Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Monday, June 28, 2010
Malle had another similar story in mind when he conceived of this tale of innocence and moral confusion. That story he wanted to film in Mexico or Chile, but he was unable to gain a foothold to work in either country. The story he had in mind was malleable (pardon the pun) enough to adapt to 1944 Vichy, which I've always argued is its inherent strength.
Though the film brims with Nazis and spoon-feeds the viewer requisite sketches of evil, the story is really about an easily manipulated boy who falls in love for the first time. The story could happen anywhere the force of power injects itself into nature.
The young actor in this film was an unknown amateur in 1974. Malle cast him to bring an edge of awkward innocence to the Lucien character. The result is an unsure performance that translates into a defining attribute of the character's nature.
Malle, who died in 1995, was a magician and this is my favorite of his films. I've published the following short essay in Alt-Everything.
Death and Innocence
The young protagonist in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974) is a troubled and impressionable anti-hero. His detachment underscores his inability to comprehend the significance of his turn to thuggery, the damage he inflicts on others, and the violent repercussions his actions are destined to create. He is apolitical, damaged by a tough childhood, an empty vessel with an underdeveloped moral sensibility. Had there not been a war and Nazi occupation of France, Lucien’s life might have played out as a career criminal’s anyway. The conditions created by war simply hastened his fall from innocence, igniting his conflicted yearning for acceptance and meaning.
An opportunist, Lucien first asks to side with the resistance as the Nazis begin to lose control of France in the fourth year of occupation. Slighted by one of the movement’s leaders, he stumbles to the other side out of curiosity and desperation. Among the collaborators, he finds a band of thugs happy to befriend him and put him to work against the resistance.
Malle deliberately opts out of a political discourse in Lucien’s story, letting the gang stew in a vat of corrupt aloofness. One must be careful then to look first to Malle’s narrow focus on thuggery at the expense of placing the Vichy government and Nazism in a broader political context. The film’s limited political tone contributes to its disregard for the causes of the occupation; a viewer ignorant of all but the vaguest details of Vichy and the Nazis may enjoy it because it is really more about a desperate teen than it is about history. It’s Rebel Without a Cause, European style.
Because Lacombe is a film about a disturbed boy rather than an exact documentation of political upheaval, the narrative focus isn’t concerned with why or how occupation and collaboration merged to create the conditions under which the French were forced to live during World War II. Its real concern is the effect of war on the psyche of a particular personality type, a morally and spiritually lost youth.
Brett Bowles argues that a filmmaker’s “primary goal is to tell a compelling story rather than to contextualize and to analyze the dynamics of that story” (Bowles, p. 23). One may watch Malle’s film in this light and indeed be entranced by the story and its swell acting, and still not dig very deeply into the dynamics of the occupation. One may not in fact understand the occupation nor have the slightest intent to learn about it—Lacombe, Lucien entertains before it teaches, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The child in Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952) is younger than Lucien by a decade, and so not surprisingly is completely innocent. Lucien’s reaction to the trauma of war is played out off camera in the years before Malle begins his story. Lacombe thus provides the viewer with a basic kit of psychological factors that portend Lucien’s decision-making (the sling-shot-killing of a bird, a rabbit slaughter, the seething anger and contempt he feels for everybody except his mother), and an implied history of borderline sadism. All of it is based on an imagined past which pre-conditions Malle’s story; then Malle gives Lucien choices he is incapable of making intelligently within the narrative of his story.
The little girl, Paulette, in Games hasn’t any choices at all. The effect of war on the six-year old compared to the teenage Lucien must be analyzed in light of certain prejudices that are commonplace in our understanding of the life-span development of human psychology. Whereas Lucien understands death, and early in the story thrives on its availability to assuage his boredom, Paulette in Games must learn of it for the first time when she sees her parents and dog die.
In a sense, the difference between Lacombe and Games is the degree to which the lead characters in both films, of varying ages, come to know and embrace death. The cold-blooded killer Lucien embraces death because it is something he can identify with. It is part of the natural order of his upbringing. Growing up, he kills birds, rabbits, chickens—all of it is natural to his peasant life, a reality that it would be impossible to question. The little girl learns to embrace death first by fantasizing about it. She must learn then through repetitive conditioning what death is, how it is ritualized, and how it creates finiteness.
The little girl and her new friend, Michel, are awed by the rituals of death and make a game of practicing them, complete with faux funeral services. Their ability to fantasize about death saves them from the terror of war. The closer the war comes to them, the more intense their games become.
Lacombe and Games are both films about lost innocence. They become studies in the psychology of war among children rather than studies of historical events. Again, there is nothing wrong with the direction or scope of the films from the standpoint of drama and storytelling, but as supposed historical works they do confront some of the problems with context Bowles seeks to alleviate as an educator (Bowles, p. 24). While being highly humanistic and psychologically relevant films, they are simple narratives, and simplicity just doesn’t work in history; and they do not contextualize events because they are not documentaries.
Screening les Annees Noires: Using Film to Teach the Occupation, Brett Bowles, from French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (winter 2002) p. 23.
We have reached a crucial moment. We can either stimulate our economy now, or we can sit back and watch the continued erosion of the American spirit. An accompanying human disaster awaits us unless Congress can find its brain.
This week's Idiot of the Week award goes in a landslide to all the politicians in America who are unwilling to help our people in these disastrous times.
All I have to say is fuck you guys, and congratulations! You have in your Reaganesque stupidity managed to remodel the entirety of the above building into a "Ship of Fools."
Mark Weisbrot explains what is at stake given our present situation in this CounterPunch article.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
novel, The Erasers, sits
on my bed next to
Because I claim
it is there and see it,
I am convinced it is there,
but I know it isn't there.
It is somewhere else.
It is perhaps floating outside
in the air.
Its wings are motionless
as it glides past the wall and
settles like a potato, on a
slight ledge; you see, I imagined
it was on my bed.
Next to my pillow, which
wasn't a pillow.
When I looked again
Robbe-Grillet's book had
moved to the top of the safe,
which stands naked in the corner.
I went outside looking for it and saw
it in a tree.
As I climbed the tree
to retrieve it the tree
began to die.
I hadn't thought
of that before, and I
said, "The new novel is dead."
And many others, old
following along for the
hell of it in the pages
of The Erasers, next
to the pillow on my bed.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Have you carefully read Cockburn? If you have you're ready for this view of corporate media.
Now, I feel like we're making progress.
And what the heck. While we're on a roll this morning, try this perspective on for size.
Isn't Common Dreams...dreamy?
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Here is my effort, and it's more fun than picking your ass!
Kiarostami at 1: 40: 33
Frames similar to this one throughout Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) create a postcard motif within the film. The Iranian director returns to the locale in this frame again and again as his character struggles with an old woman’s refusal to die according to a convenient schedule.
