30 November 2009

Tonight the full moon sat high in the sky illuminating great tufts of white clouds raised in wisp-like feathers: a white peacock's plume.

29 November 2009

A Christmas Story from 1960s NJ

[N.B., I wrote this story many years ago, and it's still one of my holiday favorites. A few years ago, I gave a reading at the Taos Writer's Conference, and found myself cracking up so hard with the audience that it became difficult to read. Enjoy! And keep in mind, it's not quite as fictional as it would seem...]

Eugene Thatcher “Bucky” Davidson was a 12-year-old boy trapped in a very bad marriage. You could see it in his eyes, ducking for cover behind the horn-rim equivalent of orthopedic shoes. In them, a combination of his mother’s cyclone path of orbit and his own search for the nearest emergency exit. You could see it in his head, exposed at the cowlick, like a baby whose skin had yet to grow over its fleshy pink patella. You could see it in his pants, purchased in the young men’s department but imbued with a certain sensibleness befitting someone four times his age.

Our mothers had gone to school together, and thus we’d had some sort of vague connection since birth. Secretly, I rued the day they ever crossed paths. We’d bumped into each other in doctor’s offices and public spaces—Bucky and his mother walking in the park holding hands (retch), me pushing my mother on the swing. I thought this guy the biggest geek on the planet, northern New Jersey’s very own Piltdown man.

I was 11 years old and spent most days after school listening to Simon & Garfunkel records and caring for my mom, who suffered from ferocious migraines, depressive sensitivity, and a particular ill-suitedness to domesticity. Evenings when she was feeling better, she’d take us to Willowbrook Mall, where Bucky’s father, Big Gene, played organ in the Hammond store. His countenance completely placid as he pressed his fingers deep and hard into the plastic keys, Gene Davidson was a sight that compelled morbid fascination. To his rear, crouching in a corner, sat Bucky, his father’s biggest—though surely not only—fan. Arms hugging his knees close to his compact body, the boy listened to impassioned versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Misty,” soaking the music into his pores, lost in the place his mother tried frequently to rouse him from.

I still have a Polaroid photo of Bucky at this time, perched in front of our Christmas tree, his eyes slightly crossed, angry at the camera. The whole contingent had arrived—Ruth, Big Gene, young Buck, and his five-year-old baby sister. They’d rumbled up our long driveway in their sputtering stewed-tomato VW bug on Christmas Eve. I remember my mother’s groaning, “Who could that be at this hour?” as she struggled to push the tree aside and squint out the window. Then the ominous, “Oh, no...”

We had put up the Scotch pine that evening and sat languishing in the fit of energy and trauma it had exacted from us. After calculating the best angle at which to position the pine for maximum branch exposure, my father had finally stopped yelling at my mother and the tree an hour before. Both seemed relieved. My mother had lain on the couch with a cool rag on her head, looking as if she were going to vomit and begging me to bring her some Bufferin. I began to wonder if the labor pains of celebrating Christmas were medically advisable for those predisposed to mals a tête.

When we heard the car doors slam, a tactical plan quickly emerged. We would run into the front room—stay away from that door!—and pretend to be out caroling or slurping cocoa at a neighbor’s house. “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel up to...,” my mother started.

“Rat a tat tat,” sounded Gene Danielson’s massive, hairy, organ-thumping hand against our back door pane. “Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat.” Almost musical, without quite breaking the glass. If you strained, you could hear “Silent Night” in the rhythm of it.

Since I was the smallest, my mother sent me to peer out into the kitchen from our hiding place. Her anxiety was palpable enough that I suddenly felt a bit like Anne Frank. Just left of the dangling dog leash, I spied their sappily grinning faces, Gene appearing pleasant as all hell, and Ruth with that weird sloppy loopy look that had never so much as licked a glass of holiday punch. “Helloooou... Hellooouu, hellooou—Merrrrrrry Christmas everyone!!... Hey! Isn’t anyone home? It’s Ruth and Gene and Bucky and Little Girl.... Hellooouuuuuuuu??”

My God, they were persistent. And seeing them out there with snow pelting down their backs on that cold Christmas Eve, I could not in good conscience recommend that my mother continue the “we’re-out-caroling” charade. “They look pretty happy…,” I attempted. “It’s almost Christmas.…” My mother turned to glance at my father, who could not be reached for comment. “They might have presents for us,” I added. In those days, I would suffer any geek gladly for the right present.

“Oh, OK,” my mother relented. She was a major sucker for those of weak linkage and poor boundaries, and my father’s circannual Jimmy Stewart sentimentality had set in. Our family marched through the darkened kitchen to meet theirs in a fusillade of merry Christmases and hugs through heavy parkas and camel car coats. I hated Ruth Danielson’s hugs more than just about anyone else’s. Her odd smell and questionable breath always lingered on me longer than the supposed uplifting to be derived from such feel-good moments. Big Gene was somewhat better, though a similar olfactory ripeness made me wonder what the two of them bathed in. Bucky looked like he was trying to put on a vaguely festive face, but that decking the halls had taken its toll on his young, easily undone spirit. The little girl was smiling sweetly, though clearly lost in all of this nonsensical outpouring. She walked toward the basement and never did return.

“Well!” Ruth piped up, chipper as a March hare on an April morning, “We stopped by because it’s CHRISTMAS! and we couldn’t think of any, not any, other folks we’d rather spend CHRISTMAS! with than the Utzes! So here we are.” Then, in a barrage more staccato than reindeer patter on a tin roof, “Are you having a happy Christmas yet? Is Santa Claus going to come tonight, Carey? Did you make a list? What presents did you ask for? Did you leave some food out? He gets hungry, you know. Little Girl made a big list, and we put out a nice tray of cookies and some cranberry juice. We forgot to clean the chimney, though, Gene!” Her laughter, bordering on a cackle, sent a DB-1 full of shrapnel into my Christmas Eve reverie. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Gene, we forgot to clean the chimney! Gene?! Gene?!” She poked him hard. “Gene!”

“Oh,” he tuned in ever so remotely, like a ham radio on a stormy night. “Oh, yeah, right, we did,” he said in the same flat, somber voice he probably used to proclaim, “I won the lottery,” “The house is on fire,” and “Ho! what a party.”

Realizing her spiel was falling on deaf ears, Ruth turned toward Bucky, pulled him close, and began to rub the back of his coat with delicious gusto. He leaned to the left, gearing up for the weave-and-dodge of a prize fighter attempting to break free of her grasp. “Well, Bucky here has something for Carey. Don’t you, Bucky?” she said.

“Uh, yeah,” he murmured, and with some effort wrested a crumpled red and green package from the big pocket of his long, steel-grey parka. “Here.” He stretched out an arm in no specific direction.

“Bucky, you can put your hood down, we’re inside,” his mother advised.

“Uh huh.” He was as out of it as a plastic punch cup.

