Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Cannot for the Life of Me, etc.

There are 50 of these goldfinches that eat black nyjer seed at my thistle-give-away program on the front porch all the do-dah day. The seed is shipped in from Africa, costs $30 /bag, and damn if the birds can't pound it all down in a month. (Not bad getting through a month on a $30 bag any more when you think on how things used to be. Ahem!)

I can sit with them, these goldies, three feet away in a chair when there are 30 or 40 munching away. Some are gold with whited bellies. I would probably be one of them just to be different. Wonder if there's a sound the birds make that identifies the white bellies, or those all-greenie yellow dudes.

With birds, all talk is cheep.

(Author's Note: Sorry.)

It goes on--the chow line -- from first light to dark. As soon as I can see, one of them is already anchored to the sock.

When they're all on the feeder, it's exhilarating. (OK, not quite like bullfighting). But there is a stillness just past dawn where I hear them cracking open the seed and dropping the hulls to the ground and the wind comes up the canyon from the delta and rattles the leaves. If I move my arms, off go the finches. And they won't come back until one gets the nerve to fly on over in a minute or so. Then, they swoop back in. You can hear the changes in wing rpm as they brake, hover and land. They eventually spook themselves and fly off in a burst. Or I can wave at them. They need to know the kind of man they're dealing with.

I feed them through a mesh sock about four feet long. It sways like a lanyard in the wind, or jerks when a bird slams in without care. When the seed is low they fight, pecking beak-to-beak in midair, whirring and spitting, playing chicken. But in the rain, they huddle under the porch and lap the entire surface of the sock in wings, toasty dry. Love and tolerance.

More about them here.

I am not decidedly not bored. I assure you. I have routine and important things I do every day that aren't bird-related. This is not a cry for help, nor will you be asked to buy anything.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Loyalists and others. Will be busy a while preparing a print manuscript of this blog in the hopes of finding a publisher. Hope to get back to blogging when I can. I am so grateful to all your kind comments and support. You rock! You've given me juice when I ran out. Email if you want a copy of the ms.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Who Goes There?

Oh Alabama.
Can I see you and shake your hand -- Neil Young

On Sundays we would have eggs, bacon, grits, and biscuits with redeye gravy at the Waysider, then we'd head off on the country roads of Alabama. Often we'd have no plan at all but to wend through the rolling hills of baked red clay and thick kudzu vines, pulling into small towns with fabulous names (Smut Eye, Mulga, Moundville, Tishabee) and less-than-fabulous panoramas. In places, strip mining cleaved ugly wounds in the ground. Just a mile outside most any small town there were shotgun shacks, piled atop brick foundations above ground that flooded when the rivers and creeks rose in the winter, homes with dirt floors and Black children sitting in cutoff shorts, barefoot on the stoops in the morning sun in a glade of willows. It was the landscape of Faulkner's a Yoknapatawpha County, where heat and poverty were a synecdoche for a great theme of endless strife.

It was uncanny reading fiction and history of the South while living in the heart of Dixie. One fraternity on campus insisted on flying its Rebel Stars and Bars out the window despite university policy. When a Black sorority applied to move from the ghetto of off-campus Black greeks to a vacant white portico mansion on frat row, a small cross was set afire on their lawn. The college president, an Alabamian educated at Harvard, called it a "college prank".

It was 1984, but at times felt like 1894 to me. In the blistering sun and humid weight of an autumn afternoon, we passed a road crew near campus where shirtless Black utility workers labored in a ditch while their white foreman sipped from the thermos in the cab of his truck. Once I held the door open for an elderly Black man at the telephone company office and he lowered his eyes and said, "Thank ya, thank ya." In the stores, the clerks would say, "My, you'll not from around here are you?" Even if you only bought a stick of gum, they'd offer, "Come back, now!"

We had come from a California beach town and couldn't piece all the parts together in a coherent way when we were turned down for apartments for not being married. I refused to wear the Duck Head slacks and tasseled loafers the Alabama men wore on campus or at the office, pushing my differences in their face as some kind of political statement. When I won a teaching award, I put on some of my sweetheart's make-up, donned a single, jangly earring, and went to the President's Mansion. It wasn't working for me.

And yet, and yet, there was an unmistakable energy beneath the tangle of history and culture that pierced your heart. The full moon a-sail in a sky of puffy clouds, the dense air fragrant of honeysuckle and four o'clocks and magnolias. It could stop you like a bullet. But so could the supper house near the racetrack in Green County where heavyset Black women in white aprons and Aunt Jemima scarves brought you plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and okra and canning jars filled with sweetened tea.

So we took our weekend drives with delight and dread across country that looked like a runny watercolor painting, shimmering in three-digit heat through the windows of our air conditioned car. One Sunday we headed west out of Tuscaloosa on Route 82, switching to a smaller road in Gordo, wending along fields and ponds toward the Mississippi line.

The road ran into the intersection with Road 17 at Carrollton, a town with less than a thousand residents, with all roads linking to the town square. We had a habit of stopping at historical plaques and we found one at the base of the Pickens County Courthouse, the centerpiece of an otherwise unremarkable town. Most of the plaques we found celebrated the founding of a mill or mine, a scene of a Civil War battle, or discovery that led to cotton-trade efficiency.

But in Carrollton, the plaque celebrated the portrait of a lynched Black man, etched by lightening (so legend has it) into the upstairs window of the courthouse. A sign with an arrow was mounted on the side of weathered brick wall, pointing at the window where, with binoculars, you could make out a dark face in the windowpane.

Carrollton held little distinction during the Civil War, save for its elegant courthouse, the epicenter of commerce and law for a modest land of farmers and slaves. But the Union Army found the best possible means of humiliating residents when it torched the courthouse to the ground in November of 1876. Two years later, residents charged a local Black man, Henry Wells, of trying to burn down the new courthouse. Someone certainly had set fire to it.

Wells, who had a criminal record, was being charged--depending on folklore and conflicting newspaper accounts--of arson, burglary, and carrying a concealed straight-razor. An angry, drunken crowd assembled at the same intersection where we stood looking up in the heat, bent on a lynching. Wells, according to reports in The West Alabamian looked down in horror from his garret window, proclaiming that if he were hanged, his face would scowl down upon Carrollton for eternity.

Suddenly, accounts say, lightning struck the side of the building, etching his anguished silhouette into the glass. Shortly afterward, the crowd had its way. It was the evening of September 26, 1877.

The story remains uncontested on the plaque, and I admit to seeing something in the glass window, a shadow, something. Meanwhile, folklore insists that the image won't be washed away. That new glass in the pane assumes the image shortly after it's installed. A curiosity.

Even more curious is The West Alabamian report that windows had not been installed in the newly constructed Pickens County Courthouse until February 20, 1878, five months after the lynching. Like most of what we found, the parts never quite added up in a way would could digest them comfortably. And afterward, when I lived in the Midwest and discovered more virulent racism and antisemitism than I had expected in the South, I began to notice that pictures never quite added up anywhere. Three minutes off the country road where I live in California, you'll find pickup trucks with Rebel flags. On warm evenings, you can hear gunfire down the ravine.

On that summer day in 1984, we walked around the courthouse, bought cool cans of soda pop from a liquor store -- "You cain't buy beer on Sundays out of deference to Our Lord," the clerk told me-- and we climbed back into the air-conditioned sedan. We didn't speak much on the way home. We had seen something.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Write, Part 1

For Will Blythe--
The best way to make money from writing is to write about how to make money from writing and charge for it.

