Monday, December 22, 2003

A Christmas Carol

This Christmas has more than the usual mix of joy and dread. The terror alert is high, and I'm not just talking about the Bush administration and Homeland Security. I'm looking at the next month or so, when it seems likely there will be changes with profound personal impact, perhaps defining the rest of my life. There are one or two good possibilities, and of course there could be the unforeseen bit of luck. But prospects do not appear rosy. What little I have, in health and stability, may be tipped on a steep downward fall.

What seems certain is that I've lost my gamble, and what I believed I should be doing at this point in my life will not be happening, at least not in the way I’ve been working and planning for. The books I felt certain I was meant to be writing are fading into the land of lost possibilities. This could be a quite costly loss for me, in more ways than one.

That of course could turn out to be the overdramatising sometimes described as catastrophizing. Or not. The story of the boy who cried wolf ends with the wolf finally coming.

For awhile now I have worried that at my age, when I am still pretty strong yet have those years of experience and learning to make use of---in other words, when my life should be culminating---that I will instead be eliminated a decade or two too early. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing has happened, of course. And for someone of my birth and background, it's more or less to be expected. "Who do you think you are?" always echoes in the soul of the working class hero. Who do you think you are, not to be coughing in the basement from a lifetime of coal dust. Who do you think you are, to expect a living if you didn't follow the prescribed path, which meant getting a job and staying there forever, or even following the route outlined in the chant of my college days: work, study, get ahead, kill.

Okay, it's Christmas. I spent too much time in the past few weeks working on old audio tapes, some of them from the middle 1960s, the early 70s, etc. every decade till, well, the vocals were finished on a couple of tracks last week. I'd transferred the oldest (originally recorded on reel to reel) to cassettes a few years ago, and this month I used a "cleaning" and enhancing program, and two computers, to transfer the contents to CDs. I put together personalized CDs from the masters for family and friends as Christmas presents. They should be getting them about now.

There's always something strange about giving gifts that are your own work: writing, or in this case, music. It seems egotistical as well as apparently (though not really) economical. And there is something of an ulterior motive. It's all part of my preservation project, as are certain of these blogs. As I began to suspect that the world was no longer interested in sustaining me, I sought to preserve and disseminate as much of my past work as I could. Maybe I'll disappear, but not without a trace.

I don't know, maybe this is all what Buddhists call Attachment. Or maybe it's just natural.

That's why I've been posting old articles with new commentaries on the Kowincidence blog. I had hoped to make a book out of many of these pieces. I had a title and all, and I expected I'd have to publish it myself, through xlibris again. But now I doubt that I'll have the time or money to accomplish this. Cyberspace will have to do.

The music is perhaps more personal, especially since I've never made much of an attempt to make a living by it. Reviewing old tapes, most of them done with a single microphone in one basement or another, some preserving the few but treasured moments when I got to play my songs with other people of terrific musical talent, I realized how important making these songs and making this music was to my internal survival. In some of them, done with great sincerity and seriousness, when no one in the world was listening or probably ever would, I could hear how they were keeping me alive.

So as some phantom alien in a Star Trek episode once said, they are not expressions of my superiority but testaments to my existence. Evidence not only that I did exist, but how I existed.

I also recorded new material, with my old Yamaha keyboard (anything electronic that's more than 2 years old is Old) and its choices of formerly fashionable beats and accompaniments, using two of the four tracks on a simple four track cassette recorder. (I actually wish I still had the old boom box that unaccountably had a sound-on-sound recording feature, which allowed me to do multiple tracks that didn't have to be re-mixed.) By the time I did the last vocal tracks I was finally producing music that met or exceeded what I heard in my head.

Then I used the computer program that doesn't quite live up to its claims but is better than nothing. I haven't figured it all out yet, so there are some floating fragments and so on, but all in all I'm pleased. Even when the music or the sound isn't great, there's usually something for me to be fond of.

I couldn't make and send CDs for everyone I wanted to, but maybe I'll get the chance to do more. I do intend to post more on Kowincidence and the other blogs of record in the next month or so. I don't intend to go quietly.

This Christmas I'll be caroling with Quakers at a hospital and a nursing home. That should be as least as interesting, and as novel, as having Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Native Americans who are also Quakers.

Otherwise I'll keep up my morale with Jumbalones (the confection I make from my grandmother's recipe), rented Beatles and Star Trek DVDs, coffee and chocolate. Meditating with Margaret, hanging out with Tess the cat. The good things in life.

May your holidays be happy and safe.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Random Notes

I found a video cassette at the library of a PBS (actually a CBC) production called "Singing Our Stories," featuring Native American/First Nations women singing and talking about their tribal music. Before I had a chance to screen it, the program turned up on our local PBS station when I happened to be surfing through.

It's a very good program, but I took particular note of a moment near the beginning. Years ago at the summer arts festival in Pittsburgh, I heard a duo of two Native women called Pura Fe and Soni. They've since become two/thirds of one of the better known Native recording groups, Ulali. At that performance at the edge of Point State Park, one of them (probably Pura Fe) prefaced one song with a bit of history, involving an area of the South (I believe it was North Carolina) where black slaves interacted with Indians, and their music merged to become the blues.

I never forgot that, and the more of traditional Native music I heard, the more I heard aspects of the blues and elements that would be incorporated in jazz singing. But I could never find any documentation for what Pura Fe said. I still haven't, but at least I've heard her say it again, on "Singing Our Stories." In that program she was singing with four generations of women in her extraordinary family, in which there have been seven sisters for several generations. They were singing and dancing barefoot on a smooth and bending wood front porch. The blues was clearly in that music, and she said she felt that way, and intimated that a lot of Native people feel that way. The way she said it made it sound as if it is still a heretical observation.

I didn't hear Ken Burns' emphasize it in his multi-hour historical "Jazz" series, for instance. But as Pura Fe pointed out, there were American Indian slaves working side by side with black slaves in the Southeast. There is a clearer if almost as unacknowledged connection in New Orleans, where the "juns" in Cajun are Indians. This mixed blood music is part of the richness of jazz that left that city and headed north to Chicago and Kansas City, and to the world.

Music-making is an undeniably wide-open tradition. Musicians copy whatever sounds good to them, and they've been doing it probably as long as there's been music. It's one of the reasons that despite instances of exploitation, many of the first blows against segregation came from black and white jazz and rock and roll musicians playing together. Racial harmony was more literal than most people imagine. Cultural sharing extends to ceremonial music as well---certainly in Christian churches, black and white. But it's way past time for the Native American contribution to jazz and the blues be explored and acknowledged.

A Cat Column

Our favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Jon Carroll, has taken to warning readers in a variety of ways that a "cat column" is coming up.
Tess, the cat for whom I staff, deserves her column inches as well. So consider yourself warned.

I'm moved to write this because I'm now convinced that Tess not only uses language, she invents language. I don't mean her variety of vocalizations as much as her gestural language. For instance, she invented a way to signal that she wants her wet cat food from the refrigerator. Tess is very structured. She understands schedules and gets upset if we don't keep to ours, and of course, to hers. She knows how many times a day she gets wet food, and what part of the day. She's been known to demand it at exactly the same hour every day. The signal she devised for "requesting" it is to position herself in front of the refrigerator and shake her hindquarters in what we used to call her "tuna dance," before we stopped giving her tuna due to mercury content.

For awhile she corrupted this signal by refusing the food and wanting something else, so the signal became ambiguous. But lately she's returned to a one to one correspondence, Tuna Dance= I want my wet cat food, it's time.

The connection between her actions and what she wanted is pretty clear, and pretty eloquent. But then she began doing something that is closer to pure language. As she's gotten older she likes being held and petted a lot more, and more often. Lately she's been using a signal to indicate her desire to be held and petted. She vocalizes, then stands underneath one of the kitchen chairs, and vocalizes some more. If I don't get the message, she emerges and goes under another chair and repeats it.

What's really interesting about this is that her action has no relationship to the action she's requesting. In fact, it's counterproductive because it's difficult to reach her when she's under the chair. I've pointed this out to her a number of times, but she persists, perhaps because she sees that despite my complaints I get her meaning. Because of the difficulty of reaching her, I don't see how I could have given her the idea that if she goes under the chair, I am more likely to pick her up. This is a signal that she created, specific to this one thing she wants.

So what else is this but the invention of language-a meaning invented for a gesture that has no relationship to what's meant.

Tess considers herself a fully equal member of the household. Since we moved our kitchen table to an area she can see clearly, she has taken to eating or at least hanging out at her dish whenever we sit down for a meal. She participates in our daily routine and expects us to keep it. For the middle part of the day there is no set routine, as one or both of us may be absent, and she understands this, too. She also has routines established with each of us separately. Her sense of order orders us. But how she made the leap to inventing language is something else again.

American Dreams

This season's "American Dreams" has the kids growing up, the youngest getting an operation to correct a polio induced handicap, the middle child---the girl who seemed to be the central character in the first season---going on with her adolescence in this fraught context of the mid 1960s. The black family has also emerged as a strong if secondary set of developing stories. But the major arc follows the oldest of the Pryor children, the son who is now a Marine, and is now on his way to Vietnam.

