Driving the Labyrinth from Berkeley, California, to Maine: June/August 2014

by Richard Grossinger on July 4, 2014

Driving the Labyrinth

When we set out on a road trip from Berkeley, California, to Portland, Maine, in late June 2014, I hadn’t given a thought to keeping a journal or posting a blog. The driving and logistics seemed arduous enough. We had last driven cross-country in 1979 or 1980 in our mid-thirties—I’ll call it 1980 as a rough point of reference. It was after we had already moved to California for good, although we didn’t know it yet. We came east to the Catskills, Liberty, New York, for the summer with our two young kids (ages 11and 6), to stay at my father’s hotel, cool out, eat free meals, get daycare from Camp Grossinger’s, sort our stored belongings, and visit family and friends. Then we drove back in early September.

Those were our sixth and seventh coast-to-coast drives, all within five years. In the course of them we got to know the poets on Toronto Island, the Kornblums in Iowa City (publishers of Coffee House Press), the barren beaches at the Great Salt Lake, and a Mexican restaurant and playground of exotic climbing structures and super-twisty slides in Elko, Nevada. As we got close to the hotel, our son Robin began telling his sister Miranda about all the great things there—the milkshakes from the coffee shop and cartoons at night—she had been too young to remember. She had been asking for years where Vermont and Grossinger’s were in California: was it this block, or this block, or that part of Tilden Park? She didn’t get that it was over three thousand miles away.

Before 1980, we drove the round trip from Vermont to Berkeley and back twice—July to September in 1975 and January to September in 1976. We drove back out again when we moved there for the long haul in June 1977 (or for one year, as we imagined at the time).

The maiden trip to Berkeley was total West Coast “beginner’s mind” for us. What set it in motion was Lindy’s commission to attend a dance-critics conference at Mills College in Oakland under the auspices of the Vermont Arts Council, an organization for which she was did part-time gigs like Poetry in the Schools then. The goal was to help bring dance in the schools and dance criticism to Vermont (and other places); nothing really came of it in the brief time we lived there afterwards. She wrote dance criticism for a few publications, but mostly wrote articles on other things (like mushrooms and Stowe) for Vermont Life.

That first time Lindy actually flew to Denver, her home town, with our two kids. I drove by myself and met her there with the car (I had done it, East Coast to Denver and back, twice before when we were going out together in college: summer of ’65 when we lived together in Aspen and December of ’66 to join her in telling her parents at Christmas that we were getting married). The second time I miraculously survived a spinout in a blizzard in Kansas. After I got the car from Plainfield, Vermont, to Denver, our whole family proceeded over the Rockies and Sierras. We had thought to stay in the Bay Area two weeks, the length of the conference, but we extended it to two months after bookseller Peter Howard and his wife invited us to house-sit for them on Colusa Street in North Berkeley while they went to Europe. We were having a wonderful time and didn’t want to disentangle so soon. The offer was a godsend.

We returned to Plainfield, Vermont that fall to find Goddard, the college at which we were teaching, in a shambles, the administration asking as many faculty as were willing to take the winter term off in order save salary and shut down some dorms and classrooms (save fuel oil too). We jumped at the opportunity to return to the Bay Area so unexpectedly soon. Lindy and I had plunged into the sophisticated literary, holistic-health, bodywork, internal-martial-arts, pick-up-softball, and childcare scenes there during our two-month stay; we participated in stuff that was really nowhere else in the country, at least not at that level of popularity and availability—where else in the States could you find posters for a class on homeopathy wrapped around lamp posts, get sprout and avocado sandwiches on micro-baked bread, and see t’ai-classes in the parks? Even after our bonus time at the Howards, we were just getting started, we wanted back in. We especially wanted to continue the practices that one or both of us had just begun: t’ai chi, shiatsu, bioenergetic therapy, homeopathy, dance criticism. We also wanted to continue the summer’s relationships with other writers and publishers, which were were substantial and included Robert Duncan, Joanne Kyger, Geoff Young, Laura Chester, Michael Palmer, Ishmael Reed, Lenore Kandel, and David Meltzer, and publishers like Bob Callahan of Turtle Island, Malcolm Margolin of Heyday, Don Gerrard of Bookworks, and Sebastian Orfali of And/Or. Plus Bookpeople, the distributor we shared, was in downtown Berkeley, and we enjoyed their natural-food employee lunches to which members of the book and avant-garde literary communities were welcome as guests. That was where we got our first lessons in alternative publishing, sitting around the tables at Ashby and Seventh long ago. It seemed like exile to have to go back to the student lunchroom in Plainfield, to provincial hothouse Goddard and snowy, subzero kitsch-communal Vermont.