Over the years, friends and passers-by have asked me for advice on writing. I have my own narrow views, informed by years in formal classes, story conferences with other writers, and burying my head in the standard how-to texts when I should have been writing. (Henry James, by way of example, can tell you precisely how to structure your prose if you want to write like Henry James. I'd rather write like Barry Hannah, but have no chance of writing like either of them.) Popular emerging literary criticism from the time I studied in graduate school particularly cherished the word "informed", so I honor it here.

One school would analyze the writer's prose aggregate of grains of sand sparkling on the upright cusp of a woman's arched bottie as she rises from the nude beach on the Riviera to chill in the mouth of the sea. Another would say that the one doing the counting is the author of the text, since there are no original ideas, let alone original grains of sand.

There's no magic pill--only snake oil--for cobbling together a string of descriptors to circumscribe the sputtering belch of a four-barrel Holley 4150 carburetor as it chokes down cool morning air on a summer's day in Augusta, the Dodge still mounted on bricks in a driveway strewn with the detritus of broken screws, oily rags, the tattered head of a stuffed giraffe, trampled wisteria blossoms and frenzied army ants, a pair of oily, frayed bluejean legs splayed out from beneath the gray bondo and rusted frame, one cuff tucked into a Vietnam jungle boot while the other simply ripped to the calf, exposing....

This is the thing, not the idea of the thing. It's about taking action against the desire to think about the action. There are two shot glasses on the nightstand filled with amber liquid. One is labeled "Heaven" and the other, "Instructions for Heaven". From which would you drink?

And with each day's march across the page, you pile up things in the order in which they appear across the screen of the mind, set to the cadence of the heart and, after a while, you have a nasty jumble of stuff, just like the tangle of cord from the stowed earphones of a portable music player in a packing box already bursting with co-polymer fishing line, red shoelaces for your white basketball Jordans, a corded telephone handset (for the moment the cordless batteries expire without warning), the knotted ball of rubber bands you knew you'd need in a pinch, and the pink and mauve thread you've saved to append stray buttons to the double-knit, scotch-plaid leisure suit which someday may rise from the ashes toward your statement of retro chic.

Most people who ask for advice lack the salt to spend the days and years it may take to cultivate their own voice--if ever. You have to write like everyone else that wants to be a writer until you're sick of it and the voices you hear from television or the crappy novels you've read finally percolate away. You have to be willing to end up being just an average writer. There just aren't enough average writers these days anyway.

After college (after one of the colleges) I worked as a cub reporter in Newark, California-- home to Morton Salt. At the bottom of the watery curve of San Francisco Bay there are wide flats of mud and foam. The seawater flushed in with every tide and the flats were caked with with heavy salts. Morton simply reigned it in. At the end of the harvest cycle, the water had evaporated into the California sun and through endless summer days the rust-hued machines crisscrossed the basin, piling up crystalline mountains of salt, blinding-white grains blowing across the road in the trailing breeze. Nature takes time.

Reading widely can help. One summer I bored through several dozen Harlequin romances, charting the structure, noting when the wealthy stud with the fencing scar finally admits his undying love to the hapless trucking company secretary. (It's around page 168).

"There is no rule on how to write," Hemingway said. "Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."

A writer's job is to endure, Faulkner said. That means staying in the chair until the blasting and evaporating -- the erosion of the poorly wrought sentence down to bedrock -- does its thing.

My first and kindest writing mentor told me that everything I wrote could be cut by 75 percent. (You won't see barely enough of it here.) He didn't mean that I had become Thomas Wolfe incarnate, piling up huge constructions and plotlines of rectilinear animal motion. He did not mean that I wrote too much; he meant that I said too little. I wrote the way most high school students speak--and continue to speak well into their mid-lives (or at least until they have to work for a living). Like, you know, what I mean to say is that the sentence, to tell the truth, was, like, doing this and I was, like, thinking that and you know, it was fucked up.

Hemingway also once said the best advice he could give to an aspiring writer was to "go out and hang yourself", and repeat as necessary until you have some notion of the human condition. This advice is not applicable if you wish to become a technical writer, where suffering and writing constitute the same act.

"Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so," wrote John Berryman--expert writing advice from a brilliant poet with severe mental illness who leaped to his death from a bridge. It is not necessary to be mad or a drunk to write brilliantly, however many brilliant writers are both. Not all great authors stick their heads in ovens or walk with purpose out to the salty sea. Madness and suffering may fire the imagination, or help release the weasels in the brain, but it doesn't always equate to getting it down on paper. Under the Volcano is a uniquely fine example of a punitive alcoholic mind organizing the universe alcoholically--an exquisite novel of a lifetime, penned by a drunk who died choking on his vomit.

Hemingway, to follow the thread, is said to have shot himself because of creeping alcoholism. Please. The fellow suffered at least four major concussions following recurrent car/jeep/airplane crashes and you can't chalk it all up to two-fisted rivers of whiskey. Ray Carver's mean-edged, alcohol-tinged prose transcended into billowing clouds of winged grace in his last ten sober years on earth. Read and re-read "Where I'm Calling From" or "Cathedral".

'Nuff said on that subject.

I over-write all the do-dah day. The road of excess, Blake reminds us, leads to the palace of wisdom. You can't get to less until you've slathered the crap out of that prose turkey, basting with genuine butterfat. See? I wrote this piece in three hours and loose change. And I cut a third and re-wrote half the sentences before calling it quits. It would become something else entirely if I devoted (the perfect word) more time to it.

Whether you and I will accomplish a grain of victory in this writing life is another matter. There's alchemy, luck, and too many things we'll never control. I'm shooting for small, lovely moments. An email kiss from a stranger. The delight in dropping a period at the end of a sigh.

Maps to success, overarching plans, guarantees for commercial fanfare are best left to the publishing self-help mavens who routinely hear the cascading laughter of coins tumbling into the cash drawer. They know what it takes to sell books.

But getting out of bed, settling down to pen or keyboard, turning up the music, turning off the music, working at dawn or through the quiet hours of night, doing it with any consistency during a life that bears little evidence of progress when mapped by our critical mind-and hitting the "save" button with regularity-will foster progress and, quite possibly, character.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On The Pyro-Quack Tour

Only those who have felt the searing pain of a pinched sciatica nerve radiating down their leg will know. Imagine, if you haven't, the incessant brutality of a half-inch drill bit driving deep into your ankle while you toss and turn in bed for weeks without sleep. Then add a flesh-ripping ache, akin to a stream of magma down the nerve along your calf, and the crawl of a thousand ants between your toes.

Now multiply it by minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years without remedy.

Even the more prescient threats of consequence in adolescence couldn't spare me. I wouldn't have listened, anyway. Russ and I had a game in junior high where we'd run headlong at each other and slam our shoulders together. We'd grunt like musk oxen in libidinous angst.

In high school I toted a sousaphone or bass drum in countless miles of parades. Carried the bass drum down a faux New York avenue during my cameo in Hello Dolly. Played tackle football without pads and endured a year of college rugby--all seemingly without consequence. In the 1980s, I'd train for hours with Jacques, lifting weights on the porch overlooking the sea at Santa Cruz, running for miles a day to get in shape for slam dancing on weekend nights at the Catalyst. Oh, we slammed.

And at 32, I was doing chair dips at my beach house in Aptos, using my body weight to pump up my triceps muscles when I felt a faint ping in my lumbar vertebra and spent the following day on all fours, tears pouring down, grinding my teeth at a sensation that someone had buried a screwdriver in my ankle.