There are no characters now in the series that correspond with my situation in the period---that is, no one for me to identify with, one to one. Nevertheless I feel an emotional connection to J.J., the oldest son, who is nothing like I was at his age. I'm surprised at the depth of my feeling after all these years concerning my contemporaries who went to Vietnam. Especially one I think about, a guy I didn't know very well in college-we had our political differences since he was gung ho ROTC, but we met accidentally alone shortly before graduation day, and made our separate peace. He was killed in his first week in Vietnam.

Maybe that's it---at the time, the draft and the war were at once so specifically personal, and also so political and large in implication. As I've said in this space before, whatever hostility there was for soldiers soon dissipated when the first of them started coming back from Vietnam, "radicalized." But perhaps this area between the very personal and the broadly political, the area of empathy, is one that I haven't fully experienced emotionally. So in a way I do identify with J.J., and his journey becomes my road not taken.

It's more than that, for Margaret seems to be similarly affected. And really, has there been the opportunity to emotionally experience this through a character over time? Not with the intensity of a book or a movie, but in these fully furnished moments of something like the past, stretched out over weeks and months? Following a character we've seen "grow up" for awhile? I don't think so. This TV show is not entirely accurate in its depiction of the 60s, but in particular scenes it can be devastatingly evocative. I never had to ship out to Vietnam, but in the draft process and otherwise I was in several sorts of military circumstances. So the scene of J.J. leaving was very powerful.

The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin is gone, can the West Wing survive? So far it seems to be successfully adding more personal and personality elements and conflict to political stories, in apparently well thought-out arcs that are subtle yet definite. Within the shows the writing is a bit uneven, especially the dialogue, but that's been getting better. (And, it's worth noting, at least one episode I noticed was written by a team of two women, a first for this series.) The integrity of the show seems to be intact. In any case, I doubt if any current TV series would produce an episode heavily advertised as a "Christmas show" that had less sentimentality and more reality about families and relationships, yet still had moments of authentic, earned feeling.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

November 22, 1963

I was in room 207, my home room at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, when the voice of the principal, Father Sheridan, came over the school p.a. But this wasn't his usual late afternoon litany of announcements. He said that shots had been fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas, and it was believed that the President had been injured. I think he put on a brief radio news report, before it was time to change classes.

I went to my gym class, where at first we talked about the fact that they said only that Kennedy was shot, not dead. I don't remember what we did---I have a vague recollection of running sprints outside, which isolated us from further announcements, and for the last part of the period it was possible to forget what we'd heard, and the world was still normal. When we came into the shower room none of the coaches were around. After we dressed, I remember walking up the stairs and looking hopefully into the face of the first boy I saw heading down to the locker room. He just slowly shook his head.

The next period never really started, and everybody was sent back to their home rooms. The news of Kennedy's death was on every face, and blared from radios in several room, a few tiny TV sets. The next thing I remember was being alone in the dark empty first floor hall and looking out beyond the parking lot to the National Guard Armory, the only other building near our campus a few miles outside of town. I saw the American flag flying at full staff and for some reason this infuriated me. I actually called the Armory from a pay phone and asked why the flag wasn't flying at half mast. The polite male voice who answered didn't seem to know what I was talking about, and I did not want to be the one to tell him, so I hung up.

I walked home with my two best friends: Clayton, who I walked with most days (most students took buses, but I lived close enough to walk, and he walked to his grandmother's house to be picked up later) and Mike, who was also my debate partner. Though he lived some distance away, we'd planned to work on our debate case at my house after school. Another friend of ours, Johnny, may also have been with us that day-he lived a block or so from me, so he was a neighborhood pal. All I remember of what we talked about was that it was all up to Bobby now. Nobody would take Lyndon Johnson seriously as President. He could take over for now, but Bobby Kennedy was the one who should run in '64. This was November 22 of my senior year of high school.

While the television droned through the wall from the living room, Mike and I sat in my room, our debate materials scattered and forgotten, as we talked about how Kennedy's death might affect the world and our particular lives.

It was clear to me---in fact, it was probably clear to everyone who knew me---that Kennedy's death would deeply affect me and my life.

John F. Kennedy came along at a perfect time to define my life. Beginning high school as he began his presidency, I was beginning to enter the world, and excited that I had an entry to the whole world. I felt kinship with Kennedy partly because he was Catholic and ethnic Irish, two groups that had never been permitted into open national legitimacy, just as I was Catholic and ethnic Italian and Polish. Yet Kennedy was wealthy and educated with style and presence. Kennedy's success and example slayed several of the dragons I was only dimly aware of but powerfully affected by, both in the world and from my unconscious: religion and class (closely related in this case.)

And he was young. At 43, the youngest man ever to be elected President, and even though Nixon was only three years older (they'd both entered Congress the year of my birth, and had once traveled together by train to a joint appearance in a western Pa. town not far from mine) he and the Republicans made an issue of Kennedy's youth. But his youth and his aura of youthfulness was another liberation for me. Even the young could participate, and could lead.

His program accented youth and the new. He spoke of boldness, effort, leadership, challenges---all bracing and exciting and inspiring to a young heart. He had written intelligently about courage, and he had exhibited courage in his life. In his nomination acceptance speech in Los Angeles (which I taped with our bulky reel-to-reel, the microphone pointed at the TV set as I tried not to react audibly) he called his vision the New Frontier. (His longtime speech writer Ted Sorenson claimed in his biography that the New Frontier was Kennedy's own idea, although recently I came across one of Peter Drucker's early books, published in 1959, called "Landmarks of Tomorrow" which extensively applies the phrase New Frontiers to the American socioeconomic and political future. For example, in Kennedyesque phrases---which also describes Kennedy's view that the New Frontier is not a program but a reality---Drucker writes: "These areas of challenge, threat and opportunity to our post-modern world will be described in the next chapters...So far we have asked: 'What is the new reality?' Now we shall ask: 'And what does it demand of us?'" )

I worked in my first political campaign on Kennedy's behalf in 1960, organizing some of my classmates into a "Junior Teen Dems for Kennedy" club. We leafleted on a few occasions, and participated in what turned out to be the last traditional election eve political parade for a long time in my town. I stayed up all night watching the returns---it wasn't until morning that California's votes gave him the victory. I must have fallen asleep for a few hours, but I remember his statement that morning, which ended with "Now we prepare for a new administration---and a new baby." That baby would be John, born on November 22, 1960.

With some initiative and my mother's quietly excited connivance, I got myself invited to visit some of her relatives I barely remember ever seeing for the Inaugural in Washington. I took the bus to Washington, probably a six hour trip normally, but there was a titanic snowstorm. So I rode eight or ten hours alone through the darkness and the snow, and arrived in a city normally couldn't cope with a dusting but now had a foot or so on the ground. My relatives, an excited young couple, were at the station to meet me. The military cleared the parade route, and by Inauguration Day it was clear and dry. The parade was all I saw, freezing on an outdoor bleacher stand, accompanied by my relatives and a friend of theirs, who carried an ingenious flask shaped like binoculars, with warm whiskey inside, to augment the thermos of hot tea my relatives brought.

Back in Pa. (which it was then, sometimes abbreviated as Penna., for zip codes weren't invented yet) my father tape recorded the Inaugural Address (audio only, of course, though I saw the whole ceremony broadcast several times on TV that evening and that week.)

We did the usual Washington sight-seeing the next day, which included my first bowl of clam chowder (a Kennedy favorite, although I later discovered that I'd had the Manhattan version, not New England) in the cafeteria of the National Gallery. On Sunday I persuaded my relatives that the new President might be going to Mass at St. Mathew's in Georgetown, which is where he lived (on G Street.) So that's where we went. But no JFK. However, after the Mass we attended we exited to see a crowd held back by ropes, and Secret Service men all around. We simply turned around and went back into the church. The Kennedy contingent sat a half dozen rows ahead of us, about a third of the way back from the altar. After Mass, the new President walked smiling down the outside aisle and shook outstretched hands of people towards the end of the aisle. I held mine up and out, and as he approached, my mind and body froze almost entirely. I could see dimly that he was shaking my relative's hand next to me and I was sure he would be moving on, but then he reached back to grab my hand and shake it firmly. I shook the hand of my hero. I was one of the first non-celebrity Americans to shake hands with JFK since he'd become President some forty-eight hours before.

Back home after I'd described this to my parents, my mother disappeared into her bedroom and I could hear her on the phone. The next morning, there was a front page story about all this in the local newspaper, written by a reporter she knew and had called. This not only made me famous for a day in high school, it cemented the impression I already had as a kind of Kennedy continuation-a local manifestation, a New Frontiersman in embryo.

For the next three years, Kennedy was the center of my education and my activities. As he faced the issues of the day, so did I, reading several magazines regularly (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, New Republic, Nation, Progressive, the Reporter, the New Yorker, etc.) and books on the issues (Michael Harrington's book on poverty, James Baldwins' essays) and on the presidency (Emmet Hughes, Richard Newstadt and JFK's own Ted Sorenson) as well as books by and about Kennedy and his administration (including an early call for confronting environmental issues, "The Quiet Crisis" by JFK's Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall; he's 85 or so now, and was just interviewed by Bill Moyers...) In the late 80s I managed to somewhat impress former Kennedy aide , then Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry and future U.S Senator Harris Wofford by recalling the colors of the cover on "The Point of the Lance," a book on the Peace Corps ostensibly authored by Sargent Shriver but mostly written by Wofford.)