That January after fall classes, we took the college up on their offer, enlisting a few Goddard students to help us drive both our cars this time back to the left coast. We stayed eight months, right up to the last possible getaway moment to make it in time for fall classes. In late August we enlisted another Goddard student plus two ride-seekers off a bulletin board and landed back in Plainfield a half-day before the winter 1976-1977 term. That brinkmanship was, in part, because our station wagon broke down in the high Sierras and had to be towed ninety miles into Reno. We spent several days there in motel rooms, waiting for the repair to be completed and then had to race the rest of the way with non-stop rotating drivers and sleeping kids in the back.

Both caravans had been a blast, so we had plenty of student volunteers when we moved to Berkeley in June 1977. At that point the college seemed about to go out of business and was laying off faculty. I probably could have been among the few chosen to stay, but we had switched our loyalty and desires by then to Berkeley—no more long Vermont winters, no more small-time college politics with narrow escapes from bankruptcy, no more isolation and boredom; instead an unfettered immersion in the radical edge of the counterculture and its actual rather than metaphorical sangha. Our sole ambition that spring was to sell our house and bail. We figured that if we succeeded at finding a buyer in the deteriorating market—not a sure thing—we would head straight back to Berkeley and stay there a year, during which one of us would find another college teaching job somewhere in North America where we’d move before our funds ran out. Meanwhile I had an advance from Doubleday to write Planet Medicine and I was set to collect at least six months’ unemployment. We never doubted that, given a whole year, one of us could find academic employment and at a less marginal institution than Goddard.

Jimmy Carter was President; we had just been through the oil crisis and lines at the pumps when folks were predicting the collapse of civilization and the urban hordes ravaging Vermont. Paradoxically none of that seemed to be happening in California.

We rented a small truck, hired a driver for it, and sent him ahead to Geoff and Laura’s house with our dishes, silverware, some furniture, and our core library, and then followed with two cars, a U-Haul attached to the station wagon. We stopped first at my father’s hotel in the Catskills to drop off assorted stuff we didn’t need in California. We ended up dawdling a week, while the students had a blast, hanging out in the lobby and around the swimming pools, hitting the dining room for the free meals. Hard to believe that Grossinger’s went out of business ten years later and the pools, kitchen, lounges, and rooms are now an, much photographed exotic ruins: http://miragebym.blogspot.com/2009/11/modern-runis-grossingers-resort-10-11.html. You can see the collapsing infrastructure, exotic fungi on carpets, and fancy pools turned into ponds as the forest makes its slow advance across the patios.

Goddard didn’t go out of business, though; the trustees sold part of the Northwood campus for apartments and slowly phased out the resident undergraduate program, the module in which we were teaching. For the pittance we got for our house ($29,000), we should have held on to it a while longer—only a year in fact, for that was how much time passed before our buyer sold it to the poet Louise Gluck for, rumor was, more than twice what we got for it. Yet we were young and naïve, lurching from one ill-conceived agenda to another—no plan all. As Plainfield was contracting, Montpelier hungrily absorbed it into suburbs.

We didn’t leave Berkeley after the proposed year. Neither of us found another job, though we applied all year in pretty much every region of North America. We settled in. Lindy worked for East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, then Contra Costa College and Far West Labs; I got another author’s advance, this time from Danny Moses and crew at Sierra Club Books in San Francisco for a cosmology book called The Night Sky. Based on Planet Medicine, I got a teaching slot at a short-lived naturopathic college. Then I got paid to give an occasional lecture at other alternative-medicine institutions like the school for Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. We received small grants for book publishing and larger ones (with a salary) for distribution. We incorporated our small press as a California nonprofit; that is, we founded an anthropological 501C3 and donated North Atlantic and Io to it. According to Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts, it was simpler than trying to convert the press as such. We were coasting through a seemingly endless skein of prosperous jobless gigs with lots of other over-educated folks, and happy as clams at it. After all, I only got paid $9000 a year by Goddard; it was an illusion that it was a real salary. I got more than that from the Arts Endowment for running Barbary Coast Distribution company, $1000 more than that for The Night Sky alone, and a virtual bonanza by those standards for our early t’ai-chi books and baseball anthology via Bookpeople and Ingram sales, and then Doubleday paid us for the rights, redesigned it, and changed its title from Baseball I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life to Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions, and Voodoo from a Native American Rite. Vermont seemed a million miles away.