Chronic pain is not for wimps. I have known people who walked with dignity and inner peace through life-claiming ailments and wonder what got into them. In our family, a sneeze is foreplay to cancer. We rent billboards when we catch the flu.

For a month I lay bedridden, ice packs pressed against my spine, my knees elevated. Physicians prescribed muscle relaxants, pain killers (God bless them!), and physical therapy. In the end, I received my doctor's approval to drive cross country to attend grad school in Alabama.

Less than a month into the semester, the disc slid back across the nerve endings and cannibals began once again to tear out chunks of my leg and gnaw on the wounds. Toss in the brain weasels that set to work once I'm in pain, add a healthy dose of heart-stammering culture shock, relentless Southern heat, and the heavy teaching/learning load of grad school, and I was ready to experience what I grimly called "Youth In Asia".

What I found, instead, were the Yellow Pages listings for chiropractors in Tuscaloosa, selecting (as anyone else might find suspicious) the office with the largest paid ad. And if grandiosity was the sign of professional acumen, then the long line of people streaming out the chiropractic office door and onto the sidewalk of the muggy fall day in T-town, then I had surely picked the winner.

Doctor Death had a new, candy-apple Corvette parked out front with a personalized Alabama Heart-of-Dixie license plate: "NoPain".

And I doubt he felt any.

Meanwhile, patients were shuffled through the office like cattle herded along to the abbatoir, whistling faint songs of hope as we trudged. In you went; the nurse took a healthy swipe off of your credit card, set you face-down on a movable table where you waited for Doctor Death to prance in and slam away as you cried out for justice.

He was at least 6 feet 9, 265 pounds, and came in stealthily, hammered you into the table, then pulled you to your feet with his large, hammy fist, and showed you the way to the corridor where you exited out a rear door, assembly-line style. He never asked how I was doing.

In truth, I wasn't getting any better, although I did learn that when visiting writers came through the university, it helped to drink heavily with them so as to sit through the readings. On Friday nights, we went to Storyville and pounded the cheap cocktails and I went home to rage angrily at the pain (and at my partner, Alabama, moronic student essays, and anyone in earshot).

Once I told Doctor Death that he was hurting me more than he knew and he replied that my pain was part of the healing. Every few days I'd squeeze in raw agony into the VW and drive over to line up with dozens of patients who were ahead of me in the slashing heat of mid-day. I couldn't tell if he was helping them, either. Meanwhile, my student loan account was hemorrhaging.

Eventually, I just gave up and tried to live with it.

Now over the years I've met some genuine healers who hold chiropractic licenses. Some helped, some admitted they couldn't help completely, several changed me for the better. A fellow out in Grass Valley helped heal emotional trauma from childhood. I've been needled, rolfed, stretched, yanked, had my cranium held by an herbalist, and burned by glass cups a healer put on my back in the Yucatan.

I'll offer Doctor Death up to karma. When I decided to stop driving to his office, my back felt better than ever.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Break a Leg

It's what my family calls the Hyman Curse. I'm not convinced that we've been singled out. I hear too many horror stories from other people to consider my siblings and progenitors sole proprietors of the domain of self-inflicted misery. There's a faint tinge of victimization to wander that route of presumption. But I do believe to my bones in the notion that we relish in our misfortunes in a grisly way and I know I developed the knack of sabotaging a fabulous opportunity in my youth.

  • My mother visits the emergency room an inordinate number of times a year with a broken toe (from walking into furniture or walls) or a viscous wound inflicted by a carving knife. She'd prefer to bleed into the sink, but my sister insists on proper medical care.
  • My brother wandered into the path of three baseball bats swung at once by an on-deck little leaguer, bloodying his mouth. A trooper, he passed out only after safely at the hospital as the ER physician came forth with a syringe of pain killer, thereby crashing to the floor and knocking out his teeth.
  • And my sister performed a hideous dismount from a wet deck on a Mexican Riviera cruise, failing to earn a 10 from the Russian judge or a reasonable settlement with the shipping line.
And yet, none can hold serve against my unparalleled predilection for misfortune. There are accident prone people--and there go I. I'd hold my record of spoiling family vacations, sundering romantic dinners, or destroying formal occasions with spilt blood and bare gristle--my own.

You could blame it on karma, on self-subversion, on one drink too many, on the coriolus effect or --my preference--on others. Given a way, I gladly have the will.

When I was still a toddler, a nasty shard of wood from the Coney Island boardwalk sliced completely through my foot. It's a tale firmly rooted in the Hyman folklore.

In my fourteenth year, our family took a well-deserved vacation to a lovely resort in Goleta, outside Santa Barbara. We rented a cottage near the beach in a delightful grove of eucalyptus trees with a wide, rolling lawn in the shade. My father got the fire going in the hearth while my mother changed into lounging clothes and settled into the couch.

I went out and rented a moped for an hour. It was a simple vehicle, dramatically underpowered, and it was like piloting a bicycle. The resort staff recommended a trail that rose up from the sea and wended through a refreshingly cool pine forest. The trail darted between shadows and light, and bent around a corner where a boulder had rolled off the hillside and plopped itself in the path...

That afternoon my parents spent their long-awaited afternoon in the emergency room as a doctor took a stiff brush to my bloody leg, removing twigs and gravel embedded by my fall. And I spent the rest of the trip sitting outside in a lounge chair, my leg swaddled in bandages. A harbinger.

My first summer home from college I sold shoes for Kinney's and hung out with my buddies by night at a gas station where one worked in the garage. We talked late into the night, listening to music and trying to pick up girls, their hair half over their eyes as we pumped gas and checked under the hood. My folks had packed their bags for a week on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, a dazzling blue gem cradled in the mountains at the Nevada border. I was to stay home one night, finishing up my shift at the shoe store, then fly up the following day to join them.

That night my friend Dennis suggested I try a little white pill marked with a cross that he said I'd enjoy. It was the only time in my life I would try speed. But I did enjoy it thoroughly. I felt invincible, jolly, and filled with great ideas. My hands trembled. And we talked all night, blasting out Moody Blues from the stereo in the darkened garage long after the gas station closed.

We raced to the airport on motorcycles in the dawn and after my folks picked me up at the Tahoe airport, I couldn't wait to change into my trunks and dive into the water. This was in the days before jet skiis, but a local merchant was renting an early version of the craft and my father--reluctantly--allowed me to rent one for an hour.

I crossed the lake, grinning wildly, a rooster tail of spray gushing out behind the little boat as I stood in it bounding across the swells. From the shore, people were pointing at me, so I grinned back, took one hand off the wheel to wave back. But they were insistent, troubled, and I looked back at the rooster tail to see it had blushed red in my wake.

Blood pounded out of the open wound in my ankle where the engine housing had come undone and a sharp edge of sheet metal sliced into me. Dearest amphetamines. I dared not speak their name as I spent the following week in a camp chair on the beach, observing everyone else splashing in the lake, changing my dressings twice a day to drain the pus.

Then there are the screaming verbal exchanges between my father and I across countless weddings and bar mitzvahs as he struggled to maintain martial order and I picked fights to demonstrate my rebellion, or the times I took a cocktail to smooth out the ennui of professional appearances and ended up face-down in the bathroom after one led to another.

Recovery has delivered God's cornucopia of blessings, but has not abated the Hyman Curse. In my fourth year free of substances, I went ass over teakettle from my mountain bike, stopping too quickly to avoid a rock in the path, and broke my arm. Last fall, in my darkened home, I stepped on an upended, three-pronged electrical plug, plunging it like the devil's trident into my arch. It took more than a month before I could walk comfortably again.

