Saturday, July 28, 2007

Leaving Home

"She's leaving home after living alone
For so many years. Bye, bye"
Lennon & McCartney
I've been leaving home for a long time. Perhaps it began back in January when I casually told my translator and guide on Koh Samui that I would return to Thailand in August. Or maybe it was six years ago when my wife told me she wanted to live alone, and I moved out of our house. Better yet, it might have begun when I was 17 and plotting to cut the parental strings by escaping to, first, Berkeley, and later, Mexico (but I kept coming back until they finally left me). The point is, I've always had itchy feet.

Sometimes you can sublimate the wanderlust. Love will do that. A girlfriend or a wife, small children who need to be cared for, even pets. For me, marriage, children, a religious conversion of sorts and an academic career kept me rooted in place, for so many years.

I've lived in Santa Cruz for more than 32 years, almost half my life. Of course there were the two years in Connecticut and New York City, so it hasn't been a continuous residency. But Santa Cruz has certainly been my adult home. It feels like home, even now when my small apartment is bare, a few boxes stacked against the blank white wall.

Yesterday, after a week of lunches, dinners and coffee dates, I said goodbye quietly by myself to the places I've loved so much. Since moving downtown several years ago, close to everything, I've become a regular on the streets, like the Pink Umbrella Man but with less flash and pizzaz. After a last movie at the Nick ("Evening" with its all-star women's cast), I strolled down Lincoln, past Toadal Fitness and the new Indian buffet restaurant, to Pacific Avenue (the Mall to long-time residents), crossed in front of New Leaf Market, and walked across Soquel by the now not-so-new Borders. It was late Friday afternoon and the town was crowded with tourist traffic. You can tell them by their shopping bags, dishes of ice cream, and sunburns. I walked along, checking out the visitors and the street regulars, past the Coffee Roasting Company and O'Neill's across from Cinema 9 with its large line for the new Simpsons movie, and up to the Bookshop Santa Cruz. I've long haunted the shelves here and in the other store that was destroyed by the 1989 earthquake, as well as in the tent erected afterwards. Sometimes I'll go up to the top of the Mall across from the Post Office and back down by the old Lulu's. But now I patronize the new Lulu's in the Octagon building by the Art & History Museum. This morning I'll present my card with ten punches which qualifies me for a free cappuccino. I'll lift the cup in toast to my home, Santa Cruz, and all that I will miss while I'm away.

Who knew, when I came up here in early 1975 as a fugitive from Los Angeles, that I would stay so long? When that world collapsed, I set out with a relatively new girlfriend for points north, where my friend Peter had established a beachhead. We drove a rental truck and my Volkswagen , accompanied by her cat, and settled in a shady house in Brookdale with two female students for roommates. That idyll lasted all of two months, until, in a fit of jealous pique, I piled all my books and records in the back of the VW (leaving the furniture to her) and moved out. To sooth my wounds, I bid the seals at the end of the wharf goodbye (never to return, I thought) and drove back to LA where I drank and drugged myself into oblivion for three days. On the fourth I woke up and instinctively knew I had to go back or I would soon be dead. On my return I found a sunny room for rent in Ben Lomond and set about building a new life. In no time at all, I met the chef at a local restaurant who courted me with filet mignon and shrimp for breakfast. First came love, then came marriage, and soon there was our daughter in a baby carriage! A son followed in a few years. Santa Cruz had grown into the home of homes, the place where I would live forever.

Never make vows you can't keep. The Buddha teaches that change is the only constant in life, and I'd had a pretty good run. My children grew up and out. I found God and then lost Him here. I scratched the intellectual itch for many years up at the City on the Hill and came away full of truths and insights as well as three slips of paper giving me the right to put letters after my name (and introduce myself as "Dr. Will" to those I want to impress). I've listened to music, poets and preachers, toasted my body on the beaches, marched a zillion times through the streets with protest placards, and hiked a fair number of trails up in the redwood-covered hills. I've eaten with food stamps while living on unemployment and now I get a senior discount for purchases at New Leaf (and also at the movie theaters). I've lived in over a dozen houses, in various parts of Santa Cruz and up the San Lorenzo Valley, and I've owned a variety of cars, even a new one that lasted for ten years. New friends have come and old ones have died. I've reinvented myself several times.

Now it's time to go. I feel a bit like an old elephant, lumbering off into the wilderness to find a place to lie down. And I also feel a bit like Columbus, looking for a new route to paradise. Who knows what I may stumble upon?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Flash: Travolta is NOT Revolta

Yes, I know, the thought of John Travolta in drag and wearing a fat suit for the movie version of the musical "Hairspray" is, ah, nauseating. But, surprise! She's terrific! Portraying Edna, a sweet and shy show biz mom from Baltimore, Travolta is not only convincing and charming but, well, beautiful, in a heavy sort of way. Forget what you thought about the apologist for Scientology whose career has been uneven at best (though I did like him as the Archangel Michael). He should win the Oscar for best transvestite performance of the year (previous winners being Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot" and Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie").

Christopher Walken, as well, has not been one of my favorite actors. His face gives me the shudders (which is useful, since he usually plays a villain). But as Wilbur, Edna's husband in "Hairspray," Walken is touching and tender, and the dance with Travolta (pictured above) is delightful. As the only skinny member of his family, Wilbur encourages his daughter, Tracey, to audition as a dancer for the local music TV show. "Go for it! You gotta think big to be big!" Nikki Blonsky as Tracy is a fountain of enthusiasm amidst the urban rot of Baltimore (the scenery is rife with drunks and rats). Blonsky is making her debut and she is wonderful. The film is packed with amazing performances, from Michelle Pfeiffer as a white supremist to Queen Latifah as her bete noir, Motormouth Maybelle, leader of the "negro" contingent on the segregated TV show.