We bought another cheap house our second—cheap by Bay Area standards, $72,500 in the Mira Vista section of Richmond, the more suburban, hills part of what was otherwise a trenchant urban ghetto, a fact that came into play when our kids hit public-school age, leaving us to move. We barely scraped together the down payment from our Vermont assets for that area, but five years later we converted the appreciation into a house in Berkeley. We dug into the community to which we were enticed in the summer of ’75. We continued practices we had begun and reformulated our press around their themes. North Atlantic Books gradually changed from literary to alternative medicine, martial arts, bodywork, nutrition, meditation, shamanism, and spiritual esoterica. We continued to publish poetry and literary prose, but it became back burner. Among other drawbacks, there were no longer government grants to underwrite it. We never renamed the press; it is still North Atlantic Books in Berkeley.

Though we traveled back to my father’s resort for a breather in 1979 or ’80 we more and more gravitated to the West Coast. Trips east became fewer, increased years apart, relatively brief, always by plane. The publishing company grew, flourished during the eighties, and began to support us. We joined the second wave of presses at Publishers Group West and became a part of the largest alternative distribution group in the country. We stayed with them for twenty-seven years.

We moved from Richmond into Berkeley (Blake Street just below Telegraph Avenue) in 1983 and then in 1988 to a larger house on Woolsey not far above College Avenue, one that had space for part-time workers and a make-do warehouse for book storage too—a wooden floor over a half-assed indoor (Plexiglas-enclosed) swimming pool built by over-the-border labor for the owners of a Mexican restaurant). Our kids turned into teenagers, went to college, left home. Just like that. Life seemed to fly past while we barely caught up to ourselves and got our whole minds and bodies from New England to California.

For a while after empty nest Lindy and I struggled directionlessly, even living apart for nine months (1992-1993). We threw ourselves into our psychospiritual practices in greater earnest. We moved the publishing out of the house and hired formal staff. We sold the house on Woolsey and bought a smaller one on Yale Avenue in Kensington, a Berkeley suburb, like Richmond in Contra Costa County. Much of this period, from the move West through the mid-nineties, is covered in my memoir Out of Babylon.

In 1996 Lindy and I began revisit Maine. We had lived there for three years after graduate school (1969-1972), before moving to Vermont. After I did those nine months of anthropology fieldwork with lobsterfishermen on Mount Desert Island, I taught college for two years at the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham and we lived in Cape Elizabeth, south of the city.

Our return to Maine was done as a side trip from our thirtieth college reunions at Amherst and Smith. Lobsterfisherman Wendell Seavey and his friends invited us back to Mount Desert and threw a party in Bernard for us. It was to become, though we didn’t foresee it at all at the time, Lindy’s and my homecoming. Our kids remained in California, for we had unknowingly and unintentionally raised, our Maine-Vermont-NYC mindset notwithstanding, California not New England or tri-state kids. After two more, longer visits to Mount Desert in the late nineties, we took at shot a cheap house in Manset, the old working-class district subsumed by Southwest Harbor, in 2000. $130,000 was the new benchmark for inexpensive; our Berkeley houses after Richmond were anything but cheap, and we handled those jumps by continuing to leverage the appreciation.

Starting in 2001, Lindy and I began spending an average of three months a year on Mount Desert, which BTW is not functionally an island because it is connected to the mainland by a causeway. We gradually got reoriented to the East Coast and northern New England. The stays grew longer: five, six, then seven months, including full autumns and then first snows. It was harder to break the skein of seasons and return to sunny Berkeley. Each year we did yearly exchanges in New York City of at least a week, as we reestablished family and friend connections there.

It still gives me the chills that we flew back to Oakland from Boston on September 8, 2011. At the time, it didn’t seem like so much of a near miss, but as the years pass and 9/11 grows larger and larger in myth and as a historic watershed, three days seems like three minutes, for the fabric of humanity that stretches across all of human history is puckered into a black hole around that date. As time extenuates outward, we are pulled back, in the imagination, into a terrifyingly close escape. When we got back to Kensington, we found that the renters had totally messed up the satellite TV and VCR, so brought in Jerry Coté, a friend and pro installer, to straighten things out in exchange for some writing lessons, our barter then. When he got the picture back and saw what was happening, he called me in, stared agape for a few moments, and then uttered a line that still seems to be the best spot-on analysis of the moment and has only gotten more prescient with the passage of time: “Jeez are we pissing some people off!”

Finally in the winter of 2013 Lindy and I completed our pole shift by buying a second Maine house, this one in Portland. At the time of Katrina we had decided we needed to get out of Berkeley before there a big earthquake and civic authority broke down there too. That was what we told ourselves, but the real reasons ran deeper and were more unconscious. It still took more than eight years, as we first looked all over northern California: Ukiah, Nevada City, Sebastopol, Mendocino.