“Bucky, give Carey the present, will you? Bucky? Gene, get Bucky to give Carey the present. Bucky, give Carey the present. Oooh, does anyone have a camera? We ought to take a picture, don’t you think? We could go sleigh-riding tomorrow, you know, there’s a lot of snow out there. Over on the driving range, that’s where they do it. Tobogganing. Faye had a friend who lost his leg when they were tobogganing, didn’t you, Faye? What a sad thing. But let’s not let a little lost leg get in the way of a good time, shall we, kiddos?” Eight tiny reindeer were no match for Ruth Danielson.

Bucky stirred from his lethargy, and I swore I saw a microscopic snarl emerge from his left upper lip, his head tilted ever so slightly in his mother’s direction. The poinsettia paper sighed “hreep, hreeep” in his hand as he tried to ball my present into his fist. I turned in his direction and looked him squarely in the eye. Give me the present, dammit. I can’t wait any longer.

One eye drifted inward, and he placed the soft, mottled package in my hands. If they ever needed to dust for fingerprints, they’d check here first.

“Oooh, Bucky, she’s gonna love it. She’s gonna love it. Bucky made this, you know. Well, I helped with the crocheting, but Bucky did the best thing with it. Didn’tyaBucky?”

A look of terror crossed his face as I pulled on the first paper swath and unleashed the creature. Its black coat-button eyes—slightly crossed— glowered at me. From its sea-blue crocheted head sprouted lime-green hair—not just any lime green, but shaded, with a yarn that changed from forest to clover to mint to white like a bad peroxide frosting left long in the sun. The snarling mouth on Bucky’s progeny looked a bit too familiar, as if an accident of woolly DNA.

My mother, as usual, was far more encouraging than the situation warranted. “Oh, Bucky! What a beautiful doll!” she oozed. I ripped off the remaining wrapper to see its vastly crocheted body stuffed with white paper. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderful doll!” she added, going in for the Oscar. At the end of its long, distended gut hung the saddest touch of all: two black legs cut from thick swatches of semi-stretchy waistband material. I tugged on them, and the doll’s long, thin head plopped easily onto its chest.

“Thank you, Bucky,” I managed. “It’s nice.”

“But wait—Bucky, Bucky—show them! Show them what, what it does. Bucky! You’ve got to show them!” Ruth was practically gasping for air she was so excited.

He proceeded to take the beast from me, turn it on its belly, and twist a gold wind-up knob springing like a toadstool from the paper in its back. He twisted and twisted and twisted until the knob could budge no further.

“Bucky, you’re doing that too tight. Stop it. Stop it, Bucky!”

Suddenly, fiercely, “We Need a Little Christmas” poured out of the creature’s back with a shrieking intensity. It played loudly and lightning-fast—a pace no one could sing along with, though Ruth was gearing up to try.

“Oh, we neeeed a little Chris-mess,” she started in alto, then hit her church-soprano stride, “right this very minute. Bucky, sing, come on. Candles in the window. Gene, come on. Cookies on the spin-it. Yes, we need a little...” Ruth warbled on, accompanied only by the tinkling of the ever-slowing music box. Finally, the sound went south and began to twist and miss notes. Bleep a blleeep bleeerpp bleeeeeerrrrpah. Bleep. Bleep. Bleeeee-urp. It was so warped. It almost sounded like Gene’s Hammond at the end-of-the-night store closing, when he’d play soft legatos in a quiet minor key, and a look of peace crossed his face.

“HERE’s what we need!” Ruth screeched, in silent night¬¬¬–rending decibels. She pulled out a Thermos of eggnog, and I half-suspected she was about to baptize one of us with its contents. It was a heavy, green, industrial-looking Thermos, the kind that might well have served in an early ’60s bomb shelter, had the Cubans made moves more stealthy than Ruth’s. But meridian mania and jaundiced joie de vivre will always win out over Commie bastards and fighter planes, and Ruth’s flask met its destiny: to be filled with a creamy yellow liquid bound and determined to up the ante on our forcibly burgeoning holiday spirit.

She hoisted it high, then passed it around for all to drink. Fearing backwash from her mouth’s questionable past, I feigned an eggnog-related allergy and quickly shuttled the vessel to my father. It took his ever-analytical mind just two seconds to assess the contents of the cylinder, judge the relative proportion of redolent sludge to oral gratification, and pass it posthaste to his wife.

“Well, well, then,” my mom said, hoisting the canteen with convivial vigor, “a toast to Christmas Eve and being with our friends!” A forced, buoyant enthusiasm let her off the hook from actually taking a swig, as my father shot the tree a look to make sure its interpolated lights were flashing at correct intervals. Whenever social awkwardness got the better of him, he tried to make sure things added up.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Ruth responded. “Bucky, are you drinking this? Drink with us, Buck, come on. Show your spirit! Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of eggnog! Hahahahahahaha! Get it? Eggnog? Instead of rum? No rum in this eggnog, no sir-ee. But you know what I do have? A little leftover from our dinner this evening. The Swedes say it’s supposed to bring you luck on Christmas Eve. Isn’t it, Bucky?” Ruth reached deep in the recesses of her camel coat and pulled out a small tin canister. A smell more distinct than her own filled the room, and women and children like myself would have been well-advised to clear the area. “Look at what we have heeeeeeerre,” Ruth said with a devilish lilt to her voice. “Will ya look at this? SARDINES!!!”

Bucky pulled his hood up over his head, until its fake-fur lining covered his nose. But in one fell swoop, his mother flung the hood away and shoved the tin under his nostrils, like smelling salts he’d never asked for. Suddenly, from behind the boy’s back flew the Crocheted Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Arrraggggghhhhhh!” Bucky managed, as he smashed the doll into Ruth’s face in self-defense.

“Heeheehee!” Ruth’s unfortunate sense of play responded. “Here you go, guys. How’s this for Christmas spirit? How’s this?!” And with that she plunged the doll’s nose squarely into the sardine can, over and over and over again. It emerged with a single gold, gooey fish lodged between its crocheted loops, right where its nose should have stood.

“Now, whaddya think of his good fortune this holiday season, everyone? Looks like he’s got luck coming out of his nose!!!!” Not sure if she would bust a gut or pop a lung, I edged toward the model train, circling its way around the Christmas tree.

“Come here, Bucky,” I offered quietly. “Let’s see if we can set up some new tracks for the train.” He looked at me, squinting like mad through the Coke bottles and wincing with his mouth. Up and down, left and right his lips moved, as if trying to avert a Yule tide of imminent danger.

“OK,” he said, as he huddled in next to me under the lowest branches of the tree. “Can we make it go all the way to South America?”

I nodded and drew the boughs close in all around him, covering his ears, his eyes, and the top of his small head like a great regal crown.

27 November 2009

Apocalypse How?

For the last week, I’ve been mulling what might be an apt name for the last decade, our roll into 21st-century America. What will the era be dubbed in the history books? Over the last 10 years we have become increasingly digitized. So, yeah, patently we dwell in the Information Age. But I’d argue that it’s more the effect this progression has had on our hearts and minds that defines the tenor of the times. A distinct detachment, a stepping back from human relating and a greater affinity toward machine relating. Does this signal the beginning of our impending obviation on Planet E? Perhaps human life is meant to off itself not with a grand, Jesus-strewn apocalypse but, ironically enough, through its very own efforts at “development.”