Kiarostami uses many medium shots with a motionless camera throughout the movie, but he harkens back to this veranda throughout the film. At 1:40:33 the shot lingers on the protagonist as he bites into a strawberry. This medium-shot frame is a frontal view of the veranda and the entries to the rooms that house the protagonist and his filmmaking crew. Some wonderful symmetrical work fills the frame beginning with the wooden-grated railing which dominates the foreground while angling slightly downward towards the left of the frame. Hand-wrought of angular natural wood shaped into differing gauges and lengths, the railing is primitive, another relic in a village that thrives on tradition and old customs. Two potted, flowered plants with beautiful green plumage are attached to the railing; indeed, green is the dominate color within the frame, as even the doors to the two rooms, and the window frame at the left have green shading, contrasting with the light, airy feel of the veranda and the ecru tone of the building and rail. The red strawberries rest in a green bowl. The bowl is the approximate hue of the plants.
The protagonist, holding the colorful bowl, leans slightly against a pole off-centered right from mid-frame. The pole is a structural element of the railing, probably attached to the house’s roof and creates stability for the veranda in the same manner in which it props up the protagonist as he bites the strawberry, seemingly lost in thought, or perhaps confusion. A crying baby from the opposite veranda and chirping birds is all the viewer hears in this contemplative moment. We have learned earlier that the protagonist’s co-workers bought the strawberries, but they are nowhere to be found. It is not clear what has happened to them, but the point of the frame is to demonstrate that the protagonist finds succor in the berries; he has bickered for days with his impatient co-workers, who want to get the job done and head back to Tehran. Perhaps they found a ride out of the village for the 450 mile return trip to the city?
Several other elements within the composition are striking. To the left, hanging from a clothing line and at mid-depth within the frame, a ultra-white towel complements the white shirt the protagonist is wearing on this day (his other favorite shirt, not coincidentally, is a checked-green one that in other scenes enhances the veranda’s green motif). Other dashes of whiteness give the frame a controlled pattern; on the wall behind the towel, a small white item, which appears to be a thermostat, creates a horizontal rectangle that contrasts with the larger, vertical rectangular towel. Together within the frame the two items create closely related forms that are then echoed in other patterns throughout the frame. The partially open window to the left has two elements; one side is open, the other closed. The closed portion creates yet another vertical and rectangular form, while the closed portion holds three panes of glass that create vertical but smaller forms. On the exterior wall at the frame’s left, which juts out from the background wall to form an L configuration, a greenish tapestry is tacked to the wall; again it is in the form of a rectangle. Below that, a large ceramic vase is green, and its roundness contrasts with the rectangular theme of the frame.
In this particular frame the background is dominated by the doors to the filmmakers’ rooms. One is open, creating a darkened rectangular shape, yet it is bright enough to reveal a picture of a young person on the wall inside the room. This has the effect of placing a smaller rectangular form within the larger rectangular shape of the door’s arch. The picture also has a whitish background, which addresses the dual color theme of white/green within the frame. The other door, partially ajar, has two window panes that create rectangular forms that sit at an angle to the overall dominate frontal composition of the frame. These rectangular panes of glass have the effect of breaking up the sameness that a rectangular motif might create if not varied enough within its borders. The wood below the window panes is also molded into rectangular forms that echo the panes and enhance the rectangular motif. The wood is a shade of green that nicely balances the deep green of the plants, vase, and strawberry bowl. The effect of the door being ajar in the background reveals a surprising dash of another color, red, in the form of a tapestry on the wall inside this second room. The gape in the door then essentially frames the tapestry into a longer, vertical rectangular form that continues the frame’s dominate motif.
To the right of the slightly opened door a lantern hangs in a space on the wall that obviously needed to be filled to balance the composition; within the context of a medium-shot frame, which this one is, the lantern becomes rectangular, just as one can imagine the various elements of the railing, with its unevenly matched wood verticals and horizontal top, as spatially rectangular in its construction.
Finally, the director, or set designer, throws a monkey wrench into the composition in what one imagines is a fit of mirth. Two triangles threaten the dominate motif. One is on the L configured wall at the left of the frame; the other is above the slightly ajar door at center-right of the composition. Upsetting the frame’s dominating rectangular motif, the triangles become focal and save the frame from cliché by suggesting the essence of imperfection.
In an America that can't get enough mainstream in its blood stream, he is completely unknown, except by historians of the theatre. This is but one reason Europeans have a skeptical view of America and its abiding will to arrogance, which is always stupendously wrong-headed.
In a nation that began disparaging Euro influences during the tick-tock of its war machine's dullest hour; in a nation of profound ignorance which revels in its moronic worldview, inasmuch as it has one; in a nation rigged against the influence of intellectual advancement that is not attached in some meaningful way to capital; in this nation of half-wits and shoddy politicians who have joined together to debase and destroy culture, only to replace it with doll houses filled with painted figurines and all manner of gizmos that serve to enslave the majority; it is in this nation that the hicks have conspired to take over--it is they whom have ignored Artaud.
Artaud is rolling around in his grave, cursing the gods and saying, "I told you so!"
Unhinged from an early age, Antonin Artaud invented the Theatre of Cruelty, and described it as a necessary expression in open space, organic in nature, which should envelope the audience in a reality of convergence; expression becomes cruel in that its focus and intent is to remind the audience that it is living. Theatre becomes the heart, the blood of the living, and provokes physical illness or discomfort.
Theatre becomes a method of killing the dead by making the audience uncomfortable with living. Surrealists—of whom Artaud was an early organizer—argued life has a same smugness. Complacence and deadness become indistinguishable.
Until they are ruined by the mental equivalent of a bomb aggressively planted on your frontal lobes, they will dominate man and ultimately destroy him.
Theatre should be shock therapy in a sense, which happens to be one of the treatments Artaud finally succumbed to in his battle with schizophrenia.
If theatre fails to make you feel dizzy with angst and trepidation, if you do not feel your senses exploding, myth deflating, anger regenerating; the play has failed on some primeval level.
Artaud was mad, which in art is never a bad thing. Oh, but how he suffered for his genius and hallucinations! He wrote his major theoretical and philosophical works between stays in various insane asylums.
Over the course of his life his dependency on opiates drove him deeper and deeper into an hallucinated reality. His friends stuck by him through the madness, until he died alone, in a hospital, of stomach cancer in 1948.
At one of his last public performances, he made his friends, some of the leading figures of France's intellectual hierarchy, so uncomfortable that they fell into a pin-drop silence of wonderment. Mad and drug-addled for years, Artaud read his discombobulated lecture aloud, repeatedly losing his place, his thoughts tangential and fragmented, until he began to speak in an alien tongue only he understood—gibberish, a nonsensical soundscape.
Finally, he dropped his papers, then his glasses, and fell to the floor groping, groping as the audience gasped and fell silent, embarrassed that it had come to this.
Artaud was hopeless!
But was he? Andre Gide waited, waited, watching Artaud from the front row, as Artaud frantically tried to gather his papers, find his glasses, and continue with this...this...
Gide applauded and raced up to the stage, embraced Artaud with both arms, raised him off the floor and led him away.
It was not a cruel trick, but rather a cruel reality. Artaud had proved his point.
America is staggering down the street like a man on a thirty-year bender. It is dirty and debased, jobless, ready to make any excuse it can to take another nip off the bottle.
America is blind drunk.