I was up for selling the Kensington house and staying in Manset full-time, but Lindy didn’t think that she could live the full year in downeast Maine, not once the summer folks left and big-time winter set it. She wanted no part of the isolation and cold. But Portland had become a thriving metropolis, nothing like the place we had lived in the early seventies. With new restaurants and an arts and cultural scene and people fleeing expensive Boston and New York, it had become a mecca. Congress Street danced with new energy, and it was not the redneck vibe of main drag, Nevada City; it was the New England of A Perfect Storm and those Matt Damon/Ben Affleck films, the Portland of the Triple A Sea Dogs and minor-league hockey Pirates. There were even some faculty left from our time there forty-five years earlier, albeit retired. I had totally forgotten about Kenny Rosen, but he and his wife Patti had been close friends of ours once. As he put it after reconnecting, “You have given me back a part of myself that I thought I had lost forever.” And he had done the same for me because the span in between had been a lifetime, but we were still fundamentally who we were—and did we ever have some stories to tell from the hiatus!

That all took place during our home exchange in September 2013 when, Steve Luttrell, a local poet bringing friends to a potluck in our borrowed house, remembered that Ken lived just two blocks from there and reminded me about him. On my excited response, he called him up and him and Patti from Spring Street to West Street.

It was on that same home exchange that Lindy and I went for a walk to the port with umbrellas. Then the predicted thunderstorm set in. The sky turned dark, street lights turned on, reflected in the wet cobblestones as thunder sounded around us and lightning flashed in the sky. We were young and romantic and innocent again. A month later, when we were down there again, this time staying with Ken and Patti, en route to a performance by our daughter in Boston, Lindy became teary as she said, “I just love this place.” Right then I knew that we were getting out of Berkeley at last, the fantasy had become real.

We returned to Kensington in December, spent a few months preparing our house for the market. We sold it in June 2014.

We had been weaned back to the East Coast and to Maine forty years later. The transformation took place subliminally, without our realizing that it was happening, until the cobblestones reflected the street lights and placed us in a nostalgic transparency so subtle and reassuring that the universe seemed to have switched affiliation and core meaning in an instant. We returned as we had come, in an enchantment, an initiation. Each time—going West, then going East—was as profound as it felt, grounded in a fresh planetary landscape and a distant music, turning secular life and decision-making into a vision quest. Back on Mount Desert, we could somehow imbibe those dawn years of our relationship in their original form—the blue skies and spring flowers of college years, the brief interlude of being young parents. It has been totally forgotten, not as fact but as phenomenology and lived texture.

The rhythm of day and night, night and day, day after day, night after night, is a special sort of meditation. Life trains its own yoga and practice. Suddenly, in our time back on Mount Desert, our source world had become real and alive again, each day novel and epiphanic, opening out into northern New England. By then California had become synthetic, artificial, even like a giant subterfuge mall. It had always had an indoor ambiance in some indefinable sense like artificial summer. Time seemed to have stopped, and its habitant were sliding into oblivion, in their upholstered, warm-weather reality, into oblivion nonetheless. There were no autumn leaves or icicles to catch us and hold our breath in devotion and awe to beingness itself. Emily Dickinson said it all:

 

These are the days when birds return,

A very few, a bird or two,

To take a backward look.

 

These are the days when skies resume

The old, old sophistries of June,–

A blue and gold mistake.

 

Oh, fraud that cannot cheat the bee,

Almost thy plausibility

Induces my belief,

 

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear,

And softly through the altered air

Hurries a timid leaf!

 

Oh, sacrament of summer days,

Oh, last communion in the haze,

Permit thy child to join,

 

Thy sacred emblems to partake,

Thy consecrated bread to break,

And thine immortal wine!

 

“Oh, sacrament of summer days,” for sure. I had posted it on our Mount Desert bulletin board and could recite it from heart, could not recite it without beginning to cry.

“Oh, last communion in the haze” was everything I felt that made me not want to leave the Atlantic or return facilely to Berkeley. I wanted the sacrament, the communion, the consecrated bread, the wine, everything that the angels, the spirits, the heart chakra the Mount Desert spirit vortex promised, and I didn’t want Bay Area sublimated versions of it anymore. I had enough shamanic and psychic lesson input. Now I wanted to live it out in the dumb anonymous cauldron of nature, cleaning the slate and renewing it everywhere. The gold parchments through the altered air, the occult breezes and signature messages in cumulus hieroglyphs.