I wrote a world affairs column for my high school newspaper, and during my brief tenure as editor I wrote a story about John Glenn's orbital flight, including a photo clipped and cropped from Life magazine of the three U.S. astronauts who to that point had been in space. I sent a copy of this issue to each of these three. I got a letter from Glenn, and a note from Gus Grissom, who also sent back the copy of the newspaper. I was a little insulted by this until I took a second look and noticed that he had autographed the picture, and had evidently gotten Glenn and Shepard to autograph it as well. (This is probably the most valuable piece of memorabilia that got lost somehow over the years.)

How serious was I about all this? Let me recite to you the first Kennedy cabinet from memory: Sec of State Dean Rusk, Sec of Defense Robert MacNamara, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Sec of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Sec of Commerce Luther Hodges, Sec of Health, Education and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff, (later Anthony Celebreze), Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, Sec of Interior Stewart Udall, Postmaster General Edward Day, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

The only similar list I can still produce would be the starting lineup of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. (Plus the pitching staff. I used to be able to do it in batting order, together with a reasonable facsimile of each batting stance.)

Of course I went way overboard in my enthusiasm. I began to acquire Kennedy gestures and vocal inflections in my extemp speeches for speech club tournaments. But I swear my back injury and subsequent back brace were authentic.

But Kennedy was the center of my education in other much more personal ways. He combined detailed knowledge and logic with wit and style. There didn't have to be this divide between being intellectual, or even as we deride people today, a "policy wonk" or a dweeb, and a funny, charming, sociable and attractive person. (In these same years, Steve Allen was combining a certain seriousness and hip musical/ artistic quality with humor that was wildly inventive, both verbal and slapstick physical. So it was okay to combine these things in one's own life.)

Kennedy was my prime model for how an ethnic Catholic could be comfortable in the big world. That his family was rich did not mean to me that my family had to be rich for me to learn from what I saw of him. Suddenly, Harvard didn't seem so remote.

His wit was playful, smart and could be gentle and courtly. He made literary allusions and championed the arts. This was very important to me, because the big conflict in my dreams for myself was between politics and literature.

There were certain encouragements to my delusions of being part of the Kennedy administration. For one thing, these were still the days when people in the government answered mail. I would write letters to the President stating my position on various matters, and I would get a letter back from, say, Ralph Dungan, special assistant to the president, who would pass on the president's appreciation for my thoughtful comments, which he had passed on to the State Department. And then I'd get a letter from somebody in the state department, about how they appreciated the opportunity to consider my views. I didn't for a moment believe that anybody was really paying any attention to what I wrote, but they were showing me respect anyway. It was a ruse I realized was designed to make me feel loyal to them, at the same time as it did make me feel loyal to them.

So now in my cache of memorabilia that has survived is a letter dated December 11, 1963 from a (Miss) Barbara Burns, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the National Cultural Center, thanking me for my letter suggesting that the center be named after John F. Kennedy. The letter does not look mass-produced, though it would have to be, since thousands wrote with the same suggestion, and so now we have the Kennedy Center. (The engraved reply which Jacqueline Kennedy sent to every American who wrote to her after the assassination has disappeared.)

During the mid-term elections of 1962, in that fateful October but before the Cuban Missile Crisis began, Kennedy campaigned in Pittsburgh. Thanks to my campaign work and my new Democratic Party and labor union connections, I was invited to be an usher for the event where he would speak. So that's when I saw him speak, with enormous passion and energy, so committed that his arms seemed to extend over the top of the podium as he gestured, coming out at you and pulling you in.

My friend Clayton was there, too (his father was there as a union rep; he brought us sandwiches because once inside we couldn't leave), as was a relative on my mother's side, Jimmy Falcon, who would later become a judge. He shook hands with Kennedy that day. Our duties as ushers were minimal, but we were introduced to several Secret Service men, told how to identify them, and instructed that if we saw anything suspicious, we should alert them immediately. This duty weighed on me so much that I had trouble concentrating on the speech. I turned in at least one man for putting his hand inside his jacket one too many times.

* * *

After Mike left Friday night, the feelings really began to hit me. First, the fact of his death, the finality of it. Everyone commented that he was so young, and more than that, a symbol of youth. I hadn't yet experienced the death of anyone close to me. Kennedy's was the first significant death in my life.

I turned to a poem about the sudden death of a young man, to Shelley's elegy for Keats, "Adonais." At that age especially I felt a kinship with the Romantic poets, and I turned to them. I found this poem in a college literature survey I found in a trunk in my grandmother's attic, a trove of mostly my uncle Carl's college books (and science fiction anthologies) with a few of my Aunt Toni's. I still have this book, dated 1951, and I'm looking at it now. I'm sure lines like these jumped out at me:

And thou, sad Hour, selected from all the years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"

Apart from the death itself, but wound around it, was the shock and absurdity of it. It was as nightmarish as anything I've experienced, and it is that quality that remains with us in the obsessions over conspiracies and the details of the assassination. Forty years later, the consensus of experts seems to be coming around to what we believed that weekend: that one man had shot the President, through a combination of planning and accident (that he happened to be working in a building on the parade route, etc. It now seems likely that he hadn't decided to really try doing it until very close to the moment he raised the rifle.) It could have just as easily not happened. In fact, it could have more easily not happened. Then why had it happened? Why couldn't it not happen?

Vonnegut, Beckett, Ieonesco, Joseph Heller---they'd all lived through the obscene absurdities of World War II in Europe. But it was my generation's experience of the Kennedy assassination, I believe, that helped us understand their sense of absurdity and their gallows humor when all became highly popular in the mid 1960s.

As for what might have happened had Kennedy lived, again I believe we had the feeling then that we'd seen the best we would ever see---though it was a feeling we did not want to be any more accurate than we wanted the assassination itself to be real. I am sure the world would be a much better place, and the United States a much, much better country, had Kennedy lived.

I've read the critiques, I've heard the dour second thoughts: he wouldn't even have been re-elected, he would have done in Vietnam what Johnson did, etc. etc. It's all nonsense. Kennedy in 1963 had come into his own: the historic Civil Rights speech and bill, one day after his historic American University speech which led to the test ban treaty, which broke the back of the Cold War. The test ban treaty was wildly popular, in the U.S. and around the world. The South would hold for him enough to win, even though he knew that eventually Civil Rights would erode and perhaps doom the Democratic party there. Who was going to defeat him? Goldwater?

As for Vietnam, check out James Galbraith's meticulous exposition in the Boston Review which shows that Kennedy had already decided---and given the order-to withdraw American forces from Vietnam. (

Even without this evidence, it seems utterly implausible to me that Kennedy would not have seen what so many intelligent observers saw by 1965 and 1966. There is simply no way that Kennedy would have escalated the war as Johnson and Nixon did. He just wasn't that dumb: not just in sheer rational intelligence, but in humanity, public morality and his understanding of human behavior and emotion. The man who managed the Cuban Missile Crisis would not have escalated the Vietnam war. His brother Bobby knew that. And he ran for President to stop that war.

Many poets, writers, artists and intellectuals were among the first to oppose the Vietnam war, and they were demonized for it. A month before his assassination, Kennedy eulogized Robert Frost. Part of what he said was this: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth."

If JFK had lived, we might live in a country with guaranteed medical care and probably a guaranteed annual income. A country that respected the arts and the intellect, that has become more sophisticated in exploring the real and present complexities, rather than having become more moronic each year. We would have made mistakes, but we would have realized them faster and fixed them. Eight years could have helped define this country for the next two generations. We had another chance to do that in 1968, and yet another absurd assassination robbed us again.

That night in 1963, Mike and I were supposed to be preparing to debate the issue of health care. One of Kennedy's first battles was to pass medical care for the aged, which became Medicare. The very program the current President is trying to dismantle, on this fortieth anniversary day. And still leading to preserve that program is Senator Edward Kennedy, Teddy, the last Kennedy brother, and the one thought least likely to succeed. I saw him on TV last night, with a firmer grasp of the issues, and a better presence and ability to communicate the issue, than any other advocate on either side.

Kennedy's death also changed my life personally. Although I remained politically active and interested, electoral politics was not the option it once might have been.

The Kennedy years were the first--- and would turn out to be the only-- time that I felt in alignment with people and institutions in my home town, those institutions being the local Democratic party and the labor unions. In my small but energetic efforts in the 1960 campaign, I caught the attention of a few people in the party and the union political committee. My father was a Democratic committeeman, and Clayton's father was a union member and a friend of the energetic young chair of the union coordinating committee. He really took a liking to me, and even a few years later---first in the LBJ campaign, and then when Johnson was starting the Great Society programs but before Vietnam heated up---he was offering me absurdly high positions for somebody not yet 20. Like becoming head of the local poverty program. I was a college sophomore at the time, going to school 800 miles away.