Written by John Waters for his 1988 film, "Hairspray" tackles discrimination in its many forms under the guise of a feel-good musical, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza for the 1960's. Travolta's predecessor was the outrageous transsexual, Divine, who died of an obesity-related condition shortly after the original film was released. When the story was transposed to Broadway as a musical in 2002, gay icon Harvey Fierstein played Edna. The three versions of Waters' love song to his home town are referenced in the film. Waters himself has a brief cameo as a flasher who parts his raincoat for shocked pedestrians during the opening number, "Wake Up, Baltimore." Ricki Lake, who played Tracy in the original film, has a walk-on as one of the talent agents at the Miss Hair Spray pageant (along with director Adam Shankman and composer Marc Shaiman), and she sings "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" over the final credits with Blonsky and Marissa Janet Winokur who played Tracy on Broadway.

It's the music that got me. After the opening number I wanted to stand up and cheer. Each number was outstanding, from the tunes to the vocals and the steps. Shankman, a noted choreographer, pulls out all of the stops in this big-budget musical. Extras and special effects abound, but they never serve to distract from the music, a pastiche of all the pop genres of the Kennedy years, an homage to that innocent time before the Beatles, disco and punk transformed the pre-CD landscape. This could be a prequel to "Saturday Night Fever." I ran home after the show and immediately downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes. It's playing now, bringing smiles to my face.

Somehow the film of "Hairspray" avoids dissolving into camp and cynicism. And while prejudice against fat people and black people is highlighted by the story, the situations are never simplified in a "why can't we all get along" sort of way. The relation between ambition and cruelty, inter-racial love and political protest all come together through the eyes of Tracy and the music helps make a better world seem possible. Of course we now know better. And that backdrop of Katrina and Iraq puts 1960's Baltimore in perspective. But for a little while we can forget and remember how hopeful we felt during the Kennedy years.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I'm Still Running

Only not with these good folks whom I photographed at the start of the annual Wharf to Wharf race last Sunday. I no longer own the beautiful orange and red Nikes I wore when I ran the race along the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to Capitola with my friend Gerry exactly thirty years ago this month. My wife at the time was pregnant with our daughter and she turns thirty at the end of next month. Milestones.

When I was many pounds lighter and my knees were still in good shape, I reveled in the joy of running. To jog around Harvey West Park, beside the river and along the coastline north to Natural Bridges, racing the pelicans, was a delight. I savored the runner's high at the 20-minute mark. Twice I ran 11 miles. I won ribbons (everyone did) at the fun runs in San Francisco held by the Dolphins South End club. and I toyed with the idea of running a marathon in Honolulu. But the earth turns and conditions change (always, according to the Buddha), and I stopped, started up, and stopped again. Now a brisk walk around the town is about my speed.

But I think of myself as still running the good race. The Apostle Paul sometimes writes in his letters of life as a race to be run. More commonly, we speak of it as a journey or a pilgrimage. But at times, like now, it feels sped up, like a race near the finish. When Gerry and I ran the Wharf to Wharf thirty years ago, we found a burst of speed at the end which allowed us to pass a couple of hot shot runners ahead of us. That little triumph was enough. But this life I no longer think of as a competition but rather as a task. Completion with dignity, not winning, is enough.

It was wonderful to watch the runners on Sunday. Their enthusiasm, even from those clearly intending to walk or wheel the route, was infectious. Over 15,000 people participated and it took the pack more than a half hour to pass under the arch of balloons marking the start in front of the Boardwalk. I walked over the railway trestle to watch them coming up the hill and enjoyed the sounds of the drummers, the live band, and recorded rock from giant speakers that urged them on. A man dragged the hose from his yard and sprayed the hot runners to cool them off. After the race moved on, I walked back along the bank of the San Lorenzo River and thought about the home I was leaving.

On my journey to Thailand two weeks from now, will I be running from or running to? Certainly I will be leaving behind a few unhappy memories, a broken marriage, a couple of failed careers (I never waited around for the gold watch), incomplete communication with absent friends, an enemy or two, unpaid bills, unspoken regrets. The slate is never entirely clean. The country I am leaving is in dire straights, its president a liar and a deceiver, the political opposition in shambles, impotent to stop the flow of blood. The economy benefits the rich and deprives the poor. My fellow citizens are too obsessed with celebrities and "reality" TV addictions to notice what is going on. The media, and much else, is in hock to the global corporations who pull all strings. Will it be much different in Thailand?

And what of my spiritual path? There are too many forks in the road. If you run too fast you lose the landmarks and get lost. But even though the old habits are dying hard, the absence of discipline feels refreshing. Still, I wonder: who are we and what are we to do? The questions must be asked and, as with so much else, the answers depend on context. I will certainly attend Catholic mass from time to time in Thailand, but I will also pay my respects to the Buddha in the many gold-tipped temples. In India I look forward to the round of ritual at Shantivanam Ashram and the blessings of elephants. Ganesha, remover of all obstacles, is my patron saint.

Here in Santa Cruz, I bid kind friends adieu. At the Sangha Shantivanam meeting on Sunday I am honored with cards, flowers, and a lovely cake baked by Sylvia with the words: "You are in our hearts, Willie!" Fr. Cyprian and the community stood around me with upraised hands and blessed my journey forward. I will carry them in my hearts to Southeast Asia.