Some say we are moving toward a time (roughly estimated at 2050) when human presence on the Earth will be edged out, as technology accelerates so rapidly that we will reach a point of “Singularity.” Futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil defines the Singularity as a time when technological advances begin to occur so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace, and are “cut out of the loop.” He posits that Strong Artificial Intelligences and cybernetically augmented humans will become the dominant life forms, essentially marking the end of human history as we know it. Perhaps this is the backstory to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

I can buy that ultimately technology may trump biology but find it hard to believe that such a transition would be feasible within 41 years’ time. Then again, Kurzweil’s predictions have come to pass before, and technological development progresses infinitely faster today than could have even been fathomed a decade ago.

For most people, technology now consumes such a huge proportion of our lives. Just 25 years ago, few individuals had a computer in their homes, no one had cell phones, and household “high-tech” translated into a cumbersome cable TV box and a 20-pound VCR it took an hour to convince to record one sit-com.

Today, the techno ante has been upped, and it’s a very rare person that doesn’t own both a computer and cell phone, to which they may quite possibly be slavishly devoted. People create and consume information instantly and freely, and share it on the Web via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and YouTube.

This Brave New World seems to be riddled with paradox, however. People are supposedly connecting more frequently than ever before. And certainly with all the cell-phoning and texting and emailing and Smart Phoning, we seem to have created digital umbilical cords with those closest to us. Yet, anyone who’s ever watched the infant-screams-while-mom-cell-phones phenomenon knows that this form of connection can feel woefully inadequate. Like fast food, it has the semblance of nourishment, but can we be said to be deeply connecting via a text message? A tweet? A thumbs-up response to a Facebook post? Within our hyper-presence there is a certain distinct absence. It’s as if we are trying to make up for the emptiness we feel by slapping our friends’ virtual backs on Facebook and sending quick texts and forwarding emails to let them know we “care,” but the end result feels like drinking skim milk when we long for a rich, silky cream.

But if we are indeed moving toward absenting Mama Earth of our humanity, perhaps this is how it’s meant to be. Perhaps what I would call the “Era of Detached Connection” is a step in the evolutionary progression toward the Global Android Village.

And with all the simulated connection occurring in cyberspace, it’s easy to get fooled. People “meet” without ever laying eyes on each other; they “talk” without ever opening their mouths; they “hang out” without ever hugging or touching or looking into each other’s eyes. Young people now use the term “talk” to mean texting, emailing, IMing, or gaming with—not anything that involves sound utterances. A friend of mine recently complained that she used to at least be able to monitor her kids’ phone conversations, but now with everything done through texting, she has no clue about even the tone of the “conversation.”

Teenagers do seem particularly ripe for this technological plucking. A recent report on NPR noted how the number of teens getting driver’s licenses has decreased by millions. In the era when I first got my license (on the very first day I was eligible), it was generally considered a rite of passage, as eagerly awaited as legal drinking age and high school commencement. But many kids now have such well-stocked rooms—filled with Blue-Ray and DVD players, gaming systems, computers, musical instruments, Wii, cell phones, iPods, etc.—that they feel little compulsion to leave, except for the dreary obligation of school. They can also play games online with people across the world, meaning that in-person friendships assume less importance. Again, it is noteworthy that their friendly relating takes the form of very targeted activity. This is quite different from my memories of friendships, when you got together with other kids just to “hang around,” and generally lacked goal orientation. As I recall, a lot of great creative projects emerged from that free-parking time.

But technology can be a slinky, seductive temptress, with its easy-to-navigate alternate reality and predictable set of responses. It affords a great deal of anonymity, which offers people a greater opportunity to be honest in certain ways and more deceitful in others. It gives users the chance to create a whole separate identity, an avatar that may bear little resemblance to the one we appear to have in 3-D. I’m speaking metaphorically, about the de facto identities we all construct as cyberspace residents. However, there are also the literal manifestations of this phenomenon in such arenas as Second Life (and its corollary, Teen Second Life), a metaverse in which one wanders a highly complex virtual world, socializes with other avatars, spends “money,” owns “land,” displays art, performs live music and theater, practices religion, and can even have online sex. As of October 2009, more than 16 million accounts were registered.

Anyone who spends time in cyberspace has essentially created holograms, abstract models of what human connection is generally believed to entail. Is this an adaptation to our inherent reticence in social situations? Are we simply engineering high-tech workarounds for human discomfort within the 3-D landscape of flesh, blood, and emotion? Is creating a skewed identity really helping the problem? Obviously, the act of holograms colliding with holograms doesn’t provide the soft nurturance and engagement of the senses that our still-human brains and bodies require to support healthy life.

Is this the time to stop and admonish, to prophesy doomsday if we don’t mend the error of our ways? Or are we bumping up against simply “what is,” based on some foregone conclusion about the fate of human life on Earth? Can individual humans have an impact, “opt out” of such a strong tidal wave—the technological march ever forward? Is such a backlash even desirable, or would it serve as a roadblock in the development of consciousness? What would The Tao say about attempting to push against what feels like a river—though one so desiccated that it is possibly antithetical to life itself?

Perhaps our very weaknesses as human beings have opened the window for another “life form” to enter and develop qualities that have eluded us. This reminds me of some of the classic sci-fi films about androids, such as A.I., Westworld, and Blade Runner, in which the androids can be more capable of showing empathy and compassion than their human counterparts. In the heartbreaking trajectory of A.I., one of my favorite films, a young android travels all over the world, in a span of more than 2,000 years, feverishly searching for the love of the mother who abandoned him. In Blade Runner, the androids express the ultimate in compassion by sparing the life of the main character, a human who is intent on killing them.

Can this be interpreted as the ultimate spiritual ailment? That the human race needs to outsource our love, to create machines capable of its expression because we have so failed at it? And does that bring a certain rightness to the notion of an Apocalyptic slate-wiping?

24 November 2009

52nd Birthday

Hobie turned 52 days old today! As befits a Libra with an Aries moon, he had a rather balanced day that turned rammy toward evening, concluding with his very first barks. Prior to today, I thought he would be only a wimperer, but having had his desires frustrated by having to remain in the car for a bit too long, he looked at me when we got home and let out several strong woofs that let me know he meant business.

Hobie was quite a hit at the homeless meal, and many people passed him around and got to cuddle with him. Several people said, "He has completely made my day." As a Libra, he appreciates a gracious compliment. As an Aries, he knows for a fact that it's true.

23 November 2009

Sweeping the News

After he got done sweeping, today was Wild Man’s first bath. It was clearly the greatest indignity he had ever suffered, and he looked at me like I was a lime green space alien for immersing him in a big tub of water and pouring it all over him till he was down to the size of a dill pickle. Then the water agitation began. His, not mine. It was like being inside a Laundromat-sized washing machine on high test. Like, 18 quarters. Did I need that extra shower today? Apparently I did. Did I need a second baptism, Southern Pentecostal style? Apparently I did. My clothes will dry in about a week. So will the seven towels. The ceiling, window, and walls may take a little longer.
Hobie. Is. Not. A. Water. Dog. Rinse and repeat. :-)

22 November 2009

Photo of the Dog

Today we went to Petsmart. It took us more than an hour to get out of the store because everyone was fawning over Mr. Hobo. He picked out a nice selection of treats, chewies, and new toys...and then we spent another 20 minutes trying to get out of the parking lot.