My mentor James Hall once wrote a short story, The Claims Artist, in which the protagonist, a writer with a flagging career, finds it easier to make an income by cutting off a finger here and there, collecting handsomely from his insurance company. In the end, he's a famous scribe, with a legion of groupies carrying his foreshortened authorial body across the Southern California strand -- in a basket.

It sounds like a reasonable ploy, if only I could afford health insurance.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Life on the Farm

Somewhere on these forty acres is a dope farm. I choose not to visit it. Once I take a puff of the stuff, I stop living for, oh, any number of years.

I had an extended love affair with marijuana. For a non-addicting substance, it called the tune for decades of my life. I'm not going to make a federal case over the weed; millions can take it or leave it. I cling fast to two opinions on the stuff: It ought to be legalized and taxed so we can rehabilitate our failing schools and, two, I can't smoke it without making it my God.

When I went off to college in the 70s, you couldn't walk down the hallways of the dorm without parting the clouds of smoke. I held out as long as I could. A month, maybe. My roommate was a police science major, so there was no dope in our room. But a weed-weasel neighbor had one of the only televisions in the dorm, so I went over every night. The neighbor, also a journalism major, rode his bike across campus every day with a green Army surplus sack filled with baggies of Michoacan, which he sold to pay tuition.

It was the cheap pot then, baggies three or four inches thick in the $10 bag, complete with eye gouging seeds that popped when you lit it. The night I gave in, I took a few puffs, and went back to my room, puzzled that nothing had happened.

But the third time I tried it, it felt like the small planet into which my unhappy adolescence had been confined burst open into endless plains of blue skies dotted with puffy, jolly clouds, and I stepped out of this world and right into the other. "Feel it yet?" my friend asked, and I flopped to the floor of the dorm and giggled like a baby.

In recovery, they say that at first it's fun. Then it's fun with problems. Then it's just problems.

The fun lasted a decade or more. Under its influence, I completed three college degrees, worked as a successful journalist and college professor. I published stories, essays, and poetry. Traveled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Mexico, and most of the continental states. I had no idea when the fun period ended and I was ferried across the peaceful seas to the land of fun with problems. A subtle transition.

I lived like the bubble boy, encased in a film of comfort shattered unaccountably by foreshortened emotions. Without it, I could go off like a bomb at the smallest misconception of what happened around me. With it, I was solitary, indifferent to opinions outside my confined thinking, inaccessible finally to the concerns and loves of those most connected to me.

I wouldn't think of going to dinner, a movie, a concert, a ballgame--hell, a poetry reading--unless buoyed by the buzz. I put a tiny plant in the widow of my apartment in Tuscaloosa, frightening my partner with my moronic daring. Federales pointed automatic weapons at my head when they confiscated my stash one dusk on a sand dune south of the border. I disembarked from a ferry between Holland and the U.K. with a Marlboro box filled with hashish, thinking when the English customs officer asked if I had something to declare: "Why yes," I imagined saying, "I declare that the hash in Amsterdam is simply fine."

I'm leaving out the worst, of course. But without my stash, furniture went out the window, girlfriends packed their possessions into their cars and made off into their lives. I kept on keeping on.

Everyone has war stories. And everyone in recovery has gone to great lengths to repair the wake of emotional destruction that trails behind years of addiction. For a long time, the stuff simply kept me alive. When I think today of the suicides of my grandfather and my uncle, I know that the herb treated something dramatically wrong with my brain chemistry. But it eventually stopped working, and when the voices in my head were louder than the cozy veil that descended after I smoked, I had to consider treatment or suicide.

So you can imagine the subtle and cunning machinations of my thinking recently when my landlord moved off the 40 acres and rented the large house up the hill to a pair of couples who have medical marijuana licenses and are growing pounds of the weed on the property. It's how they make their living, and it's legal for them to do so here in California, where the monstrous deficit is mismanaged daily by the governor, a man who smoked pot in the 1970s. I'm not oblivious to the irony of living in a town called Grass Valley, or that it's renowned for its medical marijuana dispensaries.

We made a small pact, my new neighbors and I. They grow and process it where they want, smoke it as they will, and keep it out of my sight. But with the herb came problems. The couples fought and one of the men, sporting a freshly blackened eye, announced he was taking his girlfriend and moving out.

Recently I spied a new fence, to keep the mule deer and wild rabbits away from the tasty leaves--over by what had been my landlord's workshed. I see it out of the corner of my eye as I wend down the long driveway into horse country. In the quiet of the morning the leaves open out to the sun and the seeds of sabotage start to whisper.

But the cry of redemption, connection, love of friends and family and, finally, loving the man I have come to be is sung louder than any call from the shadows. And I know that to enter that fence is to wall myself off from grace, from you, and from my better nature.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Writer's Block

Where it is hot and dry, the ants begin to move at night.

In the July morning of this year in my life they have found something cool and refreshing in the metal case of my laptop computer, marching with purpose up the legs of the wooden table, across the unfinished birch grain and up, up, onto the black metal case, marching across the control key, the caps lock, the A and Q keys, strumming their own stories by the dozens.

I know how they feel. Last week I drove to the coast near Fort Bragg to escape the relentless, pounding three-digit heat, lazing in the 60-degree ocean breeze, stumbling quite by accident into a sleepy tribe of sea lionesses and their cubs who blended gray and mottled across the rocks and seaweed. Driving home again on roads choked by July Fourth traffic, the temperature gauge in the car rocking upward again into the 90s, I bit my tongue against declarations of rage against the sun, society, so many oversized and gluttonous trucks and campers trailing their appended smaller cars, migrating into volleys of shimmering air. And today, hot and parched, the ants are writing their own story.

To say they have nothing to share is nonsense. My first and best writing mentor, James Hall, would have us pack up our notebooks and drive off the campus in the hills of Santa Cruz into town to find stories. He told me to take a basket of dirty clothes to the laundromat on Mission Street. The assignment: watch someone schlepping their dirties in and out of the machines and create a line of dialogue that told their story. Then, we had to return home and write a short fiction that deserved the nugget of dialogue. The only rule: we were not to mention the laundromat.

There are few gems in the hundreds of books on writing, but they are precious and include John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, Henry James' The Art of the Novel, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, Rust Hill's Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular, and Leon Surmelian's Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness. Of the last, I have James Hall's personal copy, bequeathed to me when I graduated the writing program.

None of these tells you what to do when you experience writer's block because, if you're a writer, there is no such thing. There are days when the prose comes easily. And there are the others when it feels like hell to lay down a poorly made phrase. Writing takes a lot of writing, and writers are self-limiting by a lack of imagination, by sloth, by immersion in crippling pop culture and the deluge of distractions and poor taste. Mostly sloth.

Here's the only trick that has worked every time I feel disconnected from the page: I read. I read it all and it tickles the crevice in the brain dedicated to calling out rhythms of language. James Hall had us read across the genres. We'd read a pop novel like Hotel, or a crime piece from Elmore Leonard, a Zane Grey western--all along with the customary Joyce, Melville, and Crane.

When I taught fiction at the University of Illinois, my upscale Chicagoan students resented having to read outside of contemporary short stories. Some hated reading entirely, which was surprising for a classroom of students who elected to enroll in fiction writing classes. Some saw the class as a pottery workshop or some other "quick-A" experience they could complete without compromising their frat parties, akin to a classroom version of the window of a bank or credit union where you'd drive through, swipe a credit card, and drove off with cash--or caché.