It lies in the gutter with one eye closed and the other blinking into the sun. Feverish and dissociative, slipping into a kind of madness, a personal hell reserved for failed empires. It has no memory, no will to get up and clean up. A little soap behind the ears, a good flossing, a gargle of anti-septic would do it wonders.
America thrives on war and nothing else.
Its drunken power in an embarrassment; militarily it's capable of blowing the world to smithereens with one finger. But that power is weightless, has no meaning beyond its bullying capabilities.
Get the fuck out of Afghanistan now; you cannot win without killing the entire population. Enough genocide! Enough stupidity! Enough! Enough!
While policing the world, America cannot police its own Congress and the corporate greed our legislative branch props up like a snaky vine growing on a trellis. Americans have abdicated their democracy in the interest of comfort, which is slipping through their fingers like fool's gold panned from a sewer running through a smelly river.
(America is overwhelmed by metaphors and similes.)
America is unable to function without a congressman in the pocket of every corrupt institution in the land. Most Americans are inured to the State's corporatism. Millions stream like schools of fish to its pop-cultural disgraces, its manufactured art, it publishing fiascoes and Oprahesque proselytizations.
American culture is at its lowest ebb, wears filthy clothing that reeks of despair and moral turpitude.
America is a mental disease so propagandized that it has become delusional and senseless.
The gutter feels good as long as it's near a heating grate that looks conspicuously like a television. Brian Williams and the rest of the gang can read the latest truth from flash cards; America will devour it.
Founded on racism, America remains racist. Founded by elites, it maintains its sickening theories of capitalization, ugly nodules protruding from mythic dreams. Americans are enslaved creatures, mindlessly turning the wheels, conspiring to make others do the work that they are unwilling to do themselves.
Here is a minimum wage job. Be grateful you have it, and clean that mess out of the gutter.
That is a man! What? It doesn't matter?
American poverty is an institution, a bubble. Prick it and the entire system would collapse in a heartbeat.
Gutter cities, propagating like rats, gnawing at the collective conscience--get ready for it.
Burt and Betty, get your guns.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
P.S. That's Mississippi John Hurt.
Monday, June 21, 2010
Read his latest meditation here.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
What do you know? The Oregonian's Editorial Board gets one right.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, usually a pretty reliable old-fashioned liberal, has taken the middle-road on this, calling for cuts elsewhere to offset increased social spending.
You know he'd like to see defense spending slashed, but he's dreaming on that score.
And naturally the lone Republican among Oregon's delegation in the House, Rep. Greg Walden, has his head buried in the Central Oregon sand. His district, covering half the state from Hood River to the Idaho border and south to Ashland, is cowboy country, with an admixture of rich retirees and developers whom for years have tried to cash in on one of the great open spaces left in the American West.
He once told me in an e-mail that I should read Judith Miller if I wanted perspective on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction as Bush and his cohorts prepped for their disastrous war.
Subsequently, Miller was exposed as a fraud of course, which is but one of many reasons why Greg Walden wins this week's coveted Idiot of the Week badge.
Congratulations Mr. Walden! I suggest you find a new favorite author. You might start with the selected works of Noam Chomsky.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
America's divided political landscape owes much to Orwell's theories regarding the role government plays in our lives, but one certainty exists regarding his legacy. He was a fervent anti-imperialist, as his essay Shooting an Elephant makes quite clear.
The next time a Tea Party hack starts rapping to you about the Orwellian nature of the current phase of U.S. governance, remind him that the "war on terror" he staunchly supports is nothing more than neoimperialism wrapped in a rhetorical package.
Here is a critique of Orwell from my collection, Alt-Everything.
In his essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), George Orwell creates a clever metaphor for the slow death of British imperialism. But he is also sounding an alarm regarding the threat of Empire building around the world, not just the abomination of his homeland’s brand of tyranny.
The parable of the elephant is a call to recognize the complex nature of human relations, as well as the differences that grace nations with variant cultures. Wishing to save face among a jeering, disrespectful mob, the young police officer hunts down and repeatedly fires at a slow-to-die, rebellious elephant, while the Burmese under his watch wait anxiously to move in and ravage its carcass. Orwell had not wanted to shoot the elephant, or even be at the scene, but he was, after all, a policeman. It was his duty to be there—in his own mind, and in the minds of Britain’s bitter Burmese subjects, who were laughing at his predicament.
The essay was more than a mere remembrance of something pitiful that happened to him as a young man. It was a shot across the bow of growing National Socialism in Germany.
In 1936, Hitler was busy mobilizing a new army to reclaim the losses of Versailles. A herd mentality, blooming from Hitler’s fiery nationalistic oratory and relentless propagandizing, allowed Nazi racism to grow unchecked amid tangible social and economic improvements in most Germans’ daily lives. In short order, rearmament created plentiful jobs. The awful poverty, unemployment and despair the Germans suffered after the Great War could be viewed as ancient history, and would not be allowed to reemerge if Germany reclaimed Empire. Orwell, like many others—inside and outside of Germany—knew the fallibility of Hitler’s vision. The larger portion of the German populace, however, did not see the elephant in the room, or if it did, the certainty of how to react to it remained unclear.
The animal did the heavy work—it had after all brought the nation out of economic misery by picking up the people with its trunk and settling them firmly on its back. So, among most people, it was respected. One could only hope that it remained docile.
In the parable, locals tell Orwell the elephant is in a particular neighborhood. Orwell is inclined to disbelieve them, until he sees a commotion and walks around a corner and sees a dead man. “The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with his trunk, put his foot on his back and ground him into the earth.” This time the elephant had not put a man upon his back to support him amid dire poverty. Quite the opposite—it crushed the man. Such was, in 1936, Hitler’s plan for the Jews and the sovereign nations bordering Germany.
Germans, and much of the world, did not want to believe that Hitler, like the elephant in Orwell’s parable, “had gone ‘must,’” that is insane, while in the throes of the brand of violence most often associated with rape and murder.
When Orwell finally catches up with the elephant, it is quietly feeding in an opening of paddy fields near a well traveled road. “He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth,” writes Orwell. The elephant appeared serene—harmless. Could it have really killed a poor, innocent man in a moment of madness?
Orwell had seen his country's tyranny. He was disturbed by his complicity in its madness as a young police officer in Burma, admitting he was uneducated and naïve. Like an innocent traveler who has stumbled into a bad neighborhood in any large city, he regretted being there. He had glimpsed the “moment that when the white man turns tyrant… it is his own freedom that he destroys.” He glimpsed it again in the rising specter of Nazism.
Friday, June 18, 2010
His Taoism, the quest for unrestrained beauty, concerned life's simplest formulations extracted from nature.
He found importance in humor and friendship and spoke to a worldliness that propelled him into fits of drunken wonderment.
His humorous grace and simplicity reminds us what poetry offers at its best.
When I found Li Po I found a sense of my own cosmology, a philophysical world that teeters between despair and exhileration, but which makes everything except soccer and the sound of a tuba in a marching band interesting.
Here are two by Li Po--
Drinking Alone with the Moon
From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone.There was no one with me --
Till raising my cup, I ask the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring....
