Mayor of the Pit."
We've been to a good dozen shows now together, Phyllis and Susan and I, and in the summer of 2008, we were joined by Pat and Lauren in the pit in Missouri as my Bruce world turned full circle. Billy, who runs the bay area Bruce tribe called "This Train" scored seats to a Cardinals game and we combined baseball and Bruce: my loves. We rode in the cramped capsule that rose up the limb of the Gateway Arch, eyed the Midwest skyline, then rode down, packed in the small cab with two strangers, and we sang Badlands at the tops of our lungs in the echo chamber of the great arch, learning with great regret at the bottom that our companions were professional opera singers, held hostage by fanatics.
That night I yakked giddily with hoops coach Pat Riley in the pit, where he danced with his wife. But I lost the last of my knee cartilage in St Louis, dancing with too much weight on my bones for nearly four hours, hobbling off the concrete arena floor to the car that took me across Missouri to night two in Kansas City, where I danced another three hours on the damaged leg. Doctors say it's now a case of bone on bone and I'll need a complete replacement. There was nothing you could do.
Doctors say I'll be fine afterward and the pain will go away. I can't wait to see how the knee holds up on tour.
Lauren, it must be told, has left the university to take a job with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.