For a few years I was really connected with the up and coming younger people in local Democratic politics. In 1962 I worked on the successful campaign of a state rep who eventually became quite a powerful senior member of the state legislature and of the local party. Had Vietnam not upset the applecart, I might have had a real political future there. I was not as smart, or perhaps as calculating as Bill Clinton to keep myself in the game while opposing the war. (I'm clearly not as smart in any case.) I burned my bridges, inside as well as outside.

Beyond that, there is all that happened that probably wouldn't have in the country and the world, that forced the decisions that formed my life. It seems likely to me that had Kennedy still been President when I was in college, I would have graduated and gone onto further education and some kind of real career (although it's always possible I would have blown it all to be a rebel poet anyway). I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have spent my graduation day not graduating, and watching Robert Kennedy's funeral on television in the student union. Nor would my life have become so deflected and deformed by Vietnam and the draft, in the country that Nixon would soon bludgeon into shape for the zeitgeist presided over by Reagan and the Bushes to ruin beyond recognition. Maybe I didn't respond to all that very well. But it's hard for me to believe that my life wouldn't have been better, along with the world's, if all that had been avoided.

Forty years after his sudden death, JFK has mostly been reduced to a series of clichés and cynical gossip. The same line from his Inaugural is repeated endlessly by our media automatons, altered only to further shrink it into a kind of meaningless brand name slogan, so just as Martin Luther King has been reduced to "I have a dream today," just about all an entire generation has heard coming out of Kennedy's mouth is "Ask not."

His presidency is a sentimental soap opera called Camelot, or a lurid melodrama of sex with mob molls and movie stars. This anniversary of his assassination has become an almost pornographic festival of virtual reenactments. Some of this may be a healthy adjustment to the often uncomfortable complexities of reality. But mostly it's evidence of our descent into displacement, consumerist obsession, self-satisfied vulgarity coupled with self-righteous ignorance.

Kennedy symbolized the ascent of intelligence in American life. The Best and the Brightest suggested the price of arrogance, but real intelligence is not arrogant, or at least not for long. Our society no longer aspires to intelligence, and it hasn't for forty years. We're happy with the arrogance of ignorance. We don't even have to be ironic about it anymore.

The next day, Saturday, I became mesmerized by the nonstop television coverage. I took a break from it to go with my father up to the Singer store on Main Street, where he was the manager. He borrowed one of my JFK portraits I'd brought back from the Inaugural or extracted from Life magazine, and we made a memorial display in the window. Most places did. No stores were open for business. The entire country had shut down.

I was still watching Sunday, excused from going to Mass with my family, watching Lee Harvey Oswald being marched passed a crowd of press through police headquarters-I jumped when I saw a gun pointed at him, but relaxed when I realized it was a microphone. A moment later there was a shot, and I saw Oswald crumple on live TV.

Then the funeral, and the images that have haunted America for forty years-Jackie and Bobby, the casket and the riderless horse bucking its black mane, Jackie and Caroline and three year old John-John, and his salute to the flag draped casket.

Back at school Monday, the sisters were organizing a memorial assembly. I was among the students invited to speak. I remember sitting in the office of-I kid you not-the Prefect of Discipline, explaining that I didn't want to give a speech about Kennedy, there had been enough of them. I wanted to read from his speeches, so people wouldn't forget what we had been given and what we had lost, and what we should remember. She wouldn't let me do it. Miffed, she relented to let me play a small excerpt of one of his speeches at the beginning of the assembly, from off-stage. She also borrowed the largest of my JFK portraits, a now rare one of him with Jackie. It was mounted high on the black curtains behind the speakers on the stage. Much as I had feared, the speeches were largely sentimental, several mentioning brave little John-John. My fellow students wondered why I wasn't up there, why I was hidden in the wings, running a tape recorder. They thought I was in the doghouse again, and they were right. The next day I went back to the Prefect's office to get my portrait but she impatiently said she didn't know what happened to it, and dismissed me. I never saw it again.

After I'd sorted out my feelings enough to express something, I did write a piece for the school newspaper. I'm reproducing it in its entirety here below. Looking at it now, I see that I did something a little interesting with the central metaphor. I didn't use "Adonais" but instead the more familiar John Donne lines that we had just been reading in English lit class, and the "for whom the bell tolls" which was familiar from Hemingway. I didn't analyze it this way at the time, but I started with the bells tolling to mark a death, and ended with the suggestion that the bells toll for others as a clarion call, a kind of "and now the trumpet summons us again" (JFK Inaugural), a summons to confront life (political life specifically), in a way that makes Donne's "no man is an island" theme subsidiary to a call to replace the fallen hero--- perhaps more appropriate for JFK, and especially for the adolescent writing it.

* * *

titled (by the editor) John Fitzgerald Kennedy..."Now he belongs to the Ages."

The slow cadence of the muffled drums reflected the mournful heartbeat of Washington. The bells of St. Matthew's were echoed across the nation. The world heard them, and knew for whom they tolled. They tolled for the departed President, John F. Kennedy.

When a man and the Presidency meet, profound changes are worked upon both. John Kennedy brought to his office an immense intellect, a dashing style, a will to serve, a ready wit, an enormous potential, and a courage based on trust in God.

He gave the Presidency heightened prestige, grace and dignity, a foundation of leadership, and a position of strength.

This man who had been described by his queenly wife as "an idealist without illusions" came to the White House with a view that did not permit him to stand and watch the world march by, but demanded that he take an active part in determining its route and its final goals.

He was, as a British commentator described him, "a man so utterly right for the job." He molded the presidency as a citadel of power in the Cuban crisis and the steel situation. He provided moral leadership in civil rights and the nuclear test ban treaty. He set a new intellectual tone for the nation, and dedicated us to the adventure of conquering space. He showed through action his conviction that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

His work was not done in the first one hundred days, nor in his lifetime. But he began.

He will be more than a footnote in history. His spirit will live on, especially in the Peace Corps that he founded.

In his last public speech, he pointed out that the New Frontier of which he had so often spoken was not a political program, but an existing reality. For the first time in history, man has the material power to abolish many forms of human suffering and want. The challenge is to apply our knowledge and resources to the problem.

John Kennedy's message was repeated over and over: "There is great unfinished business in this country."

His death brought an end to his efforts, but not to the problems themselves. There are still forty-two million Americans---a fourth of the nation---with levels of income, health, housing, and food below standards tolerated by society at large. There are still millions of unemployed, lacking the skill and education to support their families. There is still a large segment of our population who are insidiously denied their basic rights because of color. There are still the old people who suffer sickness three times as often, yet earn half as much, as younger Americans. There is still one third of a world rocked with poverty, hunger, and disease.

The death of John Kennedy does not discharge us from our obligations. It rededicates us.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

This is a slightly longer version of the piece that appears in the San Francisco Chronicle Insight of October 26, 2003. It can be found
The spectre of nuclear war dominated politics, culture and insinuated itself into daily life for decades after Hiroshima. But in recent years it seems to have lost its potency. Yet though the stories are tucked in back pages or hardly reported at all, the dangers continue to slowly grow. Israel modified American-made cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads on submarines, to counter suspected advances in Iran's long range missiles and the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear arms. This new element of an atomic arms race in the highly volatile Middle East joins the continuing threat of North Korea to make and even export nuclear weapons, and the continuing danger of two known nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, facing off over disputed territory at their borders.

Few North American news outlets even noted the recently revealed Russian plans to consider using nuclear weapons to fight terrorism, though the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki noticed it, and sent protests to the Russian government. But the U.S. could hardly object, since the Bush administration just pushed through the Senate its plan to develop low-yield nuclear bombs for battlefield use.

A chief reason for today's indifference probably is the belief that the fall of the Soviet Union meant that thermonuclear holocaust is no longer possible. But a recent RAND study asserts that due to disorganization in Russia as well as other factors, the threat of a devastating nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia caused by accident or miscalculation has not lessened but increased.

Newer, more exotic Weapons of Mass Destruction may seem more alarming, while there hasn't been a visible nuclear bomb detonation in many years, and no atom bomb has been used against an enemy since World War II, resulting in a diminished appreciation for their power. But continued proliferation of weapons in a world where hostility is increasingly open, violent and unrestrained, may change that, to our certain horror.

It could also be because the size and power of conventional weapons has grown (and some are radioactive), while new nuclear weapons seem smaller and more precise, there doesn't seem to be as much difference. But California Senator Dianne Feinstein said recently of the Bush initiative, "The administration is saying we can make nuclear weapons less deadly, and acceptable to use. Neither is true." According to an article this August in New Scientist, the U.S. is exploring an entirely new class of gamma-ray nuclear weapons, which are thousands of times more powerful than chemical weapons and (the article stated) "could trigger the next arms race."

That is the greatest danger, as Senator Feinstein noted: a new nuclear arms race. Which is precisely why it is so important to remember the nuclear test ban treaty 40 years ago. It did more than ban the ever-larger nuclear explosions pouring radioactive poison into the atmosphere shared by the whole earth, though that alone is worthy of respectful celebration. The test ban broke the momentum of the arms race, which seemed to be out of human control, propelled by its own deadly logic of inexorably escalating force and counterforce.