I sang. The moon encouraged me
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were born companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
....Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.
A Farewell to Secretary Shu-yun
at the Hsieh Tiao Villa in Hsuan-Chou
Since yesterday had thrown me and bolt,
Today has hurt my heart even more.
The autumn wildgeese have a long wing for escort
As I face them from this villa, drinking my wine.
The bones of great writers are your brushes, in the school of heaven,
And I am Lesser Hsieh growing up by your side.
We both are exalted to distant thought,
Aspiring to the sky and the bright moon.
But since water still flows, though we cut it with our swords,
And sorrow return,though we drown them with wine,
Since the world can in no way answer our craving,
I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing-boat.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
I think Kesey wrote a book about the rodeo years ago. I should probably read that one day. Try to understand the cowboy mind.
My sister moved to Portland after her divorce and took a cooking job at a restaurant on 21st Ave., in the heart of Northwest Portland, Oregon's most populated neighborhood. The place was called The Dinner Bell. The building houses another bar/restaurant now called Joe's Cellar, which is popular with hipsters and longshoremen.
The longshoremen were there first, starting years and years ago.
When the Oregon lottery started in the early ‘90s, Joe's quickly became the state's leading retailer in the lottery sweepstakes. The economy was better in those days. People don't play the lottery here like they once did. A lot of gamblers were bitten hard, still are I guess, but I wasn't one of them. I'd play on occasion, but I never fed the machine a week's worth of wages or more, like some people are capable of doing.
The gambling addiction—I don’t get it.
I liked the feel of Northwest Portland from the start. I was just a kid, but I had some fairly romantic notions about the excitement that might transpire in highly populated places.
I was a small town boy and wondered about the lives of others in cities. When I saw Northwest Portland for the first time I thought it must be like a New York neighborhood, full of beautiful, rustic old apartment buildings and mysterious neighborhood dives, with more people on the street at any one moment than I might see on the street in my home town in a week.
Evelyn lived in a large four-story apartment close to her job called the Barker Apartments. She had a single bedroom and a roll out sofa and I would visit, usually at the end of summer when my mother hooked a ride with a friend or other family member and we came up from mid-valley to shop for my school clothing at Montgomery Ward. She’d charge a few things on her Ward credit card, the only card she had, and I’d have clothing for the year. Not much, a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts, underwear, socks, maybe a jacket if my old one had worn out, just enough to rotate through the week. (My mother washed clothing every weekend in an old, barrel-shaped Maytag washing machine with a rolling-pin clothing compressor that I swear was more functional than the spinner cycle in today’s washing machines.)
The Barker sits across the street from an old theater, which is one of Oregon’s longest standing movie venues, called Cinema 21. It’s a retro house now and has been for years and shows the obscure and enlightening movies of the lesser-known directors, international independent films, oldies, and the work of local filmmakers trying to break in. It’s a classic old theater with a balcony, and popcorn that is still cheaper than any popcorn you’ll find in chain-controlled venues.
Visiting, I’d always go to movies alone, but unfortunately I can’t recall which films I watched there. Maybe they weren’t as memorable as the great cinema the theater shows today, or maybe it’s just been too long ago.
Sometimes Evelyn’s boy Dennis and I would take a bat and tennis ball and walk over to the schoolyard on Couch Street and play a game that was a variation of stickball. You could play many different ways, but what we did was pitch the tennis ball against the school’s brick wall adjacent to a parking lot. We batted the ball off the rebound, taking turns pitching and hitting. That way, in close quarters, we hit the ball in the direction of the wall without hitting it so far that we had to chase it out into the street or into someone’s yard.
Those days were well-spent, the round trip from mid-valley to the city, and always produced a sense of excitement for me—and for years after that I couldn’t get Northwest Portland out of my system.
I moved to Portland the first time in 1973 during the summer and lived in a rambling and extremely weathered house on Northwest Kearney. My nephew Dennis rented a room there from one of his friends, and I signed on for 50 bucks a month, extremely cheap rent even then. It was the summer of the Watergate inquiry in Congress, when Sam Irvin led the proceedings, attempting to get to the truth about who knew what after Nixon’s burglary team fucked up. The hearings were incredibly entertaining television, a shocking revelation about how far adrift America was at the time.
I don’t think the boat has found its way yet, but people don’t seem to be as concerned with criminality in high places these days. They’re too absorbed in themselves to worry about the oligarchy that runs things now. In that regard, Nixon was a harbinger, a crude opening salvo of the right's march in the Bush Family Circus.
The Watergate affair taught people how to be tolerant and cynical. American leadership turned from petty theft and burglary to state-sanctioned terror, and nobody noticed.
Well, some folks noticed, but they don’t count for beans.
That first summer in Portland I worked in a display manufacturing shop on 21st Ave., not far from Kearney. I sanded boards all day, made them nice and smooth for the builders. Many display environments are now pre-fabricated or high-tech, but in those days most of them were built by hand out of wood. It was a thriving little business and they’d hire anybody willing to do the job.
I hacked it out for a summer, and enjoyed playing mush ball--softball with a bigger ball—in a neighborhood league after work. We’d hit the dive taverns that sponsored the league after the games and drink more than a little beer. As I say, I was always interested in dives, even as a kid, so when I turned 21 I hit them hard. There was nothing quite like legging out a homerun in mush ball, working up a good sweat, and hitting the bars after the game to bask in the glory.
Your 21st year is the greatest year, the actual age of your passage into adulthood. Just don't tell it to the Pentagon.
That same summer, I enrolled in a poetry writing class at Portland State taught by Henry Carlile, a poet of Cuban descent. He taught at the university for many years, and learned the poetry craft at the University of Washington, studying with Theodore Reothke and Elizabeth Bishop. I found Henry's style to be a little precious--in the way academic poets manage to be--though he is a fine poet. Soft and delicate, warm-hearted, searching and overly inquisitive about poetry, he strained to hear something worthwhile in everything that passed his desk.
I was a shitty poet then (I may be only slightly better now), and I heard stuff in that class that wasn’t worthy of single damn word of praise. Henry would find something though; that was his job.
About one of my prose poems he once said, aloud in class, “There is a marvelous paranoia in this poem.”
A marvelous paranoia? That about sums up those days, I guess.
I will say this regarding poetry, and loosely paraphrase Carlile's mentor Roethke, who once said: everyone is a poet at 20, some people are poets at 30 and 40. But if you’re still writing poetry at 50, there’s a chance you are a poet (I hope I didn’t fuck that up too much).
The summer ended and I returned to Eugene to finish up at Oregon, graduating in 1974 with a Liberal Arts degree that has been essentially worthless in my stop and go working life, except that I’m so damn smart, and essentially unskilled at anything except bullshit.
Nobody wants to hear it, but 1973 was a beautiful year.
After graduation, I was accepted into the Peace Corps. I even had a destination—Brazil. But at the last moment a student uprising throughout the country, especially in Sao Paulo, ended that dream.