The strange thing was, for how powerful an initiation the Bay Area had been, it now seemed on a deeper level fake; that we weren’t fully alive there, things weren’t ever really real, as say a simple trip on the F-train in NYC with assorted riders of assorted race and class and age from the upper East Side to Chelsea, with all the experience taking place there, as both metal and existentiality scraped against the hard rail. What was it, that could make a class in Polarity or Breema, seem to be missing something, even as it provided so much else, so much sacred power, yet missing so much that had been there all along? E. L. Doctorow touched on this in a recent novel from a different entry point:

“…that all this of California was a fraud…I felt that somehow I had been taken in…grown in this endless sun amidst these awful flowers…nurtured to the weird, the unnatural…it was what she knew, her normal social reality….”

Something else had been missing all along, something essential and irreplaceable, until we came to Berkeley and the big Western sky of open possibility and sacred sanghas and found it there. It was as though the same realm, Berkeley/San Francisco, could be either psychically incubatory or soporific, and both at the same time, requiring a paradoxical reading and practice. And, as with anything serious and profound, it took a long time, in our case whole decades, to experience the full Tao, the double-edged sword held for and against us. Which is what it is, always. Otherwise, one either idealizes or damns superficially and doesn’t get the essential ambiguity and karmic gauntlet, the gist, of anything.

Now it had become necessary anew, in fact a priority, to experience the shape of the life from a different, non-Berkeley vantage and as an actual shape, whether that life is real or an illusion, whether an ephemeral thread fades into eternity or an eternal noteis written in the Akashic records. Either way, it was time to raise it from our life-long immersion in the carnal alembic and view its fine halo and rainbow body, along with our own fine, fleet passage, individually and together, on a sacred trajectory through phantasmic vistas of secular space-time.

The difference between numerical years and phenomenological time startles me in retrospect. We spent more than half our lifetimes in Berkeley (about 38 years of which 37 were consecutive, minus of course the spans in Maine during the last fifteen). It felt like total absorption and coastal relocation when we were there

Yet we came east for the summer of 1980, and as late as 1986 when our son was applying to colleges on the East Coast, tried to buy a farmhouse in Easthampton, Massachusetts, and bring North Atlantic Books back to its home franchise. Our offer was too little too late, and both our kids ultimately went to UC-Santa Cruz anyway.

So for the first decade in California, we were still oriented back to New England. Then there was a gap of a decade after which, in 1996, we started coming to Maine again. So for one relatively brief stretch (1986-1996) of our thirty-seven straight years in northern California we were unambiguously and inextricably there for the duration. It also happened to be the most intense period, including our children becoming adults, our separation from each other and coming back together, our most intense psychospiritual trainings, a fresh starting point too. The whole affair—the sum Berkeley adventure—was effectively a lifetime within a lifetime. We came as a young family and left as grandparents.

When I proposed bringing a car east, Lindy balked at the idea of driving across the country at our age. Yet we wanted to keep a 2007 Prius on which we had put very few miles—less than 5,000 a year—because of many months every year in Maine. Of course we could have shipped it and flown, but that seemed a needless expense and squandering of an opportunity for adventure. I also wanted a buffer between California and Maine and to experience the landscapes and transition in between. A road trip would be a way to process and unravel our life in California.

Lindy gradually came to a similar recognition—it would be too abrupt just to land in Portland on the same day we left Berkeley—but she initially preferred shooting straight across, which is what we had done between 1975 and 1980: always Reno, Salt Lake, Denver, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Maine, with minor variations (like racing straight from Iowa City through the Midwest and Pennsylvania in a hurry to make the first Goddard classes in 1976). (We did try a northern route after the summer of 1975 but gave up on interminable back roads in Oregon and looped back down to Salt Lake.)

I proposed a labyrinth. It would be a labyrinth spiritually, a form of meandering vision quest and also, by taking our time and wandering about, we would make the drive less a grind or test of endurance and more its own adventure and flow of experiences. Once we agreed on the plan, we spent a couple of months lining up stops. By heading first to Los Angeles to visit our daughter, son-in-law and grandson Hopper, we in effect set a scoot across the southwest into Texas. Only after that would we head north.