21 November 2009

Welcome home, Hobie!

Thanksgiving came a bit early this year. This afternoon I adopted a new family member. He's a 7-week-old border collie--an October baby, just like me (and a Libra). His name is Hobie. So far, he's only herded me about 3 times. His favorite toy is his big brown moose, which

is almost his size (about 5 lbs.). He came from a litter of 9 of the cutest puppies you'd
ever want to see, all freckle-nosed and beautifully marked. The underside of his white-tipped tail is outlined in brown and he has some brown fur around his ears. I've wanted a B&W border collie for many years--since I saw the one in Babe. He'll probably grow up to look a lot like her. Right now, he's resting comfortably at my heels as I type. We're hoping to get some sleep tonight--aren't we, boy?

20 November 2009

Further Adventures with Lois

Last week, a Swiss music publisher contacted me because he is planning to publish the complete catalog of a composer with whom my mother extensively collaborated back in the 1950s and 60s. While I was trolling the Internet looking for some information he might find useful for the book, I came upon this snippet on a site designed to inform relocating businesspeople:

About Little Falls
Little Falls is a medium sized community found in the northeastern portion of the state of New Jersey. Little Falls has a population of approximately ten thousand nine hundred residents, and is technically considered a township of the Garden State. Little Falls is situated in Passaic County, and is currently governed by Mayor Eugen Kulick. Little Falls has a history dating back past the community’s incorporation as a township in the year eighteen sixty eight. ..The educational needs of Little Falls are met by School #1, School #2, School #3, Passaic Valley Regional High School, and Montclair State University as well as other regional private institutions, colleges, and universities. Two notable residents of Little Falls are illusionist David Blaine and author Lois Utz.

My reading had been going well until that last sentence, which stopped me dead in my tracks. Whoever penned this bit of content—obviously well vetted—had perhaps fallen under the influence of David Blaine. My mother has not wandered the streets of Little Falls, New Jersey, for 23 years.

Or has she?

I started to give this a little thought and began to wonder if, perhaps, she’d taken up with Blaine the Illusionist on one of his trips to the Great Beyond and was now back to sauntering Stevens Avenue, hanging out at Tony’s Pizza, having a slice with her old friend Vickie. And with all the hullabaloo surrounding reincarnation, messy as it must be, maybe it just sort of slipped her mind to try and let me know.

After all, Little Falls is the kind of town it’s very easy to slide in and out of. When I went back for my college reunion in 2003, I walked the streets just the way I used to when I was 12--and seriously, nothing had changed. My best friend Frankie’s family still had their grotto to the Virgin Mary set on the front lawn in the tomato garden. The DeFazios were unloading groceries from their 1966 Plymouth Barracuda, which still had nary a scratch on its black hull. And 2 blocks down, Kenny Sheleigh was still dragging a lawnmower across the huge patch of grass adjacent to his rambling old Victorian. As I walked by, almost 20 years since the time I’d last walked by, Kenny yelled out, “Hi, Heidi!” without missing a beat. I’m quite certain he’d never noticed that I’d been gone since the Reagan Era.

So perhaps my mom had spent some time wandering the Elysian Fields, then decided that she preferred Duva Field, where Little League and  basketball are a big deal on weekday nights. Maybe all the stress and strain of hanging out with a bunch of blissed-out angels finally got to her, and she decided that if it was good enough for Tony Soprano...

And after all, it would be hard for me to spot her. I'm more than 2,000 miles away, and believe it or not, there's no webcam trained on Little Falls, New Jersey. She could have completely snuck in under the radar--and there Kenny Sheleigh would have been with his lawnmower and golf cap, cheerily greeting her. "Hi, Lois!" "You always look so nice in that dress."

My mom didn't give a hang about electronic devices. Before she died, she’d never even touched a computer, and generally, dropping the needle on a record was about as big a technological challenge as she endured before calling for my help. So, obviously, even in 2009, she’s not going to be tweeting or blogging or Goggling or Bing-ing her progeny to say, “Yo! Word up! I’m back in the hood!” More likely she’d be chatting up a Sephardic poet at her favorite breakfast spot, doing some sketching, writing a little abstract free verse, dancing with some 20-year-old boy at a club, and shaking her head at all the displaced NYers, moving so fast with their heads buried in their screens. “What are they doing that for? They could be in Venice, cruising the canals in a gondola! Getting some sun on the Riviera! Painting the sky in New Mexico! Sipping au lait at a café in Paris! Eating cannoli in Italy!”

She would have been David Blaine’s friend, bought him cheesecake, flirted with him madly, and written a poem to fete him as he arose from being buried alive seeing visions.

Through all her struggles and challenges to her health, my mother believed in living life to the fullest. She had just enough French blood in her to speak fluent hédonisme et la vie de bohème--with a toast to Colette and Anais Nin. And even in death, I believe she’s still got it down.

Photo of the Day

"Far From Bangkok"
November 2009

19 November 2009

Photo of the Day

"Giving Sunyata"
Tashi Choling Center for Buddhist Studies
Ashland, OR

This year on my birthday, I returned to the Tashi Chöling Buddhist Center, in the Colestine Valley, nestled in the Siskyou mountain range. Unfortunately, the day brought rain and my visit to the Mandala Garden was abbreviated, though I did manage to sneak in a few shots.

These statues, White Tara melding into Green Tara, are 20 feet tall. Green Tara is dedicated to enlightened activity, protection from fear, and the pacification of obstacles. White Tara counteracts illness, representing long life, maternal compassion, and healing. Tara is also known as a saviouress, a heavenly deity who hears the cries of beings experiencing misery in samsara.

Buddhists in Russia believe that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is the White Tara.

18 November 2009


Today is the 23rd anniversary of my mother's funeral.

Lois Cook Utz
January 4, 1932-November 12, 1986

You are so keenly remembered,
so deeply felt,
so ever loved,
so greatly missed.

17 November 2009

Photo of the Day

"Courting Vision"
Sunlit Hills, New Mexico
July 2003

New Mexico's mountain light breeds vast quantities of rainbows--sometimes double, sometimes triple. They line great swathes of sky, especially during monsoon season. White light hits the raindrops and disperses. Often they land just right. In Sunlit Hills, the clear beveled glass on my front door frequently served as prism, refracting bands of color throughout my light-filled casita.