And in this first week of July, having taken a month off from my daily writing, it felt like begging for my life to lay out a few lines of prose. So I picked up Willa Cather's My Antonia last night and fell into the comfort of honest language.

The ants, you know, produce music as they walk--an effect created by rubbing of thorax parts to their rhythm of march. It's called stridulation.

One of my teachers, novelist Wright Morris once wrote:

"In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian–where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t–towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place–now that it is dead–has come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied."

And so, like those tireless ants, I have begun again to march across the keys if only to breathe life into my life, to open out the broken windows and sing my dreams.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

And What It's Like Now

When Grace said I'd have to move, that her cancer had progressed to where she could no longer climb the stairs to her home and needed to reclaim the two-room cabin I was renting from her in the mountains, I cascaded into a depression. I found her cabin through an online ad and had moved in the previous summer. It had glass double-doors that looked out over a meadow and lovely brook beneath the towering pines. At dusk, deer came to the back door to graze on the ivy.

I have moved more than 50 times in my adult life, chasing jobs across the states, following dreams and half-baked notions, and often packed up and gone with the wrong-headed idea that my life would suddenly change if I could rearrange the furniture. "Be it ever so humble," a friend in recovery says, "there's no place like somewhere else." So when I had to scour the ads once more for a place, my heart filled with dread that my days in the quiet, nourishing woods were done.

And it appeared so when I visited the converted single-wide trailer on a horse farm near Meadow Vista with leaky faucets and a noisy generator, then the mother-in-law apartment above the workshop-garage in Colfax with tiny slits for windows, and finally the solitary house in the heavy brush near Applegate with hot and cold running mice.

On my slender income from writing I had a limited selection, so my heart raced when I saw the photograph of the pink house on its hillside in the online housing ad. It's a tiny place, with a single room for living, a separate bath and storage, set on a 40-acre parcel of rolling hills and oak trees overlooking the San Joaquin Valley. On my visit, trout cut the evening air with leaps at passing gnats, splashing back into the pond just outside the front door. Bullfrogs cried out for love in the dusk and red-tail hawks traced circles into the fading light. I signed my lease.

In late May, I sat on the sprawling front porch in the advancing wind of a thunderstorm and counted my blessings. The rain marched up the canyon. Black clouds scudded overhead and lightening forked down into the valley. The air carried the taste of dust. Stars winked out overhead as the clouds moved in.

Not many people can say they earn their livelihood through their writing. So, while I have lost nearly 80 percent of my clients since December to the recession, and while I cannot afford much, let alone pay bills and taxes or the insultingly high fees for healthcare, I counted my blessings as the hail banged down on the metal roof of the little pink house and wondered how I had become so damn lucky.

This morning the red-throated house finches, the jittery flickers with their white tails, the wild turkeys and their scurrying young, the magpies with black and white chevrons, the hares with jackass ears a mile long, and the mule deer hang around the yard between the glistening leaves of the oaks in the soft, quiet wind. And I am home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stepping Up

Boredom, pangs of guilt, jealous of what I perceived were the productive lives of normal Americans, perhaps even the beginnings of altruism that I was learning about in my studies of Tibetan Buddhism--for an amalgam of reasons I volunteered to work in the classroom at the Shriner's Hospital for Children.

The year before, I had volunteered to feed baby birds at the rescue center in Sacramento, a small neighborhood house that had been converted to a nursery filled with the chirpers, strays, wounded and abandoned critters that dropped onto lawns or ended up in suburban backyards by the thousands. It was a stinky, noisy house, with hundreds of bins of hungry chicks that came through the massive flyway of California's Central Valley and were left to die or provide food for snakes, coyotes, and feral cats. In the end, I cut short the commitment, growing weary of stuffing worms into the endless open mouths, watching dead babies go into the trash.

So, in the spring of the new year, I filled out the paperwork for the background check and clearance forms to volunteer at the Shriner's. Since the 1920's, those men in the red fez hats have opened free hospitals across the country for the treatment of orthopedic conditions, burns, cleft lip and palates, and spinal cord injuries in children. In Sacramento, the hospital treated children from around the country and Central American countries, flying them in by helicopter, putting their family members in adjacent dormitories, restoring lives and lending hope to helpless amputees, kids scorched in home fires and automobile accidents, keeping up their schoolwork, teaching them how to play again, educating kids back home that when their disfigured friend came back how horrible it would be to make fun of them.

I had always wondered what kind of fools paraded around in silly red hats, smoked stogies at small town pancake breakfasts, or shot hands of cards while seated around the table at country fairs. They're angels. In Sacramento, they drove vans for hours on end to local and distant airports, picking up unfortunate accident victims and their families and ferrying them to the hospital. They put on clown make-up and dazzled bed-ridden kids with magic tricks, or they brought in specially trained animals to sit bedside and put smiles on faces--faces grimly webbed with burn scars or on those who had no arms to cradle a kitten.

In my first year out of school, I had taken a job on a daily newspaper in a college town just a few miles from Sacramento on the wide delta. I worked a 50-hour week for $85, and went home to pass out. I rode around the town's sprawling bike paths, coached a Pop Warner football team, but had few friends except for the fellow from San Francisco who sold me grass. That was until he passed out one night on his couch, his burning joint setting fire to the paisley tapestry that hung overhead, and ended up in the hospital burn unit, unable to regain consciousness.

He hung on for a few days, and I ran a blood drive in the newspaper, but after learning about the extent of his wounds, would not go out to visit him and he died in the middle of the night with his family at his bedside. I felt badly about it for years... .

The Shriner's Hospital in Sacramento is built in a wide circle, with bright sunlight streaming down the center into a spacious hall with comfortable couches and luscious foliage. A grand piano sits to one side, etudes played digitally by computer. Music without hands.

There are patient rooms up above, looking more like hotel suites, with family rooms nearby, cozy meeting rooms, cafeteria, laboratories, treatment rooms and gymnasiums, motion-study labs, a prosthesis shop where workers tirelessly create legs with brightly painted sneakers or shiny patent leather shoes attached on the ends, seamstresses completing detail work in sequins and flowers as for a debutante ball. A room filled with legs and hands and shoes and dresses.

But even the training sessions and pep talks I received could not prepare me. Here was a seven year-old girl from Mexico, where the building codes were slack and the scalp was blown from her head in a sudden arc of electricity, passing out the bottoms of her feet and taking the toes along into the ground. And later, in the classroom, I attempted to teach subject-verb agreement to a teenager who, now rendered motionless from his neck down by a dive off of a pier in Kauai, answered multiple choice questions in a clear, steady voice with noble acceptance until it cracked when he told me he had leaped off that pier for years, swimming in the blue bay with dolphins and turtles, but on the singular day miscalculated the wind.

And I, with few troubles in life save for the ones that constantly arise of my own making with want, and expectations, and a constant thirst for more, more, more of that, please....

"I don't know what to do," I told the volunteer coordinator one day. "I don't know what to say, how to act, nothing."

"Just look them in the eye," she said. "That's all they want from you."

But in the end I couldn't do it. I went a few times afterward, then stopped going. It was feeding birds all over again. No instant gratification in it at all, just endless open mouths. Perhaps I'm being a little hard on myself, but I doubt it. It takes character to follow through. I imagine normal people do it all the time. Guys in silly hats, smoking cigars for crying out loud. But fewer and fewer young men today are drawn to fraternal organizations and, some day, this may all go away.