The Cuban Missile Crisis sobered the U.S. and Soviet leaders into seriously negotiating a treaty. But what made the difference was President John F. Kennedy's eloquent and persistent attack on this irrational logic of the arms race, and his insistence that humanity begin preparing for peace with the same courage and diligence as it prepares for war.

He expressed the logic of peace most fully in his American University speech. To those who believed that peace is unrealistic in a world of conflict, Kennedy countered that to believe peace is impossible means "that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. " Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."

He advocated an attainable peace "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions...Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts...For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

In its most quoted phrases ( spoken more recently, without attribution, by a fictional Russian president in Tom Clancy's film, "The Sum of All Fears") Kennedy said: "For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

How different these words are than any we have heard recently:

"What kind of peace do I mean?" Kennedy asked. "Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war..."

"I am talking about genuine peace," he continued. "Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time."

"I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, he admitted. "But we have no more urgent task."

The test ban treaty was negotiated in the midst of the suspicions and fears of the Cold War, just as today's world is permeated with suspicions and fears of terrorism. The situations are not precisely comparable, but there are several important parallels. The first is the willingness to enter into international agreements. After the limited test ban, other nuclear proliferation and arms reduction treaties were signed in ensuing decades. But the momentum stopped when the United States failed to ratify a total test ban in the 90s that other major nations had signed, and has since refused several meaningful international agreements, notably on global heating and on international law. This sends a message--it's every nation, every group, for itself.

The second parallel is the logic of force that again rules the world. Kennedy’s example is pertinent not because of the treaty itself but because of his efforts to break the logic of war. The treaty was, as Kennedy said, "an important first step---a step toward peace---a step toward reason-a step away from war." After the Soviet Union signed, and substantial opposition to U.S. Senate ratification was overcome, the treaty went into effect on October 10, 1963. It was of course that November 22 that President Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy campaigning on behalf of the test ban was one of the last images many people would have of him, and a prime reason that his memory was so revered around the world.

The U.S. refuses international agreements, and its recent actions and policies encourage other nations and factions to escalate their capacity for violence and their willingness to use it. We desperately need to remember this first step towards peace, how it happened and why it was necessary. We need to remember than an American President once spoke these words. The threat of nuclear weapons, of becoming captives of an arms race and a psychology of war, belong not just to history.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Fool’s notes

“The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

William Blake

“Oh, yeah. Like when?”
William Kowinski

Pulling into a parking lot, I found myself screaming to myself, “what you’re doing is not working! Do something else!”

Later at home checked the email to find that a piece I’d almost forgotten about was going to be published on p. 1 of the following Sunday’s Insight section in the SF Chronicle. I’d rewritten this piece at least six times since June, submitted versions of it to a dozen newspapers and magazines over that time, including three separate versions to the Chronicle.

I rewrote it the last time, knowing it would be the last attempt, trying to find what button to push, and why? Because I wanted these words—not my words, but JFK’s words---to be heard again. I didn’t feel the piece was really right, really finished, but I was tired and there was no sense in working on it any more, since it had a track record of rejection. So I sent it. My editor there was moving to another section, so I didn’t know who would see and judge it. Usually I got enough time after a piece was accepted to make some changes, but not this time. The piece was edited, tightened, but still incomplete, to my mind. But there it is.

So it appeared, page 1, left column, no graphic. The page was dominated by two articles on another story entirely. As usual when I have a piece appear in the Sunday Chronicle, not a thing about the day changes. No one I know reads the Sunday Chronicle, and the phone never rings. In times and places past, I used to sometimes get calls when a piece appeared, from friends or fairly often from a radio or TV show wanting to do an interview or segment. Not much of that kind of TV left, or even that kind of radio, not in the Bay Area, and not where I live.

In the evening I did get a call about the piece, as I have gotten on two or three pieces (usually in Insight) over the past year or two. The caller is always a stranger and older---older even than me. This time the caller was an 88 year old man, a retired doctor from Eureka, who read the article, and took the time and trouble to get my phone number and call me up, just to say he liked it. It was a two or three minute conversation.

In a week or ten days, or maybe three weeks, I’ll get a check for the article. It won’t be much. It won’t be in itself a justification for the time and effort put into it. Not even by WalMart standards.

It is hard to know how to think about any of this—the articles that get published, that don’t get published, that appear only in blogs. The ones that exist somewhere in the world, the world of paper, the world of cyberspace, the world of strangers, of unforeseen and unforeseeable possibilities, including the quite reasonable and foreseeable possibility of phantomhood, of inconsequence.

What I do know: I am in awe of knowing that something I wrote entered the world of a stranger, an 88 year old man, with a life I can’t imagine. I would be content to write for no other response, if it were possible to keep doing so.

What I also know: a piece of writing that does not pay for the sustenance it draws is a gamble. The gamble is that other pieces will, or that one of these pieces will lead to something—some more financially sustaining opportunity. It used to happen. It has not happened in a long time. As someone in the writing biz said to me in San Francisco, it takes just one good thing---one BIG good thing--- to happen every ten years to get you through. Failing that, and failing any other means of sustenance (requiring skills and opportunities I alas have not), it will eventually stop.

What’s the point? There is no point. There is just life as it is. What’s the point of writing about this? There is no point. Writing is my life.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mutando riposa
"Changing, it rests"
Herakeitos, in Italian as recalled by Francesco Clemente to Michael McClure

In the parking lot outside Staples a man shouts into his cell phone, "You wasted my miles!" He listens for a brief moment and then repeats it, "You wasted my miles!"

At the St. Vincent DePaul Store counter, a young man in a leather jacket explains that he is buying a lime green blanket for a homeless person, instead of giving him money, "which he might spend on beer." The clerk says it is probably a good choice. They agree he will be warmer with the blanket.
But the young man walks alone down the street a long ways carrying the lime green blanket in a rumpled paper bag. Is it really for a homeless person that far away---there were closer candidates near the store---or was it a story, because for some reason he was embarrassed to be buying it for himself?

For several days now I have been possessed by the idea that I should be permanently wearing a dunce cap.

I wonder if anyone in Chicago is sleeping well this week. The Cubs, who haven't been in a world series for nearly a century, blew a 3-1 lead in the league championship series. They had been four outs from the World Series at one point, with one of their two best pitchers on the mound. He got into mild trouble in the eighth inning with a 3-0 lead, and then a foul ball drifted toward the short left field stands. It was a high pop, and the fans in the first few rows were knotted together looking up. One guy stuck out his hand and the ball bounced off of it---and also away from the Cub fielder's glove waiting below these massed fans' hands. It would have been the second out. The player-third baseman I think-- was furious. The pitcher asked the umpire to call fan interference, but the ball has to be on the field of play, not a foot or so in the stands.

At that point everybody had the same bad feeling. The pitcher was unnerved and walked the batter, throwing into the dirt and moving up the runner in the process. The fans around the man who deflected the ball pelted him with beer. Park officials had to rescue him. They kept him hidden for an hour after the game was over. The Chicago Sun-Times then printed his name and occupation. By the next afternoon his phone was disconnected. I'm guessing he'll be moving out of town, his life distorted and impossible, all because of a moment in an exciting baseball game when he was trying to catch a foul ball.

Because the next batter hit a routine grounder to shortstop, an easy out, a difficult double play. But the shortstop muffed it, got nothing. And the floodgates opened. The Marlins scored eight runs. They had beaten one of Chicago's best starting pitchers. The next day they faced the other one, the most consistent and brilliant. They hadn't been able to hit either of these guys the first time they faced them. But they hit Kerry Wood in the seventh game, and they won their third in a row.

It's something that happens in sports, mysterious, fatal, and it can be painful for years and years. It happened to the SF Giants last year in the World Series, when they were a handful of outs away from winning it all in the sixth game, with an even bigger lead. Then one thing led to another and they lost that game, and they looked pretty flat in the 7th, which they lost. The Marlins did it to them this year, but what were freakish screwups and bad judgments last year became inept and dispirited play this year. Last year the Giants should have won. This year they played poorly and so their bad luck was not so surprising.

The most painful such moment for me was in the early 90s, when the Pittsburgh Pirates had their last good team, probably the best in the majors that year, with Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy van Slyke in the outfield. They were about to go to the world series in a game against the Atlanta Braves, a team I despise, not just because they were the nemesis of the Pirates (and later the Giants), but for their racist name, mascot, song and tomahawk chop. The Pirates had to get just one out, and at least twice they had to get just one strike. But they didn't. They lost. The last shot on the TV was those three outfielders, who knew they would never play another game together, lying flat on their backs on the grass.