I landed in New England as a VISTA worker instead.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Bertolucci's early films dealt with an early personal conflict of values. Awakening to the struggle of the lower-classes, he sought a method of disowning the comfortable. To combat the emptiness of bourgeois conformity, he turned to Marxism in the 1960s. His second film, Before the Revolution, probed questions of political identity. How is the tension between individuality and forms of governance reconciled? How does one live a moral life within the framework of materialism and the uneven hand of fate? What choice has man between how he feels and what society expects?
They're age old questions, and every artist deals with them. In fact, they are entirely the point of art. Answered or not, they reflect the artist's worldview--that is, their importance is judged on a scale by the artist, whose work is always metered by perceptions of "what it means."
The "it" can be everything or nothing.
Of course, one doesn't necessarily have to be an artist to deal with such questions. One need only be human and engaged with life. But artists are the messengers, and what they do interests me, so I keep my eye on them.
Bertolucci's movies fit my style, and a few of them have sat near the top of my Top 25 list for years.
His movies speak to political evolution in the context of self-examination.
The Conformist, finished and distributed in 1970, gave the filmmaker international cache. The story of how one man deals with 1930s fascism and his own broken psyche, the film's appeal rests in its recognition of an historical imperative--that individualism is in constant peril under the restraints of governance.
If you've seen this film, you know its message is as pertinent today as it was in 1970, when aspects of fascism similar to Mussolini's in the thirties were once again infiltrating Western thought.
The Kent State Massacre, in 1970, is one obvious example of fascist suppression in the U.S. from that era. Like mindless conformists, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a student demonstration, killing innocent people.
There are of course many other more recent examples from around the world, from the squelching of dissent in China to the fundamentalism of the Taliban to elements of the Christian Right. What they have in common is the ability to herd people into a niche that makes conformity expected and of paramount importance across a social spectrum. Holdouts are regarded as outlaws and are ultimately shunned by the conforming mass.
Tomorrow's news will bring more evidence that the murderous conformist is still plying his trade, in the name of one ideology or another.
Bertolucci's career skyrocketed after The Conformist appeared, and he made the blockbuster, Last Tango in Paris.
The popularity of that film allowed him to make the five hour-long epic, 1900, his final exposition of his hoped-for utopianism. (The ending of 1900 took a lot of flak, which you can read about in the link below). The film didn't sell well, crushing Bertolucci and causing him to rethink his ideals.
With The Last Emperor (1987), he moved into the mainstream and shed much of the political ideology he had so carefully scrutinized as a young filmmaker.
Correspondingly, his movies became less interesting. But that is the way it always works.
This is one of the best websites I know of devoted to cinema, and here is a link to The Conformist.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
But I finally had my own bedroom.
The house on Thompson Lane was a humble home, my sanctuary, a place where my quiet mother and I could retreat from the world and enjoy our solitude. Both of us loved to read. Reading occupied our evenings in the absence of television once our old Zenith died. My mother sat in her reading chair in the living room and I retired to my bedroom, stretching out on the big bed I had once shared with my brother.
Before the television broke down we watched Gunsmoke together. But when the Lawrence Welk show came on my mother watched it by herself, while I found something else to occupy my time, usually music and radio programs.
I had a stereo and a few Rolling Stones and Beatles records and a mirror that I could stand in front of while singing along with John and Mick. I had a transistor radio. I could hear the Giants broadcast all the way from San Francisco.
I listened to the first Clay-Liston fight.
I had the solitude I craved.
If my mother went shopping in the afternoons or on the weekend, I even had a place to masturbate without fear of being caught in the act.
Some crazy shit happened when we were living on Thompson Lane, just the two of us. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and we watched the reports of that together, hardly speaking. A staunch Democrat, my mother took Kennedy's death hard, for she believed he was the second coming of FDR.
I knew that Lincoln and McKinley had been assassinated, but that was history. How could anybody kill Kennedy? I felt great fear. Death was too easy, I realized.
I felt even more profound fear just weeks later when a fire two houses down from ours burned a home to the ground, killing seven of my neighbors.
I didn't sleep for a solid year after that. The home’s burnt timbers reeked for months before anyone bothered to begin a cleanup, and I dreamed fire and death the whole time.
I felt certain that if I did go to sleep fire would kill me like it had killed my friends.
I went to school everyday and slept in class.
Years later I realized I probably needed trauma counseling at the time, but schools didn't do things that way when I was a youngster. My teacher knew why I slept most of the day, and she allowed me the opportunity without objection.
I was having a rough time of it when things turned really bad.
My brother Lyle, the oldest sibling in our family and the one I barely knew, had fathered three boys, raising them in Reedsport on the Oregon coast, where he worked as a logging truck driver. I didn’t know my brother or his sons well at all, for they seldom came inland from the coast to visit.
The boys were all clustered around my age. They were 12, 13 and 14 when their parents' marriage collapsed and the family fell apart. I was never clear about what happened at the coast between Lyle and my nephews' mother, but it was clearly ruinous.
The boys ended up in my mother's lap. Grandma's house.
After a promising start, my hellish teen years had begun with a devastating fire that scared me senseless. Things grew even more hellish with the arrival of Leroy, Carmen, and Steve.
The first major problem I confronted with this sudden rearrangement in my life was the boys’ outrageous and at times uncontrollable anger. Looking back years later, I realized the divorce had devastated them and contributed to their meanness, but in 1964 I was too young to understand the psychology behind that.
My own father had died when I was an infant, and I had no conception of what a father meant to a child, or even really what family life entailed.
The oldest boy, Leroy, was sullen and tougher than anybody I knew. He loved to fight. He would fight at the slightest provocation, and he would fight until his enemy begged forgiveness. He once knocked a neighborhood kid cold with one punch. The kid had challenged Leroy and my nephew didn't hesitate. A quick right-cross caught Freddy on the jaw and down Freddy went from his heels, dropping straight back. Freddy hit his head on a dog bone when he struck the ground.
I panicked when I saw that punch and its effects. I thought Leroy had killed Freddy.
Leroy was a good baseball player and had a great sense of humor when he wasn't angry, which wasn't often. Of the three brothers, he was the nicest. But he was also the guy you simply did not want to agitate. He was smart and quick to let you know it. He hated idle talk. If you started a conversation with him, you'd best know what you were trying to say. If you stumbled, he'd walk away and call you a name, leaving you to wonder what you'd done to offend him.
He tortured his brothers with this quirky aspect of his personality.
The second nephew's name was Carmen, but he preferred to go by his middle name, Leon. I despised this kid. He was a vain, self-centered greaser, and effeminate in a way that made him compensate by trying to be a tough guy. He was dumb, and had a dumb kid's look of incomprehension in his gaze. Like his older brother, Carmen loved to fight, but he wasn't as adept at it as Leroy. He worshipped Leroy, and they fought like a couple of alley cats. But for Leroy, Carmen was a pushover. A couple of solid punches and Carmen would quit. He'd go out and try someone else, someone he knew he could handle just to make himself feel better. The word wasn’t much in use those days, but Carmen was a punk.