Also on Sunday I participated in the afternoon service for St. Mary Magdalene, offering up intercessory prayers for the weak and humble of this earth, and honoring the "apostle to the apostles," the woman who arrived first at the empty tomb. The resurrection of the Magdalene in the public consciousness is a sign that Christianity might come of age after all.

But I cling to the Nietzschean notion that "the last Christian died on the cross." As Brother Martin in India often told us, Jesus came to free us from religion rather than to start a new one. Many of my friends are surprised by my formal abandonment of a Catholic Christian identity, some because they couldn't understand what attracted me in the first place to a religion with such a dismal recorded history, and others who were saddened by my departure from their beloved community. I'm trying to think of it as trading up from a narrow perspective to a big tent spirituality.

When I think of running, I also think of Robert, the Pink Umbrella Man. For a number of years he has been taking slow, tiny steps down Pacific Avenue, around and around, dressed in outlandish pink drag and carrying a pink umbrella. The tights and feather boa are looking a little bedraggled these days and his shoes are worn. Robert answers all questions and comments with a shrug. It is the ultimate presentation of the I-don-'t-know-mind, praised by Buddhists, although I don't think the Buddha had Robert in mind as a role model.

Robert is one of a cast of characters that people the Mall (although after the post-earthquake renovations, I don't think it's called the Mall much anymore except by old-timers like me), and I will miss them all: The beggars and the musicians, the Christian proselityzers, the beach bunnies and the hip-hoppers loaded with bling, the skateboarders (illegal) and the dog walkers (also a crime), the chess players in front of the Pacific Coffee Roasting Company, the tarot card readers, latté sippers, children's entertainers, window shoppers and motorcycle riders. Pacific Avenue is endlessly amusing and fascinating, an icon for the human condition.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Oh no! Not Harry Potter Again!

Confession No. 1: I've never read a Harry Potter book. I tried, I really tried. My friend Colin in Germany, a man in his 70's and very well read, thinks the Potter books are the best thing since strudel. So I tried the first book, which was subtitled The Sorcerer's Stone in the United States because the publisher thought Americans were too stupid to understand that The Philosopher's Stone is an important ingredient for alchemy. Or maybe because it was because they considered it just a children's book until adults got interested. I tried to read it, I really did, but the characters and the plot never grabbed me. Perhaps it was because I opened it on a flight to India when my mind was on more exotic matters.

Confession No. 2: I went to see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" last night, the fifth film of the now seven-book series, and I missed many of the good lines and references because (1) I am growing more deaf by the day, and (2) my memory is so poor that I've forgotten many of the characters and events referred to. It's like a continuing soap opera, and if you missed the beginning it will be all ancient Greek to you (one of the 63 languages into which the novels of J.K. Rowling have been translated, along with Hindi and Latin). The consensus of opinion seems to be that the books are better than the movies (isn't that always the case?). And so if I'd read the book it would all have made perfect sense.

What interests me more than the stories, however, is the Harry Potter Phenomenon. After the movie, I walked across to the Bookshop Santa Cruz where preparations for the midnight sale of the final installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, were in full swing. Over two hours before the deadline, the store was packed with adults and (mostly) kids dressed like professors of wizardry, villains, and students at Hogwarts School. There was a variety of amusements to keep the fans occupied before the cartons of books, stamped "Do Not Open Before July 21, 2007" were torn open and books distributed to the 1,800 who had paid in advance and now had to wait in line until the witching hour. One teen arrived over 15 hours early. My suspicion is that the publisher (Scholastic Press, a respectable house specializing in educational books) and the bookshop were responding to the Harry Potter phenomenon rather than generating it. The scene in Santa Cruz, at the Bookshop and also at Borders down the street, was repeated all over the world, in India and Thailand as well as in England and France (where an English translation of an earlier installment topped the book charts for a time, a feat unheard of before Harry).

What can I say that hasn't been said. J.K. (for Joanne Kathleen, because the publisher wanted a unisex name) Rowling, a Scottish writer in her early 40's, conceived the story in 1990 and published the first installment ten years ago. Her books have sold over 325 million copies worldwide and she is now the wealthiest living author, richer by far than the Queen of England. Teens buying the book early this morning have grown up with her characters and identify with their coming of age saga. Adults, perhaps, are nostalgic for a simpler time, when good and evil were clearly defined and the path to heroism was paved with good intentions. Harry's world is one in which the magical coexists with the mundane world of the Muggles (you and me without any extraordinary powers), but just outside its ken. To get there, you take the train from platform 9 3/4, inbetween 9 and 10 (but only seen by a wizard's eye).

But, as many commentators have observed, the older Harry and his cohort become in the novels, which each cover a year at Hogwarts, the darker the plots become. Just like growing up. When we're young, life is like a fairy tale (and we know how drowned in psychological significance these can be). As we mature, life becomes more complex, more suffused with nuance. Decisions are harder to come by. Nothing is as simple as it once seemed. In "The Order of the Phoenix," Harry is angry much of the time. The experiences he has, in the world and at school, border on the absurd, and he is forced to make sense of them, which means to deny truths he took for granted. What you see is NOT what you get. Harry has his first kiss, and we know that the 16-year-old is awakening to his own sexuality. The movie and the final book, according to its reviews, show a mysterious connection between Harry and his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort. I think it's not too far-fetched to believe that Rowling may be telling her readers that evil might be the shadow side of good and not the absolute antithesis.