The Pirates that year were the beginning of a trend-the Last Year for the Good Team. Not in retrospect either-you knew it then, because of money. The Pirates couldn't afford to sign their best players, and they began a process of letting them go and trading them that continues through this year---in fact some of the better Cubs started out this season with the Pirates. The same thing is going to happen to the Giants for next year. From this year's team there will be Barry Bonds and the batboy. Perhaps the most bizarre case is the Marlins. One year their owner bought up the contracts of all the best players he could get, and he got the best manager in baseball-Jim Leyland, the manager of that Pirates team with Bonds and Bonilla. Leyland took them to the World Series and they won it. I rooted for them because Leyland deserved a World Series ring. But right after they won, the owner totally dismantled the team. The fans were betrayed and they knew it, and even though this year's Marlins are going to the World Series, they have just about the lowest home attendance in the major leagues this side of Montreal.

That Pirates collapse began with the same kind of eerie moment as the Cubs', though it wasn't so bizarre. One of the best fielding second baseman in the majors booted a grounder in the ninth inning. That started it, and postponed Barry Bonds playing in the series for more than a decade.

The Cubs collapse was even more total and more humiliating, because it occurred over three games, especially the final two. How does a freak moment turn into inevitability? How quickly a dream almost fulfilled becomes a nightmare that won't stop. Was this the "inferiority complex" psychology of the loser who can't believe he deserves to win? You have to wonder about Dusty Baker, an inspirational manager who took the Giants to the Series last year and the Cubs to the league championship series this year, and saw ultimate victory collapse in the same fashion. Is this coincidence, or is there something fatal about his managing, a flaw that comes out in these situations, maybe even the other side of the virtues that gets him to these games... It's just a game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. But even within the chalk outline, life remains mysterious.

For the other side of bad luck is the team that gets the break, and then goes on to heroics to win. The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates may not have had their chance in the seventh game if a ground ball didn't take a hard bad bounce and hit Tony Kubec in the throat, instead of in his glove. It was a small moment in an otherwise fantastic game, but Bill Mazeroski might never have been in position to win the game with a home run otherwise.
The breaks of the game...whatever that really means.

For longtime or even lapsed baseball fans, this could have been a World Series to remember: the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox, two of the oldest franchises in baseball, playing in two of the oldest and most fabled surviving ball parks in the majors, and two teams with very early glory and decades of futility, heartbreak and self-inflicted disasters.

Instead we may get the most boring of possibilities: the Yankees and the Marlins. Well, more time to read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

On the Road II

Back now. The last day in San Francisco began with what's becoming a quintessential city experience, the trip to reclaim a car from city towing. Not enough to give a ticket at a little past 9 a.m. for parking in a zone a bumpkin like me has never heard of, which mandates you disappear your car between 7 and 9 a.m. during the morning commute. It was stupid, but the stupidity-or at least the oversight-was shared. Fortunately, reclaiming the car was fairly painless, except for the repulsive cost. The city of San Francisco does it very efficiently; it's apparently just another part of the car business, like that particular car's home, a rental lot.

The drive back included an unexpectedly close view of a forest fire in southern Humboldt. It was a flare-up of a fire that had been under control. From 101 we could see rivelets of smoking trees and at one point some flames at the top of a hill. It was a small enough fire that 101 remained open, and also that we could be so close to it. Even a fire this small in scale was an awesome, as also in awe-ful and awe-inspiring, sight.

The good news of the trip is the on again, off again assignment for a story on a project investigating the influence of Buddhism in the arts is on again, this time in probably the best possible venue, the Sunday Datebook section of the Chronicle. It was neat meeting people at the Chronicle, some I'd worked with by phone and email, some not. And getting reacquainted with Kenneth Baker, who I haven't seen since I was his editor at the Boston Phoenix in the early 1970s. Nice to know that my younger self made a lasting good impression.

My day in the Zen Center was a mixed experience. I didn't feel like I spent much time there really---I had hardly settled in my very pleasant room in the afternoon (and a brief moment in the lovely Japanese tea garden) before I had to go off to Berkeley again to attend a performance for this story. When I got back I could read for only awhile before sleeping, since I was to be up early for meditation instruction and the Saturday lecture and discussion. I did pick up a few pointers on the sitting meditation, and the lecture was good. I liked being in the group for meditation and lecture, but I have to say that as a fervently lapsed Catholic, even though I believe in ceremony and ritual, the priesty robes and apparent hierarchies, the bowing before statues etc., made me a bit nervous.

The day took a different turn when more or less on the spur of the moment I headed down to the ballyard, bought a great seat from an independent vendor, and saw my first Giant's game at Pac Bell Park. Two spiritual experiences in one Saturday! I watched Barry Bonds many times as a Pittsburgh Pirate, from his rookie year to his last in the burgh, but this was the first time I'd seen him since. The crowd was fun, there were some nice fielding plays, but it was not a good game for the Giants or Barry. It's a great park. ESPN's exhaustive survey rated it the second best in the majors, with PNC Park in Pittsburgh being the best---which is where I saw a game last summer. I liked this park better, but I suspect it was because of the feeling in it---people knew the Giants are a good team, and they're on their way to the playoffs. There were some great teams in Pittsburgh when I went to games at Three Rivers and Forbes Field, but that was a long time ago.

So that's the chatty blog stuff about the trip. Still a bit fatigued, but I'll be back to my usual trenchant blather soon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

On the road

Can't resist the temptation to blog for the first time on the road. I'm in San Francisco for the week, ostensibly to do a story and conduct other writerly business, much of which has fallen apart or never materialized. But here I am. This is the second full day being here, as opposed to the day getting here. I spent most of yesterday in Berkeley. The second theme of this trip is Buddhism, in that the story I'm doing is on the ongoing program of Buddhist related arts events in the Bay area (also in LA, NYC, Boston and other places.) And in that I'll be spending one night at the San Francisco Zen Center.

I had two interviews scheduled in Berkeley, one of which actually happened. (Later I got an email from the editor at the SF Chronicle I thought I was doing this story for who had changed his mind-the old "no more freelance budget for the year" refrain. I'm visiting the Chronicle offices tomorrow, to meet people I have already written for, some I haven't, and one old acquaintance I haven't seen in xx years.)

After the interview, which involved seeing a new exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, I went down to Telegraph Ave. to check out the changes. I lived in Berkeley for a few months in 1969, and Telegraph Ave was where I hung out. In memory it is all bookstores and cafes, but even if it was then it certainly isn't now. There is one place that is still there, that has been there continuously,as I've noted on other visits. It's a little Mexican restaurant, called La Fiesta, on a corner across from Cody's Books. I remember this restaurant well. I used to go in there, order coffee and sneak as many chips as I could, while reading (I specifically recall Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrine Quartet, the memory of which is flavored by those chips and that coffee.) There were street people then too, and I was very close to being one. I had a place to live but very little money, so the kindness of the waitresses there, not only to me but to street people worse off, is something I clearly remember.

So I had dinner there, and the food is still great, plentiful and very cheap. I don't imagine it's a gourmet paradise but I'm fairly peasant in my tastes, and a taco, a tostada, beans and rice that filled a big plate, starting with a generous bowl of soup, was all the dinner I could eat, and it was under $7 (though more with taxes and tip.) I don't know if the ownership is the same, but the décor is-same tiled tables and iconic art on the walls.

I stopped in Cody's then, inquired for the rest rooms (I guess because of the prevalence of homeless people, restrooms are at a premium here now too; every town is becoming Urine Town, where you have to pay to pee.) I also confirmed that Maxine Hong Kingston was reading there on Wednesday night, as the SF Chronicle said. Turns out that was wrong, she was reading in a half hour, on Tuesday night. Plus it wasn't this bookstore-it was the Cody's on 4th St. I got directions, but the person giving them must have assumed I was driving, because it turned out to be a long, long way. I eventually caught a bus after walking a few miles. I got there in time for the second half of the reading, and hung around until the line of people getting books signed had dwindled. I had reviewed Kingston's new book for the Chronicle but had never met her. (The review is over at )
So I did talk with her very briefly. She had liked the review. She said "I felt I was understood" and further, thought it was well written.

When I was younger I delighted in writing scathing reviews, and I still am pretty blunt about deficiencies I find, usually in books I am assigned to review (I try to choose books I want to recommend.) But these days my point of view is generally that if a book is "awaited"-that is, by a known author and people know about it, and are already wondering if it's good or not-then a negative review is legitimate. That book is, in a sense, news, and that information is sought. But when review space is limited and now that life is especially short, I don't see the point of picking an unknown book and bashing it. But I think the real difference-if it is a difference, let's just say it's certainly more conscious now-is that I really want to get across what I believe the author was trying to do, and what the book does say, at least to me.

That' s perhaps a long way around of saying that I can think of no higher compliment, as a writer as well as a reviewer, that someone saying "I felt I was understood." As a writer, I know how important that is, and how rare.

Whatever happened to signs? It's pretty difficult to get around without them, but they are generally hard to find. I noticed this first on the BART system. Signs are hard to find, the maps are in the wrong places, there is poor indication of what trains are going where and in which direction (no Uptown/Downtown as in NYC or Inbound/Outbound as in Boston). So I spent a lot of time getting places and being lost.

Still, it's a city, you know. Coming back from Berkeley I saw people obviously coming back from a baseball game cross paths with people obviously going home from the opera.

So now it's off to make reservations at the Zen Center, try to find someplace that sells phone cards (I forgot mine, of course) and visit an agent in Orinda.