16 November 2009

Thoughts pre-Leonid

to be
not anyone
this maze of being
to cry
not any cry
so mournful that

the dove just laughs
the steadfast gasps
to owe
not anyone
to be
not here
but here
equatorial bliss
who walked through
the callow mist
dressed in scraps
who walked
the curve of the world

whose bone scraped
whose flesh unfurled
who grieves not
anyone gone
to greet lame
the inspired sky

amazed to stumble
where gods get lost
the southern cross

[Patti Smith, "Beneath the Southern Cross"]
Dove by Raymond Allbritton
Southern Cross 1 by Stefan Seip
Southern Cross 2 by Barney McGrath
Santa Fe stupa and Taos Plaza by Heidi Utz

Photo of the Day

Skeleton's Embrace
Yreka, CA
August 2008

11 November 2009

Veterans Day, Veterans for Peace

Today I'd like to rerun one of my columns that appeared in Crosswinds Weekly (Albuquerque, NM) 4 years ago. I have the highest regard for Veterans of Peace members and met many of them in Santa Fe, when I was standing on the corner of Cerrillos and St. Francis Dr. protesting the war each Friday. Sadly, much of the article still seems timely. Though, thankfully, the guard has changed, and with new leadership brings fresh hope. Hey Obama, Support our troops—bring them home now.

Letter from Santa Fe – Veterans for Peace
By Heidi Utz

As every third car on the road sports a neatly looped amber ribbon, I wonder what “Support Our Troops” really means. Is it sending a soldier a box of cookies so that he can be reminded of cozy American civilian life? Is it FedExing her a bulletproof vest because the government can’t cough up enough spare change to keep our kids marginally safe out there? Or is it fighting to ensure that our newly coronated king doesn’t again cut combat pay—or VA benefits—for those who have endured trials most of us can only imagine?

Recently I spoke with members of the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP), a national nonprofit founded by former troops who now advocate for peace and justice. The group was founded in the mid-’80s, as a response to US-sponsored violence in Central America. In July 2002, Santa Fe’s Zia Chapter became the second VFP group in NM. Its 130 members have since organized teach-ins, vigils, speakers, panels, and film screenings, which inform us that war isn’t quite as pretty as Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor.  Not all members are pacifists or former military, but each believes that war should never be our country’s first line of defense—or offense.

Member Daniel Craig, an addictions counselor and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, served as a field artillery officer in the 2nd Armored Division during the Gulf War. After he finished his tour in 1991, he came home and started a family, only to lose his first son a year later. After doing some research, Craig discovered that the boy’s death was directly attributable to the chemicals he was exposed to during the war. Other Gulf War vets’ babies have been born deformed, retarded, or lacking vital organs.

Seven years ago, former military nurse Joan Duffy discovered she’d developed breast cancer. After going into remission, she was diagnosed this year with advanced-stage ovarian cancer. Doctors have told her that both were the direct results of Agent Orange exposure during her year in Vietnam. Recently, Duffy’s grandson was born with a life-threatening intestinal blockage that VA research also linked to his grandmother’s exposure.

Like thousands of others veterans, neither has received any compensation from the government. After becoming grossly disillusioned while serving their country, both Craig and Duffy have spent years educating themselves about the indelicacies of American politics and speaking out for peace. Craig, a Springer, NM, native, rails against how meagerly the government has supported its vets. Duffy has been more bruised by the censure of her fellow Americans. Three weeks after she came home from Vietnam, “being treated like a pariah” led her to buy a ticket to London, where she lived as an expatriate for five years.

Some in Congress find it acceptable to send thousands of teenagers into combat to fight for oil, vast personal fortunes, and a Bush family feud. But examination of who those hawks are reveals a long list of Republicans who apparently don’t look good in khaki BDUs. Might it not be wiser to take our counsel about war from people who have actually seen a trench or two? Those who understand the realities firsthand are generally loathe to send 18-year-olds running toward them. Duffy, who’s been teaching students about the front lines since 1987, notes, “People who have experienced war have a responsibility to share what we know, to spare others suffering. … You can’t begin to appreciate war if you haven’t met someone who’s been in it, seen those eyes with the 1,000-yard stare.”

To that end, she and chapter president Ken Mayers have initiated Full Disclosure Recruiting, a program they hope to institute in Santa Fe schools by spring. Because military recruiters are notorious for their aggressive sales tactics, VFP plans to refute every pitch with actual facts, to reveal to potential enlistees what the recruiters won’t. Duffy says she left her protected, deeply patriotic, Irish-Catholic home to enlist in 1967 because of a fast-talking recruiter who promised her a master’s degree and a trip to Europe. “Most kids never get an education when they get out. They’re lied to about it,” she states. Craig concurs, noting that he had to fight long and hard to reap the touted GI Bill benefits.

Despite Bush’s swaggering claims, all VFP members I interviewed agreed that the Iraq war was never about wrapping up democracy in polka-dot paper and gifting our less-fortunate friends. Says Craig, “If it was really about freedom and democracy [not oil], we’d be invading countries left and right. Yes, Saddam was a monster, but what about the leaders of regimes we continue to back? They’re monsters, too.”

Mayers, a Vietnam vet who spent 20 years in the military, emphasizes that despite the debacle that is Iraq, VFP tries to honor the warrior, not the war. “It’s not the soldiers’ faults that they were given a mission based on a lie,” he says. Both he and Duffy liken the uncomfortable position current soldiers occupy to their own experiences in Vietnam. Mayers underscores America’s responsibility to examine its own behavior before blaming others. “The most powerful way to address terrorism is to understand the terrorists’ grievances. [By not doing so,] we’re creating terrorists faster than we can eliminate them. The potential pool is now 1½ billion. We feed that pool through arrogant foreign policies. We need to re-evaluate, open our eyes to how the rest of the world views what we’re doing, and behave more responsibly.”

To honor the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead, the chapter recently began to create and display hundreds of papier-mâché skulls, one for each fallen soldier. When the project is complete, skulls bearing the soldiers’ names will be stuffed with a prayer and placed on racks stretching 70 to 80 feet long and 16 feet high. Mayers notes that the local community has been greatly supportive of such efforts, filling to capacity many of their events. VFP receives little more flack than the occasional middle finger at their weekly Friday protests, he says.

Taking action and sharing the horrors they’ve endured during combat have proven healing for many VFP members. “I was pissed off for a long time about the military. I thought, ‘screw peace,’ Craig states. “Being a VFP member has taken the energy of my anger, disappointment, and outright hatred of the government, and channeled it into something constructive.”


Postscript: On November 17, 2006, Joan Duffy died of cancer at the age of 60.  She was buried 4 days later at Santa Fe's National Cemetery. According to the Santa Fe VFP website, “Joan served in the U.S. Air Force as a nurse at Cam Rahn Bay in 1968-1969 and continued to serve her country and community as an advocate for peace. She was a member of the 'Full Disclosure' team which went into local schools to talk to students about the realities of military service that recruiters cannot and will not discuss with prospective recruits. One of her last efforts was returning to Vietnam as a delegate to the first International Conference on Agent Orange in Hanoi. Joan worked tirelessly to bring attention to the suffering caused by Agent Orange, both local, nationally, and internationally. We miss her greatly here in Santa Fe.”

On July 17, 2006, the Santa Fe Chapter of Veterans for Peace named itself the “Joan Duffy Chapter” in her honor.
For more information about Joan's life and work, see http://www.12tfw.org/duffy.pdf.