Carmen and I never got into it physically, but when we spoke to each other a constant tension ate the room and threatened to erupt into violence. Carmen had a greaser friend named Todd. The two greasers would try to terrorize others. They picked fights with chumps. Occasionally they picked the wrong chump and got the crap kicked out of them, which I always appreciated.
Steve was the youngest, a crybaby, and the most loving towards my mother—where any love at all was exhibited. He dropped out of high school and joined the Marines in 1969. Later, he came back to our small town and told everyone he'd been wounded in Vietnam. Then he went over to my grandmother's house--his great-grandmother--and stole the cash she kept under her mattress. He’d seen her take the money out at various times to give little cash gift to her many grandkids.
Steve disappeared with the money and a Marine rep showed up in town right after that looking for him. Steve had never been to Vietnam. He was AWOL, a runaway.
The three crowded into my bedroom, with predictable results. They regularly fought among themselves, but if you said anything at all to offend one of them the other two would quickly turn into backups. They were blood-thick, and quick to pound each other, but you did not mess with one without incurring the wrath of the other two.
They used my mother like a leech uses blood. They verbally abused her and neglected the few laws she put down. She felt sorry for them and gave them money they didn’t deserve, money she didn’t have. They did nothing to help make the household run smoothly. They were uncontrollable, unless Leroy got into the mix and suddenly, unexpectedly, took her side in a matter of discipline.
And I sat in the middle of it, unable to handle all three at once, which is what it always boiled down to—the three of them against me.
I grew bitter. I lost my teen years to the assholes.
During my final year of high school their dad turned up and took over the couch in the living room. He was driving a dump truck and earning money, so I couldn’t understand why he was there. He was my brother, but I didn’t know him at all. I knew his kids too well by then, and now I had to contend with the four of them in that tiny house. They had taken it over like settlers on the plains.
I graduated from high school and took a summer job in a veneer plant before preparing to leave for Ashland, Oregon, and my first year of college.
I went down to Ashland a little early, just to escape the madness in my house. The day I left I told my brother Lyle how pissed off the whole deal had made me. I told him that I thought he was a fucking bum.
He said, “I changed your diaper when you were a baby.”
I said, “I don’t remember that, asshole.”
I told him he was a piece of shit. I lit into him with five years of frustration and bitterness and I told him I’d see him dead.
And that is what happened. I never saw him again after I left Thompson Lane, until the day my mother buried him. I stood with her at his open casket. He had died in Ketchikan, Alaska, of alcoholism. He died at 51, the same age my father died. The oldest of my siblings, he was the first one to go.
My mother cried for him, looking down at his body in that casket, because she loved him. She loved those grandkids as well, but I could never understand why. They were worthless. They didn’t bother to come to their dad’s funeral.
At this time I have no idea where they are, or if they’re dead or alive. I don’t care to know either.
After years of fucking up America, these swine are dressed for success. Look at all the red in these pictures! Red clothing. Red lips. Red stripes on the flag in the background. Apple-red cheeks.
Ben Nelson is a moron, so we understand his opposition to the jobs bill gridlocked in Congress.
But the ladies? Oh ladies, don't be so...Red.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Junger, you may recall, is the author of The Perfect Storm, a gripping account of a fishing accident in the Outer Banks region of the Atlantic off the coast of New England. George Clooney starred in the movie, which wasn't too bad, but not nearly as riveting as the book.
I'm about halfway through War. It isn't as inspired as Storm, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless. Junger spent a year embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in a Taliban-controlled segment of Afghanistan's Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, entering and leaving the region five times over the course of the 14 month embed.
Taliban fighters control a thirty-six square mile swath in the southern area of the province, in the Korengal Valley. The valley is a tight area of villages hugging the Korengal River, which confluences with the Pech River to the north. The stretch of road from the Pech River to a series of U.S. outposts situated at the lower end of the valley, in the heart of Taliban fighters' turf, is the most dangerous road in the country. A majority of U.S. casualties in the Afghanistan War were occurring in the Korengal Valley when Junger embedded with the troops in 2008. He describes in detail what happened there over a harrowing year.
War correspondents are usually nuts, and Junger is no different. He gets caught in firefights, has a Humvee blown out from under him, and falls in love with the Army grunts he is writing about. Like the soldiers under his reporter's gaze, he loses interest in the politics of America's current wars and turns survivalist to cope. The book is about survival and the warrior bond.
Junger notes that grunts are unconcerned with moral questions. There are no moral questions when someone is shooting at you. Reading War, one is struck by how all the memoirs and reportage of war correspondents are always similar. Inevitably, the writer falls in love with the troops, drops attempts to question the war's meaning on any level that hasn't a warrior's slant, and tells a gripping story.
In other words, you've read this book before.
The usual suspects show up in the narrative. Only their names and home towns have changed. The crusty old-timer reappears, along with the cherries new to the killing business. The rough but brilliant sergeant is in the hooch next to the frightened and inexperienced young officer. The types are ready-made for a movie set.
This book and likely soon-to-be-movie will be very similar to Oliver Stone's Platoon, sans murder among the friendlies. That is the story, recycled as non-fiction.
The commanders are asses more concerned with dress codes than strategy. The soldiers are quick with their bios and tell Junger things like; it was either the Army or jail. The Army or a dead-end job in a Subway. The Army or boredom.
In rare cases there is patriotism.
This book doesn't reach the plateau of the best books about war, but it is serviceable, particularly in the way the author draws the terrain of Afghanistan and Korengal Valley.
Don't buy the book. Go to your local library and get on the waiting list like I did.
I remember tasting my first beer when I was 11, on a warm summer evening in Oakland, California. I was visiting one of my sisters and she and her husband lived in an apartment complex filled with other young couples. The tenants of that building loved to cook barbeque on the weekends, and they always had beer with their steaks and potato salad.
A shy kid, I never mingled well with adults. I stayed inside the apartment and watched television as the patio parties extended into the late evening. Adult laughter filtered through the screened patio doors, becoming more pronounced, and my sister's baby daughter crawled around on the carpeted living room floor.
I was an absent-minded babysitter, half-watching the kid. I'd get up off the sofa and pick her up and move her away from the stereo and records, the potted plants, the bookshelves. Then I'd sit down again, growing bored, watching TV. My niece was playing me, a repetitive a game. I was quickly growing weary. My mother had shipped me down to Oakland for a visit. I didn't have a choice in the matter. Now I was regretting being there.
The baby gurgled and grinned and I thought about beer.
I was curious about beer. I looked at the refrigerator, opened it and stared at the bottles of beer, a brand called Blitz. Being from Oregon, where the brand was bottled, my sister and brother-in-law made sure they always had a case or two around for the weekends. The bottles were lined up in neat rows on the bottom shelf.
I worked up my nerve. I'd open the fridge, close it, sit down for a few minutes. Up again, moving the baby, I'd open the door once more. And close it. The baby had her interests, I had mine.
I walked to the patio door and peeked out. My sister and her husband were listening to one of the neighbors tell a story. They were smiling broadly, enjoying whatever he was talking about. My sister asked me if I was hungry. I said I was more thirsty than anything.
She told me to get a cola out of the fridge.