Right-wing Christians and their army of true believers are terribly upset by Harry and the idea that well-trained your wizards might battle evil to a standstill without the intervention of God and his lieutenant, Jesus Christ. These are the same folks who are threatened by Halloween and even by the personification of goodness in Santa Claus at Christmas time. The John Birch Society, which saw Commies under every bed during the 1950's and 1960's, apparently is just as vigilant now about wizards and magicians. Certainly the story encourages a healthy disrespect for authority. In the new film, Imedlda Staunton (nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "Vera Drake") portrays an evil bureaucratic villain who is equal parts Jackie Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher (Rowling's stories and their filmed versions are very British) and George Bush (am I stretching too far?). The message is clear: "Question Authority" (or you might die).

How the younger readers will react to the accumulation of death in the Harry Potter saga is another question (and there were plenty of prepubescent fans at the late-night buy-the-book party yesterday. Rowling has confessed to an fascination at a young age with the writings of Jessica Mitford, a socialist activist and author of The American Way of Death, an exposé of funeral practices. Her oldest daughter is named Jessica. When Rowling was writing the first Harry Potter installment, her mother died. She once told an interviewer, who asked about her mother:
My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it.
While researching the Potter Phenomena, I learned about the death of Dumbledore, head of Hogwarts, in book six, and before The Deathly Hallows was released, spoilers were posted on the internet which revealed who dies at the end and who is saved. Suffice it to say that someone's favorite character is sure to meet an untimely end. In some places around the world, counselors were at the ready to speak with children traumatized by this. Clearly, we are not dealing with a normal pop culture phenomenon here.

A friend today, as I have in the past, turned up her nose at the entire Harry Potter phenomenon as something akin to hula hoops or maybe even Pet Rocks. A flash in the pan. But ten years of Harry is not a flash, and teens today are measuring their youth by Harry just as some of us did with J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, as well as the songs of Bill Haley, Elvis and the Beatles, or perhaps movies like "Easy Rider" and "The Graduate." Young people today, so the story goes, don't read. Certainly the students I taught five years ago had a general aversion to books and reading. But now Harry Potter has brought a whole generation back to the book store and the library. Will they graduate, with Harry, to some more substantial reading, perhaps Melville or Kafka? That remains to be seen.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Year Older...

...and deeper in debt, goes the line from the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit, "Sixteen Tons," the coal miner's lament. Well at least I'm not a coal miner and I'm not in debt. My credit card bills are low, there's a bit of money in the bank accounts, and I've got my passport stamped with visas for Thailand and India. Soon my bags will be packed and I will be leaving on a jet plane (like the Mamas and Papas). By this time next month I'll be in the hot and rainy streets of Bangkok.

But I'm very aware today, on my 68th birthday, that the clock is ticking. Here I am, in this photo, only a few months old, fresh and ready for whatever comes. And I've already got a pot belly. No, strike that. For most of my life I was a skinny kid, neither tall nor small, a pretty average sort of a guy. I wore my hair long or short depending on the fashion of the time, and never got a tattoo. An old girlfriend did pierce one ear (the wrong one for my sexuality, as it turned out) with a needle, a cork and some ice while my horrified children looked on. But for the most part I've got what I came with, only it's bigger now and more wrinkled.

This aging business is all trial and error. My friend Jim worries that he is losing his memory. And I look at him and wonder: who is this old fart sitting next to me? We stumble along together, him with a cane and me with an unreliable sense of balance, marveling at the generations walking the streets that sprouted after us. Often I'm the oldest guy in the room and as unnoticed as a bed post. Liza said that when a woman reaches fifty, men look right through them without seeing anything.

My 50th high school reunion is next month but I won't be there. The last event, five years ago, was a picnic in the park near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Back when the Beatles were young, they sang "When I'm Sixty-Four," a song McCartney had written when he was only 16, and the artists had a field day picturing the moppets as old men. Now they are, the two who are left, and I'm in their cohort. The reunion alumni tottered into the park that day, all looking like caricatures of their younger selves. I don't need to see that again.

Life: A User's Manual would be a useful reference tool. Who knew what it would be like to grow old? There would be a section on aging and a chapter devoted to skin and all of the strange things that happen to it after fifty. Another on the urinary tract and its particular malfunctions, and of course a number of pages on digestion and what can go wrong with it. It's not that I like talking about my body and its 19 possible breakdowns. I can imagine no worse hell than a nursing home where all your neighbors want to blabber about the state of their health. Hypochondria seems to be a necessary consequence of the process.

No, in the face of the inevitable I want out. Not like my friends and former associates who believe they can batter their body into submission through jogging, Jazzercise, a succession of diets, weight lifting and yoga. Perhaps for a brief period they can keep that tummy flat, the pecs firm and the legs and chin trim, but in the end genetics and gravity will out. There is something frantic and pitiful about the quest for youthfulness that drives women to tanning salons and botox and men to hair dye and a red convertible (my father bought an MG during his midlife crisis). I, for one, am tired of perpetually sucking in my stomach.

In Thailand, I am told, age and appearance matter less than in the celebrity and youth-obsessed west. Of course the world is changing and becoming more homogenized, and Asians are succumbing to the lure of image and advertising, just as we have for ages. But at least for now, particularly in the countryside where rice farmers scratch out a living, what is important is that one have a "jai dee," a good heart, no matter what the age. Warmth, they tell me, is a more important quality than beauty. What counts is what comes from inside and not from exercise, a treatment, or out of a bottle or a box.