"Normal," my friend Don says, "is a setting on a clothes dryer."

But I was thinking the experience would give me something else, something more tangible, maybe something to boast about. Maybe I'm boasting now. Like leaping off a tall pier in front of my friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spun Out

Although I live in the woods, I am still a Brooklyn boy at heart. I've never gone spelunking, parachuting, or rappelling. But in my third year of recovery, I agreed to try whitewater rafting. I had floated in a canoe down the Yukon River in Alaska and bounced along in an inner tube down the North Fork of the American River, had paddled a sea kayak in the freezing waters of the Pacific Northwest, but the notion of dropping down a wild canyon in a raft seemed just a little too daring--until I was invited by the mayor to tag along on a two-day trip down a tributary of the fearsome Snake River in Idaho.

The mayor had a grown son who ran the raft trips down the class four rapids. He knew what he was doing, the mayor said. All I had to do was put on a vest and helmet, sit in the raft, and row when directed, he said. The mayor said his son knew every bump and curve of the Lochsa, could do it in his sleep.

The river begins in the Bitterroot Mountains and descends through forty rapids over the course of 20 miles. It runs unimpeded along dense groves of cedars, spinning through holes as large as a ranch house, with aptly named rapids called House Wave, The Grim Reaper, Bloody Mary, and Termination.

As we drove across Washington State to the Idaho border the mayor and I talked recovery. We talked about God and how the majestic plains of southeast Washington flowed like a golden sea in the sunset. We camped at dusk and woke to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon, and the chugging air compressor that was filling our rafts.

What the mayor did not say, or did not know, was that his son loved to smoke as much marijuana as he could along the wild river. And when we reached our first beach for a drinking water break, our guide whipped out his pipe and begin to choke down clouds of sweet smoke. I passed, but two other people on our raft took a hit or two before we climbed back in the boat.

The mayor had long since gone ahead in another craft, so I was stuck in the front of our raft for the duration, which now played out in a cascading series of gut wrenching drops between walls of water. Our guide's advice: no matter what, stay in the boat.

He took a last blast of pot before we turned into a rushing artery that raced up to a wall of granite where it bubbled and descended into darkness. We followed. The roar seemed to ebb as we smacked bottom and jetted out into another series of short, gurgling drops, each new bend curving green and white over mossy rocks into a curtain of spray.

It was like landing on concrete, and when my eyes cleared from the mist I saw that my companions had been thrown from the raft. Only my guide, grinning and whooping, remained aboard, jerking at the rudder, trying to free us from the whirlpool into which we'd careened rather haplessly at the bottom of a sudden drop.

I held fast to the raft, straddled out, legs tucked into the lines at the back, head high as the world raced by in a nauseating fury. My guide shifted his weight, but each time we completed a revolution, the raft slid back into the center of the whirlpool and twirled again and again.

On the rocks above, kayakers tossed us lifelines, but none came close enough, and my guide pitched against the side, jerking wildly at the yoke. "You're doing great!" he shouted above the roar. "Keep it up."

I had no idea what I was doing that was so great, nor what to keep up. With each spin, I saw my fellow passengers ahead on a sunny rock, dripping dry and laughing. I thought of hopping out to join them, but the force of the spin pinned me at the bottom of the raft. At the end of each orbit, my guide tried to knife us out into the current. He stood and for a moment, I feared he'd leave me there.

With a sudden lurch, the raft skipped out into the stream again and my guide aimed us for the bank where our companions waited. I climbed out, my head spinning and a sour ache in my belly, and found a rock to call my home. I wasn't moving.

But my guide raced up and offered a high five. "You rock," he said. "You can run with me any damn time!"

Years later, I still have no idea what I had done to please him so. But when we took out at the end of the run, I found the mayor and advised him to reacquaint himself with his son. I was taking the next day off, if he didn't mind. I was going to sit by the side of the Lochsa and meditate on the blessings in life, even if that made me a wimp and a city boy.

But, you know, I couldn't wait to try it again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gastronomic Judaism

Our family sailed through the 1950s and 1960s on the wave of convenience foods and fads, but my mother insisted on tradition when the holidays rolled around. Saturday through Thursday we dined on meat loaf, skirt steaks, chicken, and occasional TV dinners. Vegetables came from the can--usually peas and carrots--and we had a slice of melon before the meal in the summertime.

Fridays, in some bizarre reflection of old world culture, mom celebrated "dairy day". I thought only Catholics celebrated that. For us, it meant frozen fishsticks from the box, tuna casserole, or the occasional fillet. I hated Fridays. Sundays, however, we went out to eat somewhere to give mom a break, usually Chinese or Italian food.

Some nights, when the Dodgers were in San Francisco and the game was on the tube, we had pizza or hamburgers or TV dinners in the den and watched the battle in black and white. I tasted my first beer then, when dad offered a sip off of his can of Busch. My parents drank so infrequently it was a treat. Later, it made me confused to think that alcoholism was considered predetermined by your genes since I could count on one hand the number of times I witnessed my parents drunk.

Whatever we ate, my favorite portion was the largest piece of anything. I was a preemie, a scrawny kid that the nurse held in one hand, and so my mother made sure I never went wanting. I usually ended up with whatever she hadn't finished slid over from her plate.

Into her 80s, my mother still cooks spreads for the holidays, getting down the fancy plates and silverware, the goblets and glassware, and the crystal salt and pepper shakers. She opens up the dining room table, adding the extra boards that lengthen it for family, putting down the pads and white linen.

The Jewish holidays are spaced throughout the year, matching up with the seasonal holidays celebrated by gnostic tribal traditions before the formalized Judaic-Christian feasts of spring, fall, and winter. And each arrives with its special symbolic foods and wine. On Passover, the table opened out to seat uncles and aunts and cousins, sometimes a distant relative who strayed to the West Coast. By turns we had Sol and Fay, Shirley and Mort and Naomi, Bobbie and Les, and Jerry and Beth, and when it was a large crowd, my brother and sister and I were banished to a folding bridge table reserved for kids.

My father issued the faith wear, yarmulkes for all who would take them, then he'd sit at the head of the table and work his way through the seder book, taking as long as possible to march through the prayers until my mother scowled and went into the kitchen to bring out bowls of chicken matzoh-ball soup, announcing that the prayers were over.

We ate chopped chicken livers on matzoh, gefilte fish with horseradish, soup with matzoh dumplings, beef brisket, potato latkes with sour cream, asparagus, pickles, olives, and more matzoh, followed by coffee and kosher pastries and cookies that, frankly, tasted like cardboard.

On holidays where we could eat leavened flour, Mom and I would usually drive over to the bakery by Dales to pick up a challah or rye bread. We ate chopped liver on rye with mustard or ketchup. I am decidedly a ketchup guy. And I never refer to it by its gentile spelling, catsup. (Oddly enough, the word originates as ke-tsiap, a Chinese word for fish sauce.) On rare occasions, a relative would mail out a sleeve of Nathan's hot dogs from Coney Island and I'd slather it with ketchup, much to the dismay of my mother, who is a mustard gal.

Whenever I go home, even if it's between holidays, my mother always has some frozen brisket for me to take back on the airplane. When I was in college, I'd go home for holiday meals and drive back with a care package of kosher food and freshly folded laundry. One thanksgiving, I stopped along the long, lonely stretch of Interstate 5 to pick up a hitcher, a scraggly fellow who hadn't eaten in a while. When he got out near San Jose, I gave him a box of matzoh, a glass jar of gefilte fish, and a bottle of borscht (red Russian juice with slivers of beets). I wonder if he left it on the side of the road.