I returned to the baby, pulled her off the record pile, set her on her blanket, stuck a pacifier in her mouth, and slid over to the fridge. I saw the opener on a magnet on the door.
My sister came inside, surprising me. I was mere seconds from grabbing a beer, I was reaching for the opener. She plucked her daughter up and looked at me.
Did she know? I thought she might be reading my mind and I felt guilty.
My sister took the kid into her bedroom and put her down for the night. When she came out she asked me if I was okay.
I told her I was fine and sat down and my sister went back to the patio.
Two minutes later I got up and walked over to the fridge. I opened the door and took out a cold bottle of Blitz. I took the opener off the door and opened my first beer.
They were talking about me outside. My brother-in-law said I was kind of a strange one. He said I was shy.
A woman out there said I was a cute boy.
I opened that bottle of beer and took a swig, my first taste. On a warm night, thirsty, bored to death, risking all, I drank my first beer. I loved that first beer, loved its taste, its soothing passage down my gullet, the resulting buzz.
I drank the bottle dry and drank another one, sitting on the sofa, hoping my sister wouldn't come in again. But just rebellious enough to think, so what? She'd yell and that would be it.
I went to bed slightly intoxicated. I've gone to bed buzzed many times over the years, and outright trashed on many others.
When I saw Pete Hamill's memoir, A Drinking Life, in 1995, I snatched up a copy. Somehow I knew he had stories to tell. Drinkers always do, particularly the dry ones.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
He told me how he secured his job, which I won't get into, suffice to say it was not through what might be considered normal channels.
You see, he is a contract laborer. Our conversation turned to wages and how the American economy has been stymied by the wages versus costs gap, the inflationary reality we love to hate, which is a terrible problem for a vast segment of U.S. workers, and has been for years.
You know, the workers that make the fat cats wealthy? Those guys and gals? Possibly you, and most definitely me, whenever I'm fortunate enough to have a job. Which is sort of rare these day, ah...uhm...(cough, cough).
Naturally enough, the conversation turned to the day the free-fall started, which we agreed was the day Ronald Reagan became president. I mean, this fellow and I, about the same age, were in sync. Pow!
We commiserated some more, recalling that when the dumb actor-turned president died, a vast outpouring of sentimentality seized the nation, perpetuated by big-arsed corporate media. I think I saw Tom Brokow crying, and Lesley Stahl, my God, such sadness!
Why, oh why?
My new friend was quick with it, knew the score, had been around and around, had read the news, was in tune, had been there and done that, had been a witness to history, had felt the hand slap of fate, was down with it, was as clear as the Oregon sky on a rare good day, was both hip and knowing, etc.
He said, "Because Americans are stupid."
That was the correct answer, exactly what I wanted to hear! And this was a stranger, honest to God, not some crony in the street, or a planted co-conspirator of mine tempting passers-by to punch us! No! No!
This was an honest-to-God citizen of Portland, a beautiful character, a truth teller. My new friend.
Then, being brilliant as he is he said, Reagan always reminded him of Peter Sellers in that movie...what was it called again...you know, Seller plays this...
And I said, quoting a poet--
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
And my new pal?
He chortled in his joy.
Ronald Reagan was Peter Sellers in Being There.
The train rolled to a stop in front of me and this brilliant man I'd come to know so well after only five minutes.
We got on, certain we had solved one of the great mysteries of life, and went our separate ways.
He wanted them all to win!
This week's dominate idiot then, in a close vote that nearly went before the Supreme Court, is....
Jim Bunning, the ex-Major League baseball jock and long-time Republican (spit) U.S. Senator from Kentucky, the only man we know capable of giving Blue Grass a bad reputation.
Mr. Bunning is a glorious idiot, as suggested in this article from the beloved site, Common Dreams.
God bless you Jim Bunning, you fucking moron!
Which reminds me. Why didn't I win that time I appeared on American Idol and busted out the moves of a Baryshnikov high on methamphetamine? I was robbed, man!
Friday, June 11, 2010
Early settlers of the region had named them Faith, Hope, and Charity.
I'm sure the Indians who inhabited the area beforehand had their own names for them as well. Those names were likely unassociated with Christian sentiments, however.
The romanticism of the names eventually died. Today the sisters are rather mundanely referred to as--North, Middle and South.
The name Three Sisters had metaphorical overtones, evoking the image of a family hanging together under duress--in their case the volcanic Pleistocene epoch of hundreds of thousand of years ago.
The peaks are among the highest in the Cascades and have long been a playground for climbers, hikers and campers. My family did quite a bit of the latter two when I was a kid, and I have great memories of those times. We hiked along mountain trails and swam in ice-cold lakes, fished for trout, and took row boats and canoes far enough offshore to earn admonitions from our clan's various beer-swilling elders.
Unfortunately, the camping trips ended with the early death of my brother-in-law, Henry Hogan. He was the family's camping and fishing guide, teacher and organizer, a great outdoorsman and deep-throated country singer, and a swell guitarist.
I was about ten years-old when he died, of Hodgkin’s, at thirty-three. He died in the Veterans' Hospital in Portland, a sad day for me because I truly loved the man. His five children worshipped him as much as I, obviously, and it was crushing for all of us to see such a brilliant and gifted man die too young.
The husband of my sister Lucille--she was twenty-two years older than I-- Henry had been a great father figure to me.
My father, Reuben, had died in an auto accident when I was six-months old. Driving home late one night, he sailed over a guardrail and into a deep ravine outside Cascadia, the tiny village where my family lived at the time.
He survived the initial crash, they say, and climbed up the steep embankment before collapsing at roadside. A passing motorist found him dead the next morning. He was 51.
The road, Highway 20, was treacherous with its sheer drop-offs and tight corners, some of which hadn't guardrails at all. That stretch of road put the fear in me for years. I couldn't travel it without thinking about what had happened there, to my father and to many others.
My mother and father had owned a large, two-story house in Cascadia, with a big front yard surrounded by a white-picket fence, and a large willow tree for shade. The house sat adjacent to Cascadia State Park, known for its soda springs.
I couldn't drink the soda water. Many in my family loved it, claimed it had regenerative properties, and filled gallon jugs with it to take home and refrigerate. I could never get use to its smell and acrid bite.
I don't remember living in the house in Cascadia. My mother moved the family down the mountain and closer to town shortly after my father's death. She didn't drive, so the move was absolutely necessary. Her kids old enough to drive were long gone; three of my brothers were in the army in Korea.
We visited the park and its environs often when I was young, passing through on our trips to the high lakes. I can remember my mom's forlorn sighs whenever we visited the old place. I was young, but I think I understood at the time how wistful our circumstances made her feel. She had a tangible sadness when she gazed at the house. She and my father had lived there for most of their marriage--twenty-five years--so it must have, understandably, pained her to reflect on her memories of the place. Good and bad.
Whatever she was thinking, she never let on about it. Around me at any rate.
Over the years, the house began to rot away. I went up there once, years later, and it was gone, but the big willow tree remained.
My sister and Henry had two kids of their own before I was born. My sister Evelyn had a son older than me. As did Lyle, the oldest of my four brothers. Those three and my other brothers and sisters--seven in all--would keep pumping out the babies until there were too many to remember.