So today, as I begin my 69th year (something that I would have greeted with giggles as a teenager), I turn forward to face a bright and unimaginably interesting future. I give my memories away to Goodwill Industries and open a new blank page. Like the baby in the photo above, I greet and embrace the unknown with a warm and loving heart.

My cynical friend Gerry offers this poem by Philip Larkin, "The Old Fools," as his contribution to any wisdom (or lack thereof) about aging.
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


No, unlike St. Francis (pictured here in a fresco by Giotto), I do not intend to strip bare in the town square of Santa Cruz. But I am giving away most of my worldly possessions in preparation for the move next month to Southeast Asia. A friend, who loves to put me to the test, asked if my renunciation was a matter of convenience or a spiritual exercise. He knew how much pleasure I might take in a bit of holier-than-thous-manship. My answer is: A bit of both. For it is certainly easier to travel light and to live out of a suitcase and backpack that can be carried without much effort. And I also believe that renunciation of possessions as well as "the fruits of action," as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, is a good clean path to enlightenment.

Not that I am anywhere close, mind you. But aside from books and music, and some of those new fangled technological toys (laptop, iPod, cell phone and digital camera), I have never cared much for accumulating possessions. It was easy to give away the clothes that I rarely wear to Goodwill, and the curios and souvenirs I've collected on my travels in recent years either went to friends or into the dust heap. What possessed me to bring back postcards and pamphlets, bits of paper, from every famous sight I toured, only to let the pile stack up in my book cases (both of which I gave to friends)? Framed photos of my favorite scenes make good parting gifts, and the woven material I've hung on my walls for a bit of color, from Guatemala, Thailand and India, have been appreciated by the recipients. My Spanish books will go to a fellow student of the language who promises to use them well, and I'm giving my Lonely Planet guidebooks for Europe to a friend hoping to travel there next year. I hope my notes and underlines are useful. I gave away the iron I never used and a portable mini-vacuum cleaner that also has seen scant duty, unfortunately. The comfy but ugly reading chair will go back to Goodwill . My daughter gets some of the more substantial items: my faithful 1992 Toyota truck, a bicycle, the matté cup from Argentina, my folding meditation bench, a computer printer and the carved stone Ganesha ball I purchased in Mamallapuram. The Remover of All Obstacles will protect her next month when she travels to Vienna and Slovenia to dance and sing. I will also give her the red plaid blanket I wrapped around us in the hammock when she was an infant. That same blanket covered her grandmother as she lay dying. And I've used it to cover me for innumerable naps on the couch. Now I need to find homes for the 6-pound weights I rarely lifted, the black goose-neck desk lamp, the slightly worn plastic in-and-out trays, and the clarinet. Any takers?

I give away these worldly goods with an unholy degree of joy. Each renunciation makes the business of life a little simpler. Unlike the rich man in the Gospel story, I do not get sad when I hear the instruction from Jesus to give all that we own to the poor. Don't get me wrong: I still refrain from giving any of the jangling coins in my pocket to the beggar on Pacific Avenue who wants a beer, or a new life. I'm suspicious and skeptical of any claim on my spare change. But the protection of possessions has not seemed important to me. When I was 12 I recall throwing out the contents of a trunk that contained all the valued possessions that I had accumulated in my short life. My aim was to let go of the past so that I could grow up. And I think it helped. Often during the next fifty years I found myself getting rid of possessions, usually occasioned by a move. A move is as good as a fire for purifying your life. I remember garage and yard sales I've hosted in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and in Connecticut. Moving is definitely a good method for lightening your load. And although I occasionally mourn the renounced artifact, on the whole the exercise has been liberating.

I don't want to claim any special insights, however. Perhaps not clinging to material objects is a matter of temperament. And it has been easier for me. When my marriage broke up I had nowhere to put things. At first, everything went into one of those rented storage sheds now that are so much a part of the landscape (can you imagine the junk that must accumulate inside them?). I would visit from time to time to consult my memories. But eventually it seemed as if I was dragging around the past with me, and so I emptied the shed and got rid of most of the contents. And now, as I prepare for perhaps my last great adventure, I am reduced to the seeds and stems of my life. And some of that is going into boxes to be tucked into a corner at my son's house.

Renunciation, and the giving of our possessions to the poor, has been a lively topic of conversation in my men's group. I am the only unmarried member and the only one who does not own a house. We all believe that the good news of Jesus has something to do with a radically new way of living in the world, one in which servants become leaders and vice versa. In this kingdom of God on earth there would be a major redistribution of wealth. What will that mean? One man and his wife let a homeless person live in their garage, until his behavior became manic and threatened them. Another shared his large house with a succession of students and nonlegal refugees. But does Jesus want us to give everything to the poor? That's what he told the rich man and the rich man, who'd hoped his good deeds would win him eternal life, went away sad because total renunciation was out of the question. How do you define "everything"? Maybe the poor are only the "poor in spirit," and that might let those who own houses and nice cars off the hook.

I will undoubtedly collect more possessions in the lands to which I'm going. A few do-dads and go-gahs here and there lend a little color to a rented room. Add a pile of books, a few pictures, and an apartment can become a home. But when it's time to leave I will once again find myself in the position of a renunciant, giving my goods back into the world from whence they came, to friends, to charities, to the poor. We all know you can't take it with you.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Judee Sill: Out of the Mud a Lotus Grew

Play this video clip of Judee Sill singing her song "The Kiss" from the British TV show "The Old Grey Whistle Test" in 1973, and weep for the short and tragic life that could produce such beauty.