In the mid 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Illinois, I was invited to a Thanksgiving pot luck and decided to try my hand at baking a challah. It's a braided loaf of egg bread with raisins, onions, and seeds, coated with yolk and baked until the outside has a golden, crispy crust. It's easy to make and it confers great honor on you since it looks like a labor of love. And it should be.

After the first success, it became my dish of choice for pot lucks. For one thing, it was always larger than the turkey, and therefore drew great and astonished praise. And, best of all, there was always enough for everyone. For days, I'd make french toast from the leftovers. I borrowed the recipe from an Eastern European cookbook, sometimes using poppy seeds instead of sesame.

Here's how you do it:

  • 2 teaspoons (or packets) of instant yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of pre-sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour (or substitute one cup of whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup very warm water
  • 4 large eggs, plus 3 for the batter, one for coating the risen loaf before baking
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup softened honey
  • one onion, chopped, two cups of raisins (optional)
  • sesame or poppy seeds
Mix the yeast, honey, and warm water in a bowl and let it rise for 15 minutes.

In a separate bowl, add oil, beaten eggs, yeast mixture, salt, and that order. Mix thoroughly, adding onions and raisins (optional). Form a large ball of dough (if too dry, add a little water); coat the ball with oil and let it rise under a warm cloth for half an hour.

Punch it down, and let it rise again, with a freshly warmed cloth for another hour and a half in a warm place.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and coat it with oil. Divide the dough into one long strip and two shorter strips and let each rise for another 15 minutes.

Lay the long strip in the center, attach the two shorter strips at one end and knead the end into a single piece. Braid the shorter strips around the large center piece and knead the opposite end when done. Paint the top with beaten egg yolk and dot with seeds of your choice.

Put the loaf into a preheated 325°F oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. It's done when a toothpick pressed into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let it cool on a rack before slicing. You can easily cover it in plastic wrap to schlep it elsewhere. Smile when people worship you. Tear off pieces and butter liberally.

Repeat as necessary.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Catch and Release

We were having a rough time--me with life, you with me--and we took a day out of the struggle to go swimming. I suppose I could undergo years of therapy to understand why I took out Alabama on you, but let's just say I was a mean fool. The relentless heat and humidity, the overbearing pace of grad school, the rapist that came to the screen door that day, the cockroaches marching in the leaves at night, the acrid fog of mosquito spray in the air, the relentless questions about whether we were married and which church we attended, the seemingly endless parade of objectionable morons with guns, including the idiot in the yard next door who shot bee-bees into a writhing squirrel he had locked in a cage... . It was all too much.

So it was off to Lake Nicol and the cool water we had heard so much about north of Tuscaloosa proper, out beyond the yacht club, tucked between the quarries along New Watermelon Road. We had a cooler of soda pop and sandwiches. We were planning a soft day. I left the books at home, the novels for that survey in modern British literature, my half-drafted short story about dog racing. What was it you left behind that morning?

Was it the resentment that you had followed me out to Alabama and its withering heat from our lovely home in the woods overlooking Monterey Bay and 65-degree summer fog? That you left the comfort of a loving family and a decent-paying job to take your place in the Women's Study department with its office in, of all places, Manley Hall? You must have left a lot behind that morning on our drive to Lake Nicol, because you were loving and kind and happy.

You had your new car with its moonroof and bright paint and the sun danced between the kudzu vines and dappled the road in shadows. We stopped at a country store at Sexton Bend for ice and laughed uneasily at the Rebel flags and fishing worms in the cooler, the Styrofoam cups of nightcrawlers stored right beside foil-wrapped sandwiches and microwave burritos.

By the spillway we stopped and watched the columns of heat rising off the water and the rooster tails of speedboats crisscrossing the lake. It was a struggle to get out of the air conditioned car, grab the blankets and food from the trunk, and head down the dirt track to the picnic area. Before we had gone 50 yards, we were soaked in sweat and your hand was wet when I took it in mine. Lord knows we needed a break.

But once we were under the shade of the pines and changed into our swim trunks, we saw that swimming would be impossible. Out on the landing, where the sand sloped into the cool green lake, hundreds of cottonmouths sunned on the rocks and darted through the water. You flushed and looked for a place to sit, but they were everywhere around us, and even as we went back under the pine trees, we saw them under the tables and curled around the fire pit, slithering through the brush, moving through the shadows, all around where we had left our clothes.

That night, back in our hotbox apartment, trapped in the bedroom where we had the single window air conditioner, we lay in bed watching bad television, rushing out for a quick dip in the bathtub we had filled with cold water, and back atop the towels we spread out over the sheets. At 3am it was still 103 degrees out in the dark Tuscaloosa night, with two more months of summer stretching out before us, venomous. It was a very small room and that night the kitty brought a cockroach into bed as a prize between her teeth.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


"Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared."
-- Phil Ochs.

Shortly after the corporations found the Texas imbecile to represent their policies around the globe--to plump up their offshore holdings and cripple the American middle class--Dale was shipped out to Afghanistan. He was a monster of flesh, rising over 6'6", with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. Born and raised in the quiet towns of Oregon's Willamette Valley, Dale longed to do good for himself and his family. He'd flunked out of school, was arrested for alcohol-fueled pranks and misconduct, starred in football, but was a dismal failure in the eyes of his brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts.

I learned about his battlefield exploits in short asides that would leak out in innocuous conversations about weather or sports. He'd been home from the war and began anew the trajectory into rage and frustration, shoved out into the streets after battering holes in his father's living room walls with his fists. Alcohol steadied his nerves for an hour, but as he kept on drinking, he overshot the mark and began practicing hand-to-hand without discriminating between animate objects and just any old thing.

The Corps wanted nothing to do with him, kicking him out for alcoholism and mental illness. They washed their hands of him and turned their attention to fresh recruits. Dale said he had been prescribed depression medication in basic training but once they shipped him overseas the Corps decided either he no longer needed it or that it was too much trouble to find some for him. He said he felt excited when he killed, but sad and lonely afterward, that he could make up any number of stories in his mind about the women and children they killed. He said believed he was doing good, but was haunted. He and his fellows would kick dogs that lay in the streets, stupefied from concussions.

The stories slipped into conversations we had in coffee shops about recovery and how to live without alcohol. They slipped out when we sat in the park on summer mornings before the Sacramento heat took all energy out of you. We read the recovery books, swapping turns, and Dale stopped in the middle of his paragraphs because his mind went elsewhere. I'd sit and wait and smile at him. Told him how well he was doing.

He was living in a recovery home not far from where we held our meetings, sharing a house with a dozen other men who were trying to find a way out from a walled-up life. Dale had his own room now, decorated with posters of heavy metal bands and football players he admired. He had a devilish grin that flashed when you had no other indication he was in the same conversation, let alone the same room with you.

The fellows in the recovery home went everywhere together like so many ducklings in the road. In this war, you survived by safety in numbers and by sticking to the middle of the pack. It was more difficult that way to get picked off by the sniper in your head. Guys loved Dale and when I went over to read literature with him, they joked about his clumsiness drying dishes or how he'd scorched the macaroni dinner, mindlessly letting all the water boil out the bottom of the kettle.

On our happiest day, he came over to my apartment for the Fourth of July. It was brutally hot, so we strung canopies over the plastic patio tables and chairs that circled the swimming pool. He wolfed down ribs and chicken and chugged soda pop, and made cannonballs in the pool, his huge body a sudden flash in the air, then the center of rippling waves, his head pink in the sun.