As to why we suddenly decided to move from the Bay Area to Maine, there were many explicit reasons and other esoteric ones: we wanted to sell our house on the Hayward fault because, as we got older, it seemed too risky to have so much of our assets tied up in it. We wanted to get to experience the full seasons and their Emily Dickinson/Edith Wharton textures again on a residential basis rather than as “summer people.” We were tired of making cross-country adjustments twice a year and trying to alternately maintain and rent a house from faraway all the time. Plus our placement within and among our groups of friends and our extended families, the elusive sweet spot where we felt most comfortable in this late phase of our being on the physical plane, seemed crucial to get right. We needed to be where we didn’t feel excluded or humored—and exclusion and condescension took many forms, both subtle and blatant. In short, we were no longer part of the Berkeley scene, any scene, there. Our relevance and value to others were eking away. That made for an urgency to get out before we were marginalized further and too old to transfer our asses.

Add to these: concern about radioactive water from Fukushima, weariness with gardening in clay soil in a bricked-over patio in an urban area during a millennial drought, a growing sense of personal danger (especially when on the streets at night) catalyzed by expanding local wealth disparity, and then the gradual, irreversible change in Berkeley from a cutting-edge kingdom—Beserkely—to an expensive, student-dominated, upwardly-mobile town for very busy, often techy clique mostly younger than us and getting younger. Everywhere in the US had a bit of Berkeley now and, in fact, there seemed more of the pioneer Berkeley spirit, a renaissance that we caught the tail end of in 1975, in Portland, Maine, or on Mount Desert Island, than in Berkeley itself any longer—a startling reversal.

So the move was primal, as primal as a young family’s migration from Vermont to California had been thirty-seven years prior. It needed a ceremony equal to its absolute weight.

 

Los Angeles/Scottsdale (June 26-July 2)

It was 377.4 miles door to door, Kensington (suburban Berkeley) to the house of my aunt, Suzanne Taylor in West Hollywood. We had made the trip many times over the years, but this one was different: it wasn’t LA and back, it was LA as launching point to going all the way east.

We spent a couple of days with our son-in-law Mike Mills and grandson Hopper in the backyard and around the house. Our daughter Miranda was directing the short movie that goes with the “Somebody app” she was developing then, so we only saw her briefly, in and out between shoots, (see http://somebodyapp.com for the result). We brought our entire collection of 33 and 45 vinyl records to them, as they use a turntable happily still (as well as an iPod), about 300 disks in all going back to our childhoods in the 1950s. It will take them a while to sort through all that, but it was nice to see (and briefly hear) them in use again. Years ago I had painstakingly transferred our favorite bands to iTunes and abandoned the turntable, for better or worse. The records, not easily transportable any other way, had occupied a large chunk of our back seat, so we had plenty of space the rest of the way.

The time was bittersweet, leaving behind a fond, familiar scene and setting out on a life-changing adventure. No one else that we knew was breaking from the California mindset; they were like, “How could you leave here, this is paradise, and do you know, it snows there, and it gets really cold, and now there’s the polar vortex.” So we felt very much out of the gestalt and mood, against the grain, loners again heading on a mysterious path to a faraway planet.

 

The trip from LA to Scottsdale was hot hot hot. We left at 6:30 AM to avoid commuter traffic and heat, and we earned temperatures under 80 until we crossed the mountains east of LA and left the fog. It quickly worked up to a max at 106.

We were the only ones picnicking just west of Blythe. The landscape may be arid and baking, but the rocks and cacti are really beautiful—another universe at a different vibration of consciousness, closed to us except behind an exotic façade.

It took 412.0 miles door to door from Suzanne’s to the house of our author Mark Ireland (Soul Shift and Messages from the Afterlife).

We spent a few hours in the South Scottsdale Mall that evening, which was a classic late-capitalist faux city made entirely of shops. Arizona seemed like LA with the northern California part removed and Texas in its place, re: the waitresses at True Food where we went to celebrate Mark’s and Susie’s 35th wedding anniversary: all blonde, very young, made-up to the point of embalming, and our one talked so fast with so little attention on what she was saying that I understood barely a word of the menu, really. I have no idea what the specials were, but I didn’t need to. One detail you might not know: along the street are misters that spray cold steam on pedestrians as they pass, somewhat along the lines of heaters in the outdoor portions of restaurants when it’s too cold otherwise. I enjoyed it insofar as I am always interested in trying out some other planet that’s not quite Earth, and this felt like it without going very far. Sort of, how are things in Alpha Centauri (Avatar aside).

On our full day Lindy and I ventured out to shopping centers, lunch, etc. I hadn’t thought to bring a cap on the road trip, so I picked up a Brooklyn Nets one identical to the one I had bought at JFK the previous year and left in Maine, but it didn’t feel sane to be in this much sun without one, and everyone else was styling head gear, mostly sports caps. I also bought two small kachina dolls at an American Indian shop further down the mall, figuring to make these the first items in an altar space in the Portland house. This kindled a flashback to our courtship years and early years of marriage, before we had children, when we collected Navaho and Hopi artifacts. In fact, we still had a Navaho rug hanging and Hopi and Navaho dictionaries, though I almost never referred to them anymore.