09 November 2009

Homeless Meal

It is a damp, frigid evening in Oregon, the kind that generally makes me pray for the warmth and protection of the homeless people I cook for every Tuesday night at Ashland’s Methodist Church. I worry about them on a regular basis, yet sometimes I think I should not, as they are a hardy, resourceful, and seemingly resilient lot. Survivors though they appear, I know their lives are often incredibly difficult, especially in the colder months, when any romanticized notions of  “camping,” or “sleeping under the stars” get quickly subsumed by subfreezing temperatures and constant precipitation.

Last Tuesday seemed a dividing line, as folks walked in heads down, dirty clothes tucked under big worn parkas, greasy-haired, scowling, in no mood. As I tried to catch their eyes--eyes that too often don’t get met—most appeared lost in a world far away. And while this crowd is generally happy, grateful, even animated, that night it seemed that the reality of the long, cold, dark days ahead had settled into their bones.

Oftentimes, the lines between me and them blur. When I’m done serving, I stand on line with my plate and we sit together at big tables in the church hall and eat our meal. Last week I sat with a 6-year-old girl named Lotus, her parents and surrogate family. Homeless kids always slay me. I watched as people urged her to eat her meal, goaded her on, teased her, smiled at her. And I thought to myself, She may be OK. This is a damn sight better than some kids with homes are getting.

Last year, a social worker paid us all a visit as we were eating, and as I was seated at the table, she interviewed me as a homeless person. She was a youngster, really. A kid just out of grad school, mid-20s soaking wet. Before she got to me, I watched her quizzing my tablemates. Asking questions with great diligence, she worked hard to try and get it right. But there was a difference, very real as she perceived it, between herself and us. And, nice as she was, that made her hold her body stiff and away. Play with her hair and wiggle her glasses a lot.

I picked up a hard-boiled egg and began to peel it, bit by bit, sometimes popping it in my mouth and edging the shell with the tip of my tooth. Then pulling it out and flaying more skin, till just the soft white underbelly was exposed. I could see her watching me from the corner of her eye as she spoke with the man to my right, a 60ish fellow with a grey dreadlocked beard and knocked-out teeth who looked like he’d just walked away from Captain Ahab on a whaling boat. He said to her, “I can’t stand the feeling of being in an enclosed building. I’ve tried it, and I can’t do it. The only time I feel at home is when I’m sleeping outside. So does that make me homeless—or suitably housed?” He broke into gales of laughter. She tried to laugh along in a forced, choked, scared sort of way that sounded like she was attempting to be both politely amused and genuinely amused but not really laughing at him but then again not exactly getting what he meant. I guess, when designing her survey, she hadn’t bargained for a street-smart Plato.

She then turned to me and pushed a questionnaire about quality of life for the Ashland homeless population in my general direction. Then she began quizzing me about my life. I glanced down at my old T-shirt and faded jeans with the hole in the knee, and realized I looked the part. I had become one of the faces of homelessness in her study. A specimen. Someone whose life she seemed both frightened of and trying to improve.

I picked up the egg again and continued to work it. Because I wanted to seem a little more threatening than I was. I wanted her to know that I was, perhaps, a little bit crazy, and that’s what had landed me on the streets to begin with. That I wasn’t particularly concerned with food-handling manners...and might just smash this hard-soft object into her cranium should she provoke me by asking the wrong question.

I was rather hard-boiled in my soft-boiled plot. But the way she was fidgeting as she spoke with me, I knew I’d made my point.

“How often have you been homeless in the last 18 months?” “Do you generally make use of the local shelters, when available?” “Do you receive public assistance or food stamps?” As her questions mounted, I felt myself begin to feel more and more identified with my toughness and resiliency as a homeless person...and see her increasingly as a tan windbreaker-clad nelly who was merely dabbling in the field of social work to introduce vicarious thrills into her tedious life. Maybe to have something to go home and talk about with her banker fiancé, Herbert. When I asked her a question about one of the items on her survey, the tone in her perhaps-25-year-old voice became almost singsong, like a 4th-grade teacher enlightening a student. Somewhere in the space between us hung a pile of judgment—if I was homeless, I must somehow be stupid. If she wasn’t, she must know more.

Condescension. She wasn’t trying to be condescending, but there it was. Inherent in the difference between she and me in that moment. Draped into the folds of her skirt, into the rope of her pearls, into the band of her Seiko.

I had just about stripped the egg bare and considered mashing it between my fingers and smearing it on the wall, on the table, across the front of my T-shirt, branding me as rotten. Instead, when she turned her back, I shoved it whole in the pocket of her windbreaker.

Suddenly feeling like I had a little tiny bit of power, I strode confidently to the front of the hall--and asked for a second helping.

Photo of the Day - Cerrillos, NM

Welcome to Tiny Town. Perched on the Turquoise Trail (NM 14), straddling the "ghost" mining towns of Cerrillos and Madrid, once sat several acres of outsider art, the wild'n'woolly creation of Tatt2 Tammy Lange, a former tattoo artist. A high-desert melange of bones, roadkill, scrap wood, rusted metal, discarded dolls, old glass bottles, and objects you can't even imagine sharing the same junkyard, Tammy's place was an institution for drivers blasting the blue highway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. A few years ago while taking a doc photography class, I spent several days hanging out with cowgirl Tammy, trying to step inside her outlaw brain in this piece of the Wild West. Can't say I ever succeeded. But here's the evidence.

Tammy's a firecracker, no match required. If she likes ya, she'll give you a bigggg hug. She glows brightest when talking about creating new exhibits for Tiny Town, firing guns, inking flesh, and heading off on a hot date with boyfriend Steve (right). The last day I visited, in September 2007, Tammy's infectious joie de vivre made it easy to spend hours shooting dozens of sculptural pieces Freud could have penned volumes about. 
But apparently the NIMBYs got her, and Tammy was forced to pack it in late in 2008. Fortunately, her work lives on in the Amercan Visionary Art Museum, in Baltimore, MD. Knowing Tammy, she's still got a little roadkill, ammo, and a few hundred ideas for twisted doll-and-bone dioramas. 

07 November 2009

Putting the Paper to Bed

Yesterday I read Richard Rodriguez's article about the “twilight of the American newspaper” in Harper’s. As a journalist (or is the correct term "content provider formerly known as journalist"?), it sent stabbing pain into my gut—and echoed many of my own worries, fears, and sentiments. How could such a lovely term as "twilight" be employed to euphemize--or is it euthanize?--an event once believed impossible: the loss of the Fourth Estate?

Today, less than 13% of our American populace reads the newspaper. Those under 30 believe that newspapers are sold as wrapping material for shotglasses on moving day. Yesterday a college-aged grocery store clerk attempted to charge me for both the newspaper and the weekend arts supplement because she had no idea that the latter was actually part of the daily paper. (And was quick to inform me that I must be mistaken!) When San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was interviewed about the possibility that his city could soon be newspaperless, he shrugged, "People under 30 won't even notice." Since 1990, one-quarter of all newspaper jobs have disappeared. That would include mine. And those of all my new competitors for bartending jobs. A Website called www.newspaperdeathwatch.com documents the chilling proceedings, as a new clod of dirt gets shoveled over the coffin every day. Someone, please, send flowers!