All this made me an uncle before I came out of the womb, in other words, a clear indication I was a dreadful mistake.
I grew up with my nieces and nephews, a nest of them born right around the same time I arrived, in 1951. As we grew up together, attending the same schools, playing games, fighting, a few of them were more like brothers and sisters to me than my actual siblings. Though realistically this happened: I came to embrace solitude more than family.
I was on my own a lot from a young age. My youngest sister was ten years older than me. My youngest brother was six years older. Neither wanted anything to do with me, naturally.
This meant that from about my twelfth-year on, my mother and I were alone in the house I grew up in at the end of Thompson Lane.
When you're a twelve year-old boy you begin to lose interest in your mother, or at least I did. I figured out later that she was just as relieved to be done with me; of dressing the wounds and hearing the problems of children she’d had enough.
She'd had enough by the time I came of age—that is a certainty. We were both capable of ignoring each other for days on end.
We thrived on our unattached natures. I enjoyed solitude and the fantasies of which only a lonely child is capable. I lived in a kind of dream world, and had a rich fantasy life.
Which likely didn't aid me later in life, but that is a different story.
We had moved from Cascadia fifteen miles down the mountain to Thompson Lane.
Two houses sat at the end of Thompson Lane. My house and a neighboring house to the right as you came down the rutted-road from the highway. That house's occupancy turned over frequently with workers, as did several of the other houses along Thompson Lane closer to the highway.
At a later date I’ll tell you about the fire that consumed one of those houses, killing seven of my neighborhood friends.
The tragedy had profound repercussions for me, which I'll try to relate.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I think Ferlinghetti thought I might be a thief. I wasn't, but the businessman Larry had to be sure. You don't survive in the bookstore business for nearly sixty-years without paying attention.
More likely, he was merely curious about everything. Even me.
I looked up from the table of books and he was still watching me. I nodded, smiled. He nodded back. He realized I was okay. He returned to shelving books and I continued to browse.
I've always liked Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Of the San Francisco Renaissance poets, including the Beats, he has always been one of my favorites. Certain of his works still stun me today, with their translucent simplicity, their perfectly structured imagery.
He is 91 years-old now. His San Francisco contemporaries, the writers he first nurtured with his City Lights imprint, The Pocket Poets Series, are already gone.
I didn't speak to Ferlinghetti that day. As I was screwing up my nerve to approach him, a few of his neighborhood friends drifted in and they huddled together to talk.
I browsed some more and finally left. I walked across the street to Vesuvio Bar and ordered a beer. I sat down at a window table and watched Columbus Avenue. I'd found the place.
I was right in the middle of it all. North Beach, the heart of the greatest literary movement in my lifetime. The movement had stragglers now, I'd see Bob Kaufman on the street, a few others, but many were either in hiding or gone. I was only 20 years too late.
Kerouac was already dead.
I'd recently moved to San Francisco from Maine, where I'd finished a two-year assignment with VISTA, working as a community organizer. I'd met Lynn in Waterville, Maine. She lived in San Francisco, but she was in Maine visiting her father when she called my office. Her father was an alcoholic, and she was staying with him. Neither of them had rent money. Would I help them and talk to the city manager?
I met Lynn at city hall and we talked to the man in charge about a rent voucher. He relented and Lynn's father had another month to stay at home and drink.
He drank in his room alone, rarely came out. He was obviously trying to drink himself to death.
I spent a Thanksgiving with Lynn and her dad. He said hello and slinked into his room. Lynn and I made out on the sofa.
Then in early December, she returned to San Francisco. I'd known her for three weeks.
She wrote me long letters. When you are finished there, come here, she said.
And I did, that summer.
I moved in with Lynn and her roommate and his dog Cosa, a friendly Doberman, and Lynn's nine year-old daughter. Lynn was 30, and I was just 23; I'd fallen for an older woman.
I stayed for a couple of months in that flat on 17th, in the Richmond neighborhood, right next to Golden Gate Park.
Lynn was working a job as a bartender at a place on Clement Street when I finally arrived. She seemed happy to see me, but I'd noticed something. The letters had dropped off weeks before. A lot of their romantic appeal had vanished.
What the hell, I thought.
She took after her dad a bit, and drank heavily. She drank as she worked, everybody buying her shots. She was popular, quite attractive, smart, and good with a line of bullshit. She had a big following at the bar, bigger than I imagined.
She wasn't anything special in the sack, however. That's not old bitterness, that's the truth.
She got angry with me one night when I came in. Don't come in here so much, she told me. I'm working. You're a distraction.
I got into it with one of her regulars. Something petty, a pool game I think. That night, smelling of something with licorice in it, she told me I was an asshole.
This was news to me at the time, though I would come to understand that I might in fact be one.
Then she told me about Bob. Bob was a mailman, which meant he had money. Bob, she told me, was taking care of her. Hundred dollars a throw.
I moved out the next day, found a furnished room in a big house in Haight-Ashbury, at Cole and Haight. That's right at the end of the park, down from Stanyan, the street Rod McKuen rhapsodizes over in his popular book, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows.
I never got into it.
I was working as a sub-shop manager, a small chain operation, not a bad gig at all. I'd quickly become the manager of my shop on Geary Blvd., at Arquello. I was free every day by lunch hour, assigning work to my crew and leaving to go to Candlestick to watch the Giants, or drifting through the barroom scene in the Richmond district. It was huge, filled with Irish bars.
I drank a Guinness to start off around noon every day. Then I'd switch to something light, a domestic lager, or an Anchor Steam bottle. Coors was big down there. You couldn't get Coors in Oregon until much later.
After the lunch rush, I'd go back to the shop, see how things went, check the sales, hand out a few more assignments and call it a day.
Managing that place, I grew kind of lazy. I don't think I've recovered from that, either. But it's the American way, by God!
So I'd finish the job and head over to Vesuvio Bar, sit around there for awhile. There I was, in the center of it all.
The first trip over there, I walked into City Lights. I wasn't any god damned tourist. I had a job and I lived in the Haight.
Man, it felt nice, too.
I was living in Portland a few years later when Ferlinghetti came up to participate in the Portland Poetry Festival.
He sat on a panel with a group of writers. William Stafford spoke, a few others. When it was Larry's turn, he got up, a tall, wiry man, and said "Light!"
Then he said it again, and again. "Light! Light! Light! Light!" He said it many times, his voice growing louder and louder. He began to dance with the word. "Light! Light! Light!"
Then he sat down.
That was all, a poem and a lecture. Only Lawrence Ferlinghetti could have gotten away with that. Or perhaps Kesey.
Away Above A Harborful
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
O lovely mamma!
her nearly naked teats
throw thrust shadows
when she stretches up
to hang the last of her
so white washed sins
but it is wetly amorous
and winds itself about her
clinging to her skin
so caught with arms upraised
she tosses back her head
in voiceless laughter
and in choiceless gesture then
shakes out gold hair
while in the reachless seascape spaces
between the blown white shrouds
stand out the bright steamers
to kingdom come