Friday, September 19, 2003


People keep dying. Older than me, some younger, well known names. Known to me if not to you, for example, was John Henry Redwood. Known as an actor, some on screen, mostly on stage, he's been a developing playwright for the past decade or so, and a good one. Also a great person. A big man with a big heart and a big smile. I met him in Pittsburgh when the Pittsburgh Public Theatre put on one of his first plays. He was very interested in the craft of it. Actually we may have met when he was in an August Wilson play there. It's been awhile: I remember a patio party at someone's house where he and I sneaked off for a minute to check the Lakers playoff score---and Magic Johnson was playing then.

Anyway, he died recently. Not as heralded as John Ritter or Edward Teller or Warren Zevon or even Sheb Wooley (of Flying Purple People Eater fame), but a man whose presence and talent in this world will be missed. We will be lesser for his absence.

Which got me to thinking, not very originally, that we ought to honor people when they're still alive to hear it. I've picked some Elders I wish to honor. Some aren't in fact very much elder to me in years, but certainly in achievement.

Norman Mailer. He seemed to have retired during the Clinton years but Bush has brought Norman stormin back. Sure he's flawed in big ways, but he's a huge talent, and someone who has given me key thoughts and prompts over many years. I wasn't all that crazy about his book on the Pentagon march, though in 1968 that a writer with his credentials (and military novel) could write about anti-Vietnam and anti-draft youth with such conviction was important. His novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam?" was riveting. I loved his defense of Henry Miller when he was a notorious target of Womens Lib in the early 70s. For good or ill he's carried the torch for the heroism of writing and especially the aspirations of the novel during my lifetime.
Yet besides the example of his engagement and standards he tried to uphold, I'll remember specific things he said or wrote almost as asides. "Totalitarianism is the interruption of mood." I heard him say that on a talk show (talk shows used to have actual writers on them) and it blew me away. Later I found it in one of his books, Advertisements For Myself I think. It's still a very profound personal and political formula for me.
And an offhand comment in his prose-as I recall he was narrating that someone had apologized for not having read one of his books and he said he understood entirely-that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other. That too is a guiding light to me. It says so much about books and life, and about how we continue to have new and illuminating experiences, how books speak to us in the course of our lives, they are there as resources for us, and how even the books are treasures at the end of the hard roads of life, a kind of payoff in wisdom and light and depth for all that we've seen and felt and been subjected to.
I wonder if his more recent work has spoken to young people at the time. I haven't read him in recent years. Maybe I'm just not ready yet.

Robert Bly. Another writer with flaws, perhaps more lovable ones, but not entirely. But I doubt there's been anyone more important to poetry in America in the past sixty years. He's been at the forefront from the sixties on, with his personality and enthusiasms and in recent decades his transparency, his honesty and courage. He still gets dogmatic once in awhile but that's the kind of flaw that integral and forgivable and lovable. His powers of promotion have brought many wonderful poets to wider attention. He's kept that up, from Neruda in the early 70s to Machado and Rumi and more. He's been close friends at different times with two of the best poets of the age, James Wright and William Stafford.
He's taken a lot of heat about the men's movement from people who have entirely distorted what's he said and what he's done. I respect him as an elder and I will always listen to what he has to say. He's written some fine poems, and he has done more than anyone to revive the performance of poetry, except perhaps Allen Ginsberg (who took up the squeezebox at about the time Bly took up his stringed instrument.) He's one of the connecting points between so many important places in our culture and consciousness.

Bill Moyers. Bly was but one of the voices of our age that Bill Moyers introduced to millions of people. The range and quality of his work over the years is nothing short of astounding. I have transcripts of his programs and books from his various programs and series' going back to the sixties. Political, imaginative, artistic, thoughtful life in these decades would be so much poorer without him. Even today, his PBS series "Now" is virtually alone on television as a quality news program of relentless probity, leavened by intelligent enthusiasms in art and thought. Bill Moyers is really the hero of the television age.

Leslie Marmon Silko. She's not much older than me, but she's an elder in many ways in what she knows and writes. She's the most profound and political of the many excellent Native American novelists, poets and nonfiction writers. Her generation that came of age in the 60s with an explosion of writing turns out not to have been an anomaly. American Indian writers remains vital, and beats new paths. But the continuing energy of this generation's writers, especially Silko and Linda Hogan, still inspires me.

Doris Lessing. A writer who would never let anyone else define her. "The Golden Notebook" made her a feminist heroine, but she refused to be limited or defined by any political agenda. Her science fiction novels are amazing in their conception, though she got little credit for them-puzzling both mainstream fiction adherents and s/f fans. I don't find her much of a stylist, but her energy and intelligence propel you forward. She must be a model for other strong women writers like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin. Atwood has a takes no prisoners intelligence, yet she's witty and civilized, and she sure can write (some of her short stories in particular are outstanding.) LeGuin is heroic as well, although she's offended me with some of her sexist talk, but like Lessing she's her own person, and quite forthright-and often right.

Maxine Hong Kingston. Again, an elder in example and inspiration, but not elderly. Her new book is courageous, not for what she's endured or even done, but in her honesty with herself, and honest attempt to tell us the truth. But not only that: it is the textures of her telling that ultimately are the most inspiring. I'll bet she's a great teacher, and I'm glad that her books are so popular on campuses. She believes in literature, in story, imagination; her new book unites the world of literature with the attempt to unite inner and outer peace-for example, by using meditation in her workshops with war veterans.

I need to add two or three more---there are many more, of course, but I can't neglect these: James Hillman , the most important of the post-Jungians, who lately has turned his attention to the subject of elders and aging. I just listened to the audiobook version of his print book (which I read when it came out), The Force of Character. It is a great listen as well as the usual rivetting and admirable read. He quotes another elder who has valuable and inspiring things to say about aging, Theodore Roszak. I've written about both these men and their work in this and other blogs.

Then there is Paul Newman , who acted in important movies as a young man, in middle age and in his later years. Then he parlayed his fame into a business that simultaneously offers good, healthy and tasty products and helps support good causes and artists. He's been a model in so many ways for so long, that his few lapses---that oil company commercial, and the promo suggesting that "Washington Week in Review" is something more than the march of cliches by timid journalists mouthing conventional wisdom very occasionally enlivened by new information or analysis---are easily forgiven. Now he's helping to bring Thorton Wilder to TV. He's been admirable in many ways, in his personal trials as well as modest in his triumphs, and so it's fitting to end this tribute to all elders with him.

Finally there's someone who exemplifies the elder perhaps best of any I can think of, and that's Gary Snyder. A poet of mythic power, whose life and work have forged crucial links important to the future, in his pioneering synthesis of Buddhism, Native American worldview, practical ecology and much more. His prose works such as The Practice of the Wild, The Old Ways, "Four Changes" and the interviews and essays in The Real Work and A Place in Space are essential as any body of work created in my lifetime. He is the elder teacher of our time, who introduces, connects and interprets knowledge as a guide on our individual, collective and planetary journeys.

I hope all of these people are around for a long time. But in my life they've been inspirations and so I testify to this, while others can still take advantage of their live presence.


Things are still pretty unsettled in my little world. But I've got two moments that I'd have to classify as wonderful, and both happened on the same day.

The first was a small and so far solitary personal victory. For something like five or six years now, I've had this little musical play that I wrote---a play for (I figure) junior high age kids, about smoking. It's a musical, and I wrote songs for it. I really liked it, but I've had to pick my battles-those things I tried to steel myself to send out into the world of rejection, misunderstanding, envy and heartbreak. Some of those items perhaps deserved not to be published or produced or whatever, but when you start out and believe in what you've done or at least the potential of it, you have to go forward and see what happens. But I have to be selective, not really just in terms of what I think is the quality of what I've done, but in the kind, the quality and the quantity of shit I'm inviting. For example, I can expect a nonfiction book proposal to get at least a little respect from somebody, since I've published a nonfiction book, and I'm an Author and a Freelance Writer. But if I try springing a musical play for kids-look out! Blank stares, or just total blankness. Cause you see I'm not a career playwright, I don't have my PhD in Advanced Dramatury nor have I workshopped and networked nothing but plays plays plays for ninety years---let alone musical playwright OR kids writer. In this world you write childrens books about stamps, and that's your identity for life.

And not only is the rejection more likely, it's harder to take, because I'm also insecure, for the same reason---I've got no track record. Maybe it really is shit. But I never believed this play or the music was shit. However, I could never get a recording that represented the music to my satisfaction. Because I couldn't afford the time or the money to do it, and there wasn't anyone else interested and able to help make that happen.

Then technology sort of caught up. Several years ago I got an inexpensive four track recorder. I had an electronic keyboard-not a great one, but not a real cheapo either. I composed the songs on that keyboard, with all that instrumentation, using presets in my own way. Over the course of a couple of years, when I could stand to spend all that time and belief, I recorded the songs. Actually I recorded the three songs people who heard them liked best, and they did seem like the obvious "hits"to me, too. And I recorded short versions of the other songs, just to indicate how they would go in the script. This wasn't easy.