Ah, Harper’s! Venerably founded in 1850. The second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the US. A paragon of great reporting by distinguished writers covering in depth some of the most important ideas of the times. But, as with so many journalistic enterprises of the 19th century, we now must ask, Will you still be cranking out prose at the turn of the decade?

Article author Richard Rodriguez is, like myself, a proponent of geographical identity. In his article, he points to local papers as the original assemblers and disseminators of regional identity. Sort of like rainbarrel, catching the drips of our collective psyches. Birth announcements, obituaries, local weather, classifieds, cultural doings, letters to the editor, events listings, editorials, business ads, Little League stats—the sum of our communities’ days that, when taken as a gestalt, can provide a good reading of the local temperature. And in plusher times, when cities were known to have 2 or even 3 daily papers, one could take the pulse of an entire substratum of the city—-their target audiences offering a wide-ranging sense of perspective. As Billy Joel once sang, “I need a little give and take: The New York Times and The Daily News.” And truly, a reader of NY's 3 papers would gain a diverse and somewhat balanced sense of who her neighbors were and what they were up to.

But we do not inhabit our geography in the same way we used to. While once we could be counted on to dwell pretty specifically where our car was garaged at night, we have now become citizens of cyberspace. A place without a country. A place without a place. Content streams at us from every corner of the globe. Those of us wanting to extend the "New York state of mind" can tune in to WFMU and hear jazz and traffic reports for the Holland Tunnel. Others missing the sound of their native Portuguese can access more than 3,000 Portuguese radio stations with a few clicks. And is this a bad thing? I guess it depends on who you ask. As Rodriguez puts it, “Our inclination has lead us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with ‘I.’ Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s Wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.”

It is difficult for me to let go of urban and cultural identities. Our world is richer for them. Without them, we get the Taco Bell-and-Motel-6 effect, where every city starts to look exactly like every other city, and you’d never know you were in Horse Shoe, North Carolina. And yet...the upside of the global village is that, when boundaries begin to melt, things like territorialism and blind patriotism and nationalism have nothing to land on. And thus, what may be next—no more wars? John Lennon’s “Imagine”? All this fence-trampling could be a good thing.

Like the Internet, a newspaper provides a window into the greater world. And prior to the Internet, it served as the most powerful vehicle for many in learning just what was going on, gaining perspective, sometimes offering immigrants a fast-track to assimilation into a new country and culture. But the difference between newspaper and Internet is that, when we sit down and read a newspaper, we are exposed to articles and arguments we might not otherwise seek out. Sure, one can do this by surfing the Web, but the experience is generated more by the user, rather than an editor. So while it may be ultimately more tailored to our interests, it can also become a somewhat closed loop if we read only within a tiny spectrum. A Celtic harpist might be able to find the most arcane facts about his art form and harp on that theme...but might not have the slightest idea about current events, other arts, who won the World Series, or that his favorite author had died that morning.

But perhaps these are unnecessary facts. Perhaps even my dream of some semblance of “cultural literacy” is sadly Old Paradigm, and I should just fuhgeddaboudit. Perhaps I should simply trust that curious people will always be curious about the world they inhabit, and the noncurious never have been and never will be, so who cares if they read a Barbarella blog till they bleed?

But with the death of the newspaper dies a certain dream of a common language. If we all evolve into little splinters, each with our own areas of microspecialization, what do we talk about on the grocery line? Does this me-first society really need a vehicle to accentuate the differences among us? Or more a unifying thread?

The other, much descried issue at issue here is the democritization of both culture and arts criticism. As Rodriguez opines about newspaper loss, “We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction”—Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five.)”

Sure, anyone can express an opinion, and Rodriguez’s egregious example aside, I have read plenty of cogent, well-described, thorough, impassioned, and nicely worded reviews on Amazon. Not every member of the hoi-polloi is an imbecile. But Rodriguez’s gripe is a point well taken: critics have the education and discernment that comes after working for years in an art form, so that they can offer a generally more-informed view. Sometimes. Definitely not always. When I was a music critic, I spent much of the day, every day, listening to music, had studied music and music theory, and did many hours of in-depth research prior to writing articles. Thus, I was offering a much different perspective than a fan of John Mayer’s who “reviews” his album on Amazon because he loves his music and thinks Mayer can do no wrong. That’s not a critical review, that’s a plug.

But the democritization of media is a mammoth topic about which I could author a lengthy book. And with it come probably as many pros as cons. But this and economics are two of the key reasons that journalists have become obviated. Now all of us, with our digital cams, videocams, cell phone cams, blogs, etc., have the potential to write, photograph, film, and distribute our own work. Gone are the gatekeepers. Everyone is an artist! Everyone who can talk can talk on paper! We are all creative beings! It’s all good!

Is it?

Well, no. A lot of it is merde.

As much I believe that people have the right to creative expression, not everyone is equally gifted or has equal training or skill. One of the problems with democritization is that we lose the ability to distinguish quality that has taken a lifetime to be able to produce. In short, we reduce our standards and settle for less. The playing field is way too level.

Another function that journalism has traditionally served is that, by upholding editorial standards and employing knowledgeable writers, they slogged through the crap so that the reader didn't have to. However, in the Age of DIY, someone else’s opinion seems to matter less. We’d rather wade through and surf the waves and audodidact ourselves to pieces rather than have some old journalist tell us that a piece of literature was actually more thoughtful and engaging than a YouTube video or a Facebook thread.

As Americans, we all know so much. No one knows more than us. About everything.

At least American hubris will survive the recession.

06 November 2009

Some Thoughts from Child-hood

I have just started reading Julia Child’s My Life in France. It is a beautiful book full of luscious description of a time that is no longer. Opening in the late 1940s, the first chapter depicts her experience as a young, naïve American having her initiatory meal in a restaurant in Rouen. She and her new husband, Paul, feast on a lovingly described lunch of salade verte, baguette, oysters on the half shell, sole meuniere, strong black pressed coffee, fromage blanc, and a bottle of Pouilly Fume. Child touts it as “the most exciting meal of my life,” accentuated, no doubt by its distinction as her very first lunch in her newly adopted homeland, a place that suited her to a T.

In the introduction, which includes a charming photo of the young couple sitting side-by-side in their cozy study, Child relates how she and Paul meticulously documented their time in France for friends and relatives via a series of photos, datebooks, letters, sketches, poems, and cards. Paul handwrote his brother 3- to 6-page journalistic accounts every week, incorporating sketches, photos, and mini-collages out of ticket stubs and newsprint. Also a faithful correspondent, Julia added her own typewritten versions about what she’d been cooking and the human drama unfolding in her new French home. I imagine the delight the recipients must have taken in receiving these items, made with such creativity and care, much as I recall the pains taken by my mother and aunt, both artists, to handpaint and assemble collaged greeting cards for every holiday during the 1950s and 60s.