I was reminded of Judee when I recently read British writer Barney Hoskyns' book, Hotel California, about the life and times of musicians in Hollywood during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period I knew well. I say reminded, because I knew of Judee. Her first album was also the first to be released by David Geffen's Asylum label, and Atlantic Records, where I toiled as flack and office hippie, distributed it. But, like many others, I was more interested in Geffen's better known artists: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills and Nash (and occasionally Young). Her first album in 1971 was followed two years later by "Heart Food," but despite touring with CS&N, neither record made the charts. In the music biz, our eyes tended to be focused on the winners.

Judee Sill was a fallen sparrow. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley and in Oakland where her father owned a bar, Judee had a troubled childhood. She served time in prison for robbing liquor stores and writing bad checks. And she financed a $150-a-day heroin habit with prostitution. But by the end of the 1960s, she had crawled out of the mud long enough to write some amazing songs for two memorable records. Unfortunately, she fell back in. Her friend and record producer, Jim Pons, told Hoskyns, "I heard many years later that she despired of her relationship with David Geffen and went back to drugs." Hoskyns continues the story:
A series of car accidents, one involving being rear-ended in Hollywood by none other than Danny Kaye, necessitated a series of excruciating operations on her back and the use of heavy painkillers. Because of her criminal record, doctors would not prescribe her legal opiates. It was only a matter of time before she was scoring again on the street. Sill was found dead at her North Hollywood home on November 23, 1979, the cause of death given as "acute cocaine and codeine intoxication." Many of her old musical associates did not find out till the following year.

I never met Sill and cannot even remember if I heard her perform (although our paths must have crossed at the Troubadour, West LA's musical heart, and I also worked with CS&N). But back then I was deep into sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll myself and my memory of the period is faulty. Still, when I read of her rise and tragic fall, I immediately went to iTunes to hear some samples of her music. What I found was a revelation: a pure and captivating voice, remarkable melodies, and lyrics as deep and as profound as they get. I quickly downloaded her two albums and have been listening to them for a week, while scouring the web for news, views and reviews. There is a small industry of acolytes devoted to resurrecting her music.

I am not alone. Rhino Records re-released "Heart Food" in 2005 and a year later combined it with the first album, calling it "Abracadabra: The Asylum Years." This prompted tributes of praise from the Washington Post and the London Observer. There is a Wikipedia entry and a reverential web site. Over 300 people have subscribed to a Yahoo e-group to discuss her life and work. Contemporary musicians who have expressed their appreciation include XTC's Andy Partridge, Liz Phair, Jane Sibery, Sean Hagen of the British band High Llamas, and the late Warren Zevon, as well as Shawn Colvin who told Hoskyns: "She didn't sound like anybody else, but it was sort of like Brian Wilson or somebody, what with all the double-tracking she did. It was streetwise and yet it was religious." Colvin recorded Sill's "There's a Rugged Road" on her album "Cover Girl." "I still get chills thinking about her," says Howard Kaylan of the Turtles, who recorded Sill's "Lady-O" in 1969. "Her songs and her soul speak like Sylvia Plath to a generation of kids that never even heard her name." Unreleased songs that Sill recorded in the late 1970s were remixed by the eclectic musician Jim O'Rourke and released in 2005 as "Dreams Come True" on the Water label. (I bought it today and the incredible package includes a 50-page booklet with stories about Sill's life from her friends, as well as a video of a concert in 1973). Video clips, like the one above, have found their way to YouTube

Sill's lyrics were relentlessly religious, and her stubborn optimism belied a life filled with struggles against demons only a few can know. She told a writer for Rolling Stone that "while my religion is unspeakable, it's not unsingable." Her best known song, "Jesus was a Cross Maker," was recorded by the Hollies and is included in the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's recent film, "Elizabethtown." Graham Nash produced the song for her first album. But rather than focusing on the human Jesus (Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Last Temptation of Christ, was her favorite author), in this song she is writing about unrequited love for the songwriter J.D. Souther who left her for Linda Ronstadt in the soap opera that was LA in the 1970s. In "Crayon Angels," however, the singer sits "here waitin' for God and a train, to the Astral Plane." In "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos," she is "hopin' so hard for a kiss from God, I missed the sweet love of the air." And in "My Man on Love," clearly about Jesus, "resurrection waits within." Her most conventionally Biblical song is "When the Bridegroom Comes." The slyly humorous "Enchanted Sky Machines" is either about the Rapture or about redemption from flying saucers who arrive to "take all the gentle home." A dark masculine figure, either Jesus or a lover, can be found in many of her songs: "The Vigilante," "The Phantom Cowboy, "Soldier of the Heart," "The Archetypal Man" and the "Ridge Rider." Sill told one interviewer that it was her animus, the masculine side of woman (just as men possess an anima within), and often the figure is a spirit seeker like herself, riding "the ridge between dark and light...courageous enough to be scared but he's too humble to win." In "The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown" she uses the figure of the lamb, traditionally associated with Jesus, to show that good will always win out. She is at her most optimistic in "Cosmos":
I'll tell you a secret
I've never revealed
However we are is O.K.
But the words without the music, and her wonderfully baroque and lush arrangements, tell only half the story. She called her unique musical style "country-cult-baroque," and it shows the influence of Bach's mathematical lyricism, the rolling gospel music she heard in prison (which she called "Pentecostal licks"), and the folk and country songs popular at the time in LA. She told one interviewer:
My music is really magnified four-part choral style. I feel that it's the most fulfilling style of music. And it gets to people's emotional centers quickly. That's why all church music in in four-part choral style. Human voices and strings, that's what touches people.
In "The Archetypal Man" the melody moves from ballad to jazz-baroque scat singing like that of the Swingle Singers. Both albums end with an anthem: "Abracadabra" on the first, she told Rolling Stone, is "about reaching to open up your heart and eyes to the Christ spirit within us, and to expand it." The lyrics "refer to the moment when the bottom drops out of your consciousness, the moment of inspiration. It's as if you'd just discovered the you behind the crummy you you thought you were stuck with." The ending to the second album is "The Donor," an eight-minute masterpiece suffused with the words "kyrie eleison," Greek for "Lord have mercy, " a plea to god that predates Christianity. One writer called it "high hippie Christian," and another "psychedelic church music." Yet a third compared her accomplishment to that of Arthur Lee, founder of the LA group Love, whose career was also destroyed by drugs. They were both "two West Coast desperadoes who ended up invoking the sound of angels." For Hoskyns, Sill's songs "suggest a hippie update of the cosmic epiphanies of William Blake."