Mark and Susie were about to move to the other Portland—Oregon—to start a new job and be with their son after many years in Scottsdale. Their other son had died in mountains visible from their picture window, an event that had sent into motion Mark’s second career as a guide to the world of those who had passed. Yet, as on our one previous visit, their Scottsdale life was in full florescence—a dance in light and heat and air among the cactuses and rocks, a stop at a modern suburban castle on a block of castles. We walked the trails around the neighborhood with Mark and Susie in the early morning, before the sun got too high. I did stir up one of their two free-range parrots (or parrot-like birds) by thinking to pet it the way they did—no strangers allowed, bub!, such a squawking and flapping of wings and pouter around the dinner table, disrupting the place settings, plus a sold beak peck. It was an embarrassing prelude to an otherwise-peaceful dinner.

 

Patagonia (July 2-4)

On July 2 we left Scottsdale and drove to Patagonia. It was 197.8 miles door to door from Mark Ireland’s to the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center, though it should have been a bit less. We probably added five miles worth of wrong turns between 101 and 10 outside Phoenix and then a few more off 82 in southern Arizona. The main thing that stood out during the drive was the border patrol once we left 10 for 83 (and then 82) south of Tucson. The drama of “undocumented workers” or the more revealing and symptomatic “illegal aliens” ceased being an abstraction and became immediate and real theater. Not that we saw any “intruders.” All we saw was their shadows and political blowback: the guard stations, the all-terrain vehicles with telescopes, the highway back-ups at checkpoints for northbound traffic, the white border-patrol SUVs almost as common as blue Priuses (like ours) are in Berkeley.

Patagonia, Arizona, is the last town on 82 before Nogales, Sonora. My only comment on all that is: read A Wicked War by Amy Greenberg. This is really all Mexico, still, and all of it. The US annexed it, and James Polk, in the measure of his day, provoked a war by a staged incident much as George W. fabricated the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to carry out Shock and Awe—something both politicos planned from the day they took office. They just needed a way to make it look legitimate and stir up patriotic fervor. Polk did such a good job that he even got Walt Whitman beating the annexation drums in Brooklyn. It was quite possibly only when the Southern states realized that Mexico would not join them in the pro-slavery contingent but actually undermine their power base that the consensus in Congress moved away from Polk. Poor communications, by modern standards, also helped. General Zachary Taylor, a future president, was so dismayed at the unnecessary brutality of his army and the unjustness of the invasion of another country, that he signed a peace treaty in Mexico City, taking California, Texas, et al. but not quite the whole country. By the time that word slowly traveled back to DC, Congress had turned and the truce was a fait accompli. We are still living out the karma of that act of nineteenth-century imperialism, as it synergizes with the karma of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine, etc., and the transnational corporation. It’s become an international plutocracy, and border issues are merely the forerunners of the corporate state’s security apparatus feeding its Prison Industrial Complex. On the ground: the border patrol. But in the real centers of power: the bankers, Monsanto, Nestle, Exxon, Citigroup, and evangelical White Supremacy.

The Tree of Life is a wonderful place. As a spiritual and healing center, it is not a pristine tucked-away joint like Esalen, Omega, or Abode of the Message (and nothing against those places). It is wrapped around both sides of Harshaw Road with other local residences, even an auto repair shop (“We Fix Anything on 4 Wheels”). It was at a different auto repair establishment that we got directions when mapquest ran out of ideas once we were in town. The instructions just stopped, telling us we had arrived at our destination when we clearly hadn’t. That one was called PIGS (Politically Incorrect Gas Station).

The main thing about being at a spiritual/healing center is that you meet the vibration naturally and unconsciously as well as consciously and with intention. The part of yourself that is already at that vibration harmonizes with what is happening (yourself and the place receiving each other synchronously) and you continue in sync for the duration.

That’s how it has been for us for the few days here. It is a very different bardo than our other stops or where we came from, though it is an exaggeration to call it its bardo.

I am deepening into this strange interlude in my life when I am no longer living in Berkeley and not yet living in Maine. This is the labyrinth to walk (and drive) in between, and it is filled with parables and narratives of the unseen world and hidden grail. I remember the past(s) so vividly, and the future(s) seem to me something delicate and crystal, no longer a rut or living out the string by dictum and habit. I am balancing between worlds, and even the future is nostalgic in a curious way as it finds our past in northern New England like a nut a squirrel buried forty years earlier, a time capsule in the virtual realm of the mind.