The middle of our last century was a comparatively sensual and sensuous time. Little in our world was “virtual.” TV programs, perhaps, but TV was still a novelty and had a certain delineated quality, as video had not yet become a ubiquitous presence. Other than that, just about everything happened in ways that we could see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. And slowly—much more slowly.

When I consider the wild popularity of Julia Child’s book (and personage) in 2009 America, it’s hard not to imagine that some of it derives from our culture’s steadily inching away from the sensual, tactile world. A recent study found that the average American adult spends 8 1/2 hours/ day in front of a screen, including (mostly, sadly) TV, computers, mobile phones, and other devices. I have always loved how books look and feel, visually and tactilely. So much is now being done on screens that we have fewer and fewer experiences that involve apprehending in 3-D. For example, I love holding them, smelling them when they’re new, seeing how cozy they make a room when stacked end-to-end on a tall wooden bookcase. The art on their covers, the fonts used in printing, the texture of the paper and its sometimes-deckled edges that press rough and sensuously against a fingertip. There is something about hearing the crackle as you open a new hardcover for the first time that extends beyond the promise of the knowledge that lies therein or the kindred soul you may just meet inside. And that something has to do with the physical object itself.

I am saddened to see that so many people have purchased Kindles and other e-books and seem to like them. This summer I bumped into one and its owner while eating breakfast in Mendocino County. I could tell just by looking at him that he was a genre reader—most likely sci-fi—and so consumed books the way some of us consume cereal. He was really in it for the story; the wrapper was unimportant. And so, he loved his Kindle (while admitting that he also loved books—and had shelves-ful back home). We spent quite a while debating the relative pros and cons of the device and its impact on the book business. And no doubt, it’s had a huge impact on the business that may only get worse as prices drop and young people decide that their entire world must be virtually lived.

But for me, it comes back to a larger question. What will we have in the end if the entire world is flattened onto a computer screen? And are we so compelled toward those backlit images that real life, with its lesser controllability and order, has taken a backseat? As a world, we have become “busy.” Computers were originally designed to “save time” and “make things easier.” And certainly, in many instances, they do. Yet, people never seemed as busy to me as we have since we became obsessed with our electronic toys.

We are being manipulated, sold an ever-greater bill of cybergoods due in part to our human propensity toward grasping—wanting ever more. Like hamsters on a wheel, we try to wring juice from this digital experience and wonder why, despite all our virtual “connecting,” at the end of the day we feel more exhausted than satisfied.

Tangible things and experiences, human interactions and sensual pleasures enrich our lives in ways that computer-generated experiences do not. Having a meal like Julia Child describes satisfies so much in us beyond merely the exquisite delight to our tongue. Going outside on a fall day when the leaves are at their peak, smelling smoke arising from fireplaces as dusk descends, hearing ducks flying overhead honking righteously on their migration south. These are realms into which our keyboards can never lead. It’s sad to think that someone would choose a sterile electronic device over a real book. And equally sad that so much of what is “real” in life has flattened into a randomly generated series of pixels.

I will leave you with a photo of Julia Child's kitchen, which has gone the way of the Smithsonian. Perhaps that's a statement in and of itself. Perhaps when End of Days hits, they'll find us all huddled in that Institution, ogling our former possessions and remembering what it felt like to be at play in three-dimensional space, cuddling objects we could actually see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.

04 November 2009

"Hand in Glove," Humboldt County, CA

Eureka, CA, is a dirty, dingy, chain motel-y nonsequitur in the hippie State of Jefferson. Logging, mining, fishing--and a picture-perfect, satiny flapper girl in an antique shop window just east of the bay. Sometimes a mannequin fetish and a few late-afternoon reflections are all you need.

03 November 2009

Dude, where's my car? Guess I left it in the trunk...

When I was 10, I discovered in my grandmother’s boxes in the attic (repository of endless treasure), a slick, old B&W postcard of the “Drive-Thru Tree,” nestled deep within the 40-mile Avenue of the Giants, near Redwood National Park in far-northern CA. For a kid who’d never been west of Pennsylvania, this set up all kinds of mental images: a vast and limitless West full of gargantuan possibilities, jumbo natural wonders, and trees so tall they gave NYC skyscrapers a run for their money. I had of course heard Woody Guthrie’s folk tune about the ribbon of highway leading to such marvels, and I knew I wanted a piece of it. The idea of a West so fabulous that one could drive through a tree trunk introduced a whole new sense of scale. In trees—and everything else.

This summer, on my way north from San Luis Obispo back to Oregon, I finally realized my dream of wandering through the Land o’ the Giants. Better yet, I spent more than an hour photographing THE Drive-Thru Tree (actually, there are 3 in this area), in Myers Flat. And though many of my photos are speckled with raindrops, I must say the attraction did not disappoint. While a lighting nightmare for my camera, laying down inside the base of a tree is a wonderful feeling. Less so when cars are driving through. And because this tree has been hollowed like a pumpkin, it offers both containment and perspective.

During my visit, I wandered over to the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree Gift Shop, a bleak, fluorescently lighted, harvest-gold-carpeted room selling various shellacked wooden tchochkes and a few postcards, including a couple of the Step-Thru Stump, which I also documented with my Mavica. In the end, I settled for the postcard that came free with admission, handed to me by a 60ish lady with a strong accent. We spoke for a few moments, and I asked her if she were from Italy. She told me that her roots were in Spain, via a small country called El Salvador, and asked me if I had heard of it. I was loathe to explain to her that, during the Reagan era, some of us American do-gooders fervently desired to visit her country and neighboring Nicaragua and support, even "liberate," their war-ravaged people. I decided against explaining to her that I had once romanticized Central America as a place where great poets and artists dwelled in beautiful, lush, natural environments (at least until Somoza got there). We spent a few minutes talking about her journey northward, and how she had married her North American husband, the proprietor of the Drive-Thru Tree and Ancillary Stumps and Wooded Attractions. Sounding terribly depressed, she mostly stared away from me or looked at the floor as we spoke. After several decades in the US, her English was still quite broken.

I thought to myself, what odd karma to have been born in wartime El Salvador and end up selling trinkets at the gift shop of the Drive-Thru Tree, in a remote town in the midst of a megaforest, in a place that rains constantly and where there’s very little to do or see other than gi-normous conifers and people peering up at them and exclaiming, “Oh, wow.” I wondered how she’d even begun to explain the concept of “roadside attraction” to her relatives back in Central America. “Johnny struck it big in Vegas last weekend, so now we’re gonna move to Avenue of the Giants and buy the Drive-Thru Tree!”

To her relatives, this might seem the height of bourgeois luxury, the very essence of having attained LARGE-scale success in Estados Unidos. Clearly she had penetrated the A List, the B List--and even the Tree List! Partying with Jackie and Ari Onassis on the "Christina O" every week. Or maybe they just give her a hard time for not being privileged enough to own the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, Dyerville’s World’s Biggest Tree, or the crème de la creme, the Immortal Tree (complete with Burl ‘n’ Drift Novelty Gifts).