Then I had to listen to all the takes, choose the best ones, redo several vocals, sometimes whole songs. And then, I didn't have the equipment to mix these recordings to my satisfaction. By then the programs to mix on the home computer were coming along, and so were the computers. Finally I found a program cheap and easy enough to use just to make a decent CD. It took hours more, and two computers, but just when it looked like---or rather it sounded like---it was never going to happen, it did happen. I now have a CD that sounds pretty good. Not perfect but (as we used to say) good enough for this band. It's musically okay and gets the idea of the song across. So finally, after all this time, this much exists, and that's about as wonderful as it's been in such things.

The second wonderful thing also has to do with music and technology and specifically, this laptop. On it I watched and listened to the DVD of "A Hard Day's Night" I borrowed from the library. You know how many times I've seen this movie in theatres? I stopped counting at 20. Then came the video restoration (which I have) and now the DVD. And it's the best yet. Moments as terrific as some moments in the theatre. But as an overall viewing and listening experience, better.

You can now see all the flaws that the big screen hid, but you can also see all the little subtle things. And mostly it's the presence. The immediacy. A combination of the visual image and the music through the earphones. (A lot of Beatles stuff at a certain point was in true stereo, which makes earphones worse than useless for me, since I can hear only in one ear, and therefore only half of the song---the drums and the backup vocals, or switch to the lead vocals while the rhythm cuts out-very frustrating, torture really.) But this is mixed so I get stereo through both earphones. (Something I picked up from the recording program was what added echo/reverb sounds like, and so I could identify that reverb was added to the songs the Beatles play in the concert in the end, so the music sounds like it's being played live in a hall---though of course in that hall the music wasn't heard at all, just the screaming.)

It's a nice DVD package, with interviews with everybody they could find, including the woman who did makeup, but those Brits talk so well that even all these bits were interesting and fun. I can't figure out why they didn't include the "I'll Cry Instead" footage they added in the video version, but other than that, it's a fine two DVD set. But the movie-that the thing. That's the wonderful thing.

I remember long ago---1969 to be exact---I was walking with a college friend in Berkeley, and I happened to mention Wallace Stevens' statement that the purpose of art was to make people happy. My friend, a philosophy major on a heavy political and psychological trip, laughed at me. I doubt if that's why many artists do it, he said.

Kurt Vonnegut said something like that in his novel Timequake. "I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'the Beatles did.'"

They didn't do it alone in this movie, and finding the right people at the right time and inspiring them was part of their genius, their success when it worked, and their bad times when it didn't. They rescued Richard Lester from making commercials for the rest of his life, and he turned out to be a very fine director, with several of the best films of the 60s and early 70s. They inspired the camera people, the editors, the other actors, etc. In some ways, this movie is like Shakespeare for the 60s-full of clichés, because the lines became part of the culture. I could recite the times even in recent years that people have quoted from this movie. Yet I had forgotten some of the funny bits.

I've got to take the DVD back to the library tomorrow, so as soon as I post them, I'm going to watch it again.

Monday, September 01, 2003

William Stafford, August 1993

A generous spirit pours through the luminous lines of his poetry. William Stafford wrote a poem just about every day. One of his many books, There's A Thread That You Follow, is comprised of poems he wrote in 1993, with the dates of their composition. He was 79 that year, ten years ago.

There are poems that evoke place, and a few that are savage in their politically charged commentary, as the one he wrote in June

Somewhere up there God has poised
the big answer to the new doctrine
written all over this country in concrete
by the corporation everyone has bought into
that leads to where the minotaur waits,

Waits just over there by the new mall,
or at the end of your carefully planned
university course, your Moloch Award,
your honors, your degree fastened like
a dogtag around your neck for life...

It so happened that in 1993, a slim volume of his poems selected by Robert Bly appeared. In his introduction, Bly used as a theme an image in a poem by William Blake that he and Stafford had discussed in a public conversation that was videotaped. Blake's lines are:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

Bly wrote that he asked Stafford, "Do you believe that every golden thread will lead us through Jerusalem's wall, or do you love particular threads?" He replied, "No, every thread."

A reviewer noted that in the tape Stafford points out that every thread leads to a poem, not just the good ones--if you don't pull them too hard. Bly replies, "I hear you."

There are ten poems in There's A Thread That You Follow that Stafford wrote in August 1993, including one of his most famous---perhaps the quintessential Stafford poem. It was evidently written after the discussion with Bly and probably after Bly's book of Stafford's poems went to press. He wrote it on August 2. I can't think of a poem that means as much to me as this one does.

The Way It Is

There's a thread that you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

In the book, there are three short poems written on August 25, one on the 26th, one on the 27th, and then a slightly longer one on August 28, 1993.

"Are You Mr. William Stafford?"

"Are you Mr. William Stafford?"
"Yes, but..."

Well, it was yesterday.
Sunlight used to follow my hand.
And that's when the strange siren-like sound flooded
over the horizon and rushed through the streets of our town.
That's when sunlight came from behind
a rock and began to follow my hand.

"It's for the best," my mother said---"Nothing can
ever be wrong for anyone truly good."
So later the sun settled back and the sound
faded and was gone. All along the streets every
house waited, white, blue, gray; trees
were still trying to arch as far as they could.

You can't tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I'm [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. "You don't have to
prove anything," my mother said. "Just be ready
for what God sends." I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

Well, it was yesterday. And the sun came,
It came.

Across the top of the poem he wrote to his wife, "with all my love." He didn't usually do that. Then he went into the kitchen to help her make dinner. A few minutes later, on August 28, 1993, William Stafford died.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

The Wealth of Neighbors

I'm sure the smell of tomato plants in the summer is a very early memory. My grandparents Severini grew tomatoes in their garden in the back yard. I don't remember those tomatoes as well as the plants in the garden between our back yard and the house directly "above." (It was above because a series of hills making up at that time one long ascent pretty much ended at our back yard, and there were four more streets behind us on that plateau.) That garden belonged to the Petroys, one of which was a relative of my Severini grandfather. There were lots of Italians in our area, many of them from the same village or region of Italy, and lots of them related by blood and marriage. Where there are lots of Italians there are lots of tomato plants, and they became a standard for other people as well. That was our world: we ate chipped ham sandwiches, skyscraper cones and Klondike bars from Isaly's (before the rest of the planet knew about them), and we had gardens and tomatoes.

The Petroy's garden was huge. All of the Petroy's-Katie, Jimmy, and Uncle Frank-- lived a long time-I hear Katie is alive still, she must be 100 by now. But as they got older the garden got smaller, especially the rows of tomato plants. Of course, as I got older the garden also seemed smaller. I remember running through the rows when the plants were taller than I was, and being yelled at by Katie or Jimmy. That garden was a small neighborhood adventure.

We didn't have a garden, or at least not much of one. My mother wasn't the outdoor type I guess, and my father wasn't interested (besides, not Italian.) But about this time every year, baskets and boxes of tomatoes and peppers would begin appearing in the kitchen. Neighbors would sometimes bring them and visit with my mother, or just exchange a few words at the back door. If we weren't home, tomatoes and peppers appeared on our back porch. Later on I sometimes cooked up some for myself, tomatoes and peppers in olive oil.

I remember these gardens when I smell Margaret's tomato plants. I water them, and I pick the tomatoes. The little orange ones will tell you when it's time---they'll fall into your hand with just a touch, or a slight twist of the stem.

I also think about the tomatoes on the back porch when I read the latest tortured explanations of the selfish gene and Darwinist natural selection. I don't argue with evolution, I just don't think it's necessary or realistic to think of everything only in terms of competition, of the struggle to survive. It doesn't take much more than common sense to see that cooperation is also essential.

Sometimes they're related, I'll grant you that. Sharing your bounty of tomatoes, like sharing your deer meat when you've come home with a buck across your car hood, is a form of bragging, of boasting of your skill and luck. But the good feeling you get from sharing your good fortune is a good feeling you can get from sharing and cooperating in other ways, and that rush of lovely chemicals must be pretty much part of our standard equipment by now. It encourages you to share. It also encourages you to excel, so you’ll have something to share.

Some Native cultures associate wealth with sharing, to the point that when somebody gets too wealthy they hold a give-away and give it all away. It’s an anti-envy move as well, but then virtues and vices are invariably related.

One more thing about the Petroy's garden. It got bigger when Katie's daughter Lucy moved in next door, and the combined garden crossed their backyards. She had married Corky Cocheletti, and they had a son also called Corky. He was younger than me so I didn't play with him much, except that his father had some boxing equipment in the basement and we got interested in that for awhile. I did go with both Corky's to my first high school football game, a thrilling experience---under the lights, all the sounds, the band, the cheerleaders, hot dogs and so on. And football with real equipment not on TV or a mile away from you sitting high in some stadium.

Anyway, young Corky grew up to be a model, for awhile the top male model in America. There was at least one magazine in the 70s that had an article by me and a picture of him. He was also trying to be an actor (he had some movie parts, and shows up even now on commercials occasionally), and he dated Pam Dawber when she was the costar of Mork and Mindy. He brought her to the neighborhood one day. I wasn't there but I hear she really liked the garden.