During a visit to England in 1972, Sill told a reporter for the New Musical Express that "out of the mud a lotus grows" to explain her belief that beauty could arise from deep squalor. She told another interviewer that it was spiritual hunger that drove her to seek the "white peace" of LSD and the "dark peace" of heroin, but it was also this same hunger that drove her to express her pain in song. And a passion for philosophy and magic gave her a vocabulary of imagery to express her insights. She told the NME that her three principal influences were Pythagorass, Bach and Ray Charles, a trinity few songwriters can match.

Judee Sill, said one writer, "was an intractible badass and a junkie." She was married to two men and had a string of female lovers, who, Hoskyn writes, "she treated with mild contempt. 'I just have her around to clean my house,' she would say" of the current occupant. A lawyer who worked for her called Sill a "typical self-centered artist who treated everybody around her like they were servants." After touring with CS&N she complained about having to open for "snotty rock groups," and refused to perform if she couldn't headline. Job offers disappeared. Someone who met her in 1975 told Hoskyns that she had a photo of Bela Lugosi above her fireplace and a large ebony cross behind her bed. The curtains were closed in the daytime and the house was full of candles. Sill read from books by Aleister Crowley and various Rosicrucians. Only slowly did the visitor realize that Sill was "smacked out of her skull."

But today the memory of Judee Sill arises out of the muck and her music is finding a new audience, including those like me who missed her when she was here. "I can barely speak about her without crying," says J.D. Souther, the lover who rejected her for Linda Ronstadt. "There's no one more important in my musical life: she was certainly as important as Linda or Jackson or the Eagles. But it was too esoteric. Judee's music just didn't get out."

In "The Phoenix," Sill's most autobiographical song, she sings:
Ever since a long time ago,
I've tried to let my feelings show
I'd like to think I'm being sincere,
But I'll never know.

Bibliomania on the Net

I've always loved books.

Well, at least since the summer between the 2nd and 3rd grade, when the church where I attended Vacation Bible School had a lending library for kids, and I began checking out a series of biographies of famous people written for children. I remember sitting on our porch and reading on hot North Carolina summer days, and I recall the triumph I felt when finishing book and starting another. While I don't remember what I read, I do remember the orange-colored binding of the book series and the feeling that nothing equaled the pleasure of exploring worlds in my head. I was hooked. When I was 12 I discovered science fiction, and during that summer I lay in a hammock outside our house in Atlanta and read through the output of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

I loved both the worlds of books and the tangible feel of a book, its musty smell, and the thrill of turning a page over to find out what happened next. When Vacation Bible School was over, I learned about public libraries where thousands of multi-colored books lined floor-to-ceiling shelves, and whatever I wanted could be purchased for free with a library card. As I grew up and went out into the world, I used books to guide my path. But it wasn't until the paperback revolution that I could buy many of my own. I recall visiting Hollywood's Unicorn coffee house on Sunset Boulevard in the late 1950s and discovering on the second floor a paperback book store run by a dropout from the University of Chicago. What a wealth of riches! A candy store for budding intellectuals! At the Unicorn I heard a monk explain Buddhism to the crowd gather around their cappuccinos and I began to build my first collection with volumes from the upstairs store. I still can see the covers of newly published paperbacks by Alan Watts, Allen Ginsburg and Carl Jung.

During my years on this earthly plane of existence, I have purchased, or traded for, many thousands of books, both hardbacks and soft covers, coffee table volumes, and small books for the pocket. I'd hesitate to name the number. But I have also traveled widely and often moved my abode, each time forced to decide what books to give up and what to keep. At times I have gotten rid of everything to savor the clean sweet feel of renunciation. Other times I have clung to a few favorites. When I left the music business in Southern California, I took with me only what would fit in my small Volkswagen (always choosing books and records over room for clothes and other possessions). When I finished with the university, I distributed many cartons to friends and to used book stores for trade. And when my marriage ended, I had to give up a book-lined study for a succession of small rooms where my big collection could not fit. This time, as I prepare for a major move to Southeast Asia, I have nearly cleaned out my shelves.

And then I discovered LibraryThing.

What a life saver! Just when I have to give up almost all my current books, along comes LibraryThing which makes it possible not only to preserve it all but to recreate a library with every book I've ever owned. Virtually, that is. Wikipedia, which knows everything, describes LibraryThing as "a web application for storing and sharing personal library catalogs and book lists, a prominent social cataloging application." But that's like calling a Hummer an SUV. There is much more to it.