In Sacramento, the locals were at odds about the war and a familiar chasm opened between us all. Guys in over-sized pickup trucks bearing flags roamed the streets, honking their horns. Across from the apartment complex, a Victorian house where a lesbian couple lived had a chart in their window, tallying the war dead .

At dusk we took the stairs to the roof to watch the fireworks explode over the fairgrounds. The roof had weak patches, which scared me, but Dale hopped up and down on them with sadistic delight. The fireworks flashed in his eyes. And as the party wound down, he was the last to go home.

It had taken me a long time to get over my own sense of shame of using a medical deferment to escape service in the Vietnam War. My draft number was among the lowest, which meant I was among the first to go. But I went to college instead and marched against the war, mostly for feeling at home among like-minded people, for the parties, drugs, and easy sex. Unlike many protesters, I did not resent soldiers who had been less fortunate with deferments or who had volunteered for duty, and I was not among the haters who spat upon them when they came home. I was mostly sad about the whole thing.

And when I reached recovery in Port Townsend, I was surrounded with vets who had returned to addiction and despair. I learned to shake their hands and welcome them home. I sat in coffee shops with guys who couldn't sit with their backs to the door, who had buried the living as well as the dead in trash pits in the jungle. With friends who had lost their hearing after manning cannons, or who now walked with braces on their withered legs and had no ill will after gaining traction in recovery. I made friends with the colonel who had come home in alcoholic rage and attempted to throw his wife through a high-story window. He had, at last, found an uneasy peace within our company. The military, I learned, had done little for them after their release. So when I learned that the Texas imbecile had not attended a single military funeral for Iraqi-war veterans, I had to redouble my recovery work to dilute my own rage.

The week after the Fourth of July, I went to the recovery house for a routine meeting with Dale, but he had gone. He had exploded again, this time ripping the kitchen sink from the wall, and had been dismissed. None of his friends knew where he went after he tossed his posters in the trash, rolled up his sleeping bag, and walked off into the night. He said he would phone them, but he never did.

Weeks passed and the ducklings continued to trail into our meetings. One by one, they graduated or were kicked out from the recovery home and went off into whatever lives they could muster. Eventually the last man who had known Dale was gone into the world.

The ones that live, they're amongst us now.

Monday, May 4, 2009


In the 1890s, march king Phillip Sousa was looking to replace the hélicon--an outdated small-bore instrument in common band usage at the time. Sousa wanted a beefy instrument with the range of the tuba and a massive horn that blasted deep sound over the top of the other musicians. In outdoor use, the original Sousaphone had an upright bell that was good only at catching rain or tossed peanuts. But manufacturers responded to Sousa's request for a bell that pointed forward, toward the audience--a change that revolutionized marching music, enabling the player to carry the weight of the tuba on his shoulder as he (or today, she) plowed along a parade route.

The sousaphone has a bell with a 26-inch diameter, is played by buzzing your lips into a huge metal mouthpiece, and you change notes by pressing a combination of three piston valves. Consequently, the horn eventually fills with moisture from condensation, which the musician can drain by opening a small valve called a "water key" at the bottom of the curve where the horn wraps around the body.

The b-flat sousaphone I carried weighed close to 30 pounds and after you marched five miles in a parade, your left shoulder hung noticeably lower than your right and it had a wicked throb. If you actually played the horn--which I could not do--the circular end of the mouthpiece left a red ring about your lips, as if you had spent hours French-kissing a harpy.

I had been in the San Fernando Valley Youth Band, an independent collection of kids from junior high age to college, who practiced Monday nights on difficult classical orchestral charts that had been arranged for brass band, then we went outside the last half hour and marched in place while blasting out Sousa marches. We held an annual, formal concert playing overtures and symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch, Holst, and others; but the balance of the year we performed at Christmas festivals, played for July Fourth celebrations, and marched in parades around California.

The trademark performance in the street was a Texas squaredance where the band separated into two facing lines while the sousaphone players skipped between like mad dervishes, wheeling about as the music rose to its finale. Unfortunately, there weren't enough trained tuba players to handle all the squaredance parts for the marching band, so tall and stocky woodwind players were pressed into "ringer" duty. That meant carrying that lacquered brass monster like a heroin habit for hours in parade formation, pretending to operate the valves, and wheeling around in the squaredance on asphalt roads covered with slick, green horseshit.

I didn't mind the attention it brought me--relished it, rather--but, frankly, the horn created a metallic vacuum around your face when you put your lips to the mouthpiece. I knew not a note, but blew into it anyway. The sousaphone had an odor of its own, a hint of iron and years of spit, and an alchemy of sour chemical tastes I had never since experienced.

We sousaphones marched in the last row of the band, musical pariahs in the fashion of today's exiled cigarette smokers. We were the last to know about a turn in the road, last to hear the drum major's whistle over the din of the percussion, the only musicians who went bare headed in the mid-day sun of so many summer's parades. But five or six times over the length of march, we strutted to the center of the squaredance formation and spun like behemoths from the iron age.

And, blissfully, no one was ever hurt. We fell plenty of times, denting the bells or earning a bruise the shape of the horn on our obliques and backs, or simply plopping on our asses, legs spraddled on the ground, the horn still coiled about us like a cobra, the bell glinting in the sun. In all my time as a ringer, I never saw anyone truly embarrassed, for it was all perfectly wonderful theater in its sheer idiocy.

Sometimes I think of my dance partners. I wonder if Matt Garbutt, now a symphony conductor in tails and tux, ever recounts the squaredance to his peers. I wonder what happened to Russ Quisenberry, too, after he went to Silicon Valley with his family to work in technology.

After the marching season ended and we were seated again on the orchestra risers, I took my place among the clarinets and, one Monday evening during a ferocious symphonic passage, I looked up in time to see Russ, red faced and blowing his heart out, topple backwards, his sousaphone bell leading the way as he plunged off the riser and onto the floor with an ugly clatter and bang.

Undaunted, we roared towards the finale as he struggled to his feet, playing like life depended on volume, chasing the final notes with the unleashed fury of lovers.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Man's Trash

Highway 101, the West Coast's route from Mexico to the Canadian border, rises along Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and wraps itself in old growth forest, looping to an end at Neah Bay where the American continent tapers into the North Pacific. Further south, where it meets the Hood Canal and State Route 104, you'd find me with my crew of a dozen teenagers in hardhats and red vests as we picked more than 30 years' worth of trash from the lush berms and rugged cliffs along the road.

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

After the Storm

Appolonia, the ship from Haifa, left under calm seas and sailed through the silent Mediterranean night to Limassol. We were glad to be aboard. Caterina, who had left Israel in tears, had little to say as we walked the narrow Cyprian lanes in the early morning. We chose a small cafe along a row of whitewashed shops, sipping thick and strong Turkish coffee, planning our stays in the ports that the Appolonia called on her way to Venice.

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


Sakurajima is one of the world's most active volcanoes. At 3,600 feet, rising from the plain on the island of Kyushu on Japan's Osumi Peninsula, the volcano has been known to dump ash on the heavily populated city of Kagoshima. From the top floor of the youth hostel where we spent our nights in the city, you could see tire tracks from cars and bicycles in the thin layer of ash that covered the streets. The leaves on the ginkgo trees were tan on the bottom and coated gray where they faced the sky.

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

The Other Country

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near to the United States." -- Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico, 1876-1880.

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.