LibraryThing (dontcha just love that name?) was started by Tim Spalding, a web site developer in Portland, Maine, and went online almost two years ago. It enables you to input and catalog a book list with help from and/or a list over 75 libraries world-wide. With a free account, you can catalog 200 books. For $10 a year you can catalog an unlimited number. A lifetime membership (which I immediately bought, after figuring out what it could do) is only $25. Although the program is still in beta mode, over 227,000 people have signed up (they call themselves "thingamabrarians") and 16 million books have been cataloged. Within a year it will have the largest library catalog in the world. What is really cool about it is that cover photos are available for most books, from Amazon from individual members. The selection is mind-boggling. I have tried, with much success, to catalog books read 30-40 years ago with their original covers. And if it is hard to remember, you can browse through the libraries of other members to jog your memory. LibraryThing is better than sliced bread, and almost as good as sex.

While not a dating site, it is possible to admire the collections of others and send them fan mail. You can suggest or respond to a talk topic, or join a book group, of which there seem to be many hundreds. It's kind of like a My Space for intellectuals and readers. Many of the library members keep a low profile, but some, like yours truly, stick their photo up, have links to blogs and photo sites, and post their email address. Some of us are not so paranoid as the rest of you worry-warts.

And you can add a link to your blog. If you look to the right on this page, you'll see some random book titles and covers from my collection, just below the Flick photo link. But if you want to go straight to my profile and virtual catalog, click here.

Of course, all of this brings up the question of the future of books, the tangible things made out of paper, cardboard and ink, that take up space on shelves and grow moldy from dampness. Used books when opened present a time-span of smells. Perhaps ghosts of the writer and long-dead readers hide inside. I like to think so. I'm a physical reader and while I was a student got used to underlining my books, writing notes in the margin, putting explanation points where the words hit home, and writing "ugh" next to passages that make my blood boil. This of course makes such mangled books difficult to sell or trade. I have unloaded boxes of such casualties outside the local Goodwill, hoping that someone will appreciate my written assistance in the pages.

I have seen the future of electronic books and I don't like it. Digital readers like the one made by Sony are clunky and cumbersome. I rarely read articles on the net, but prefer to print them out and cover them with ink marks as I read and digest. Certainly the generations that follow mine are less interested in reading. I was very disappointed in the students I taught a half dozen years ago who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the books I assigned. Almost none read newspapers. If they got their news, it was from TV cable news shows which, when I sometimes am forced to view them, are pretty poor. Go into a bookstore and look for young people, see what they are reading. Actually, LibraryThing compiles statistics and who do you think are the favorite writers of the folks participating? J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, naturally. And these are readers, people who read words to explore worlds in their mind, and they are a small percentage of the world's population.

My favorite books and authors, which I of course think are more worthy, are well down the list.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Birthday, America

God bless our flag. Long may it wave.

Today we celebrate the 231st birthday of America. My, how the time flies when we're having fun! Last night it sounded as if gang warfare had broken out in my neighborhood, popping sounds like the rattle of small arms fire: Children with fireworks were doing their best to blow off fingers. On this date in 1776, the Declaration of Independence from Britain was signed by some slave-holding landowners in Philadelphia. With the help of Thomas Jefferson, who fathered children by his slaves, the new power elite wrote hopefully:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Of course by "men" they meant "white men," and it would be over a hundred years before it would include women, and even more (yet?) before the blessings of citizenship were conferred on people of color (but not if you're an illegal immigrant). We're still wrestling with the conflicts between equality and liberty. When does your pursuit of happiness infringe on my liberty? The "Creator" given credit by the signers was the God of the Enlightenment, embraced by the largely agnostic Deists, who set his clock of creation to ticking and then left the universe to fend for itself.

I'm not a big fan of patriotism, or even a supporter of any brand of nationalism. The kind of claptrap in this web site, sent to me by an old high school friend who mistakenly thinks I share her values, makes me want to throw up. Of course, I'm a prime candidate for deportation: "America, love it or leave it!" But before they kick me out, I'll leave of my own accord. Bye, bye Miss American Pie.

Not today, though. Today I'll attend a 4th of July barbecue in the grand old American tradition (although it may be vegan), with friends and fellow peace workers. After an afternoon of good food and spirited conversation about our much maligned President who now adds "pardoner of criminals" to the Bill of Impeachment against him, we will stand on a street corner in Felton and raise our voices in protest against the many crimes that are being now committed in the name of patriotism, nationalism and the flag.

Howard Zinn says it better than I ever could. On this day of infamy, when a democracy and freedom were declared that have not yet been fulfilled, "we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed."

Zinn, in an article from The Progressive Magazine reprinted on Common Dreams, argues that we need to renounce the poisonous idea that our nation "is different from, morally superior to," the other nations of the world (each of which might harbor the same notion). It follows from this that we need to "assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation." Nationalism, Zinn writes, is one of the great evils of our time, along with racism and religious hatred (the three seem to fit nicely together, i.e. the U.S., Israel, apartheid South Africa, Afghanistan under the Taliban, etc.).

One of the noxious effects of nationalist thinking is the loss of a sense of proportion, Zinn points out. We think the killing of 2,300 at Pearl Harbor justifies the killing of 240,000 in Japan with atomic bombs, or the killing of 3,000 on 9/11 somehow justifies the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them innocent, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The racist notion of "Manifest Destiny," which allowed the U.S. to kill 600,000 in the Philippines in the 1890's, continues in the rhetoric of George Bush who claims that the U.S. is spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East. Claptrap!