The meals here are all vegan and raw and, in principle, great, though I clearly like some more than others. I enjoyed Neatballs more than Chia oatmeal, the latter tasting like unset, unflavored jello. I particularly liked the varieties of sprouts that I doused in tahini. In fact, there is a whole sprout house by the cafeteria supplying them by oodles every meal. I also liked shreded beet and carrot heaps, the coconut “VLT,” and lemon-grass/burdock/lavender etc. lemonade.

Visiting with those on pilgrimage here was poignat, people fasting, changing their bodies (and their minds), from all over the US. We spent a fair amount of meal-time with two regulars, a retired Delta pilot and a retired businessman, the latter a former varsity, semi-pro USC jock. Gabriel himself was a football star, all New England at Amherst, where we became friends in 1963, the same year I met Lindy. He and I ate shared a meal together at Valentine Hall before he graduated a year ahead of me. Thirty years passed without contact before we rediscovered each other in the great holy diaspora passing for a secular world these days, that is, discovered that we were very different than those nineteen-year-old kids who talked literature and politics in the 60s. We became his publisher and have stayed so since, though this week is the first time I am spending concerted time with my friend since college.

Gabriel went from Amherst to medical school to India to Sonoma to Patagonia, along the way getting credentials as a psychiatrist, an energy healer, a dietician, a pundit, and a rabbi. I refer those of you curious about this to a back story on my website; search Gabriel in http://www.richardgrossinger.com/2010/03/the-best-lines-spoken-at-north-atlantic-books/. And of course Gabriel has his own massive online presence.

Lindy and I got a lot of thoughtful attention from him and his wife Shanti during our visit. We received medicines for our present life phases and vulnerabilities, clarity about such diverse matters as the Fukushima radiation, insomnia, uprooting the zero-point source of trauma, etc., and maybe most poignant and sentimental (in the best way), a birthday and birthday cake (July 4th) for Lindy, on her 70th, the four of us in their house.

I learned in a dream last night that Gabriel has been a sort of undeclared spiritual brother all along in the greater source-consciousness realm, though this visit was the first time since college we renewed the heart connection. For almost twenty years it had been a hundred-percent- publishing business for us.

I will state categorically here that dreams carry all the personal, symbolic, and archetypal information that they have been said to inculcate by philosophers, poets, priests, and scientists for millennia, but they are also visitations to other worlds and probability states of oneself. They are real too; that is, in a universe of energy patterns, electrons, space-time curvature, and the like, they are not as concrete as this physical vibration, but they fall somewhere along the same spectrum of reality and apparition. Where nothing is quite “real,” everything is somewhat real. So it is often difficult, and occasionally troubling and anxiety-provoking, to wake up fully in the morning, to get out of a competing reality and its narrative arc and back into this one.

Lindy and I went to the local July 4th parade off sacred ground and in Patagonia itself. You have to readapt to the tonal qualities, the species vulgarity, the cigarette smoke, the semi-repressed and suffering noises our culture makes in celebration. Coming from Tree of Life, I saw it as a Tibetan dharma wheel of activity in samsara, not judgmentally, in fact more in the sense of having been attuned to the subtlety of the universe and the way in which it is all numinous landscape, for manifesting at all. It was beautiful, colorful, bumptious, erotic, Venus in blue jeans, martial and, most of all, Holy in the deepest sense. As Gabriel said in his teaching at the Pyramid temple the night before, it’s all the Divine, and it’s all possibility. Plus we have just enough free will to grow spiritually anywhere, to make it work (for us and for the universe, too). The local Patagonians, like Tree of Life pilgrims, were working on their particular phases; that’s all. That’s all there is at large and on the horizon: phases, trajectories of evolution, the universe getting us to pay attention to what is by letting us display what we are.

The insignia activity at Patagonia’s July 4th parade was water-balloon fights between the kids in the procession and folks along the side—both were well armed for the event, not only with balloons of various capacities but water pistols, canons, and machine guns. What also stood out was the oppositional politics, which were sharply (and peaceably) represented on dueling vehicles and horses: Hispanic pride versus border patrol and similar flavors.

The heat of Scottsdale was mitigated by our climb into the mountains (4000 feet here). People at Tree of Life refer to the cities up north as concrete jungles, unconsciously imposed asphalt prisons, constructed as if to contain the heat, hence to provide arenas for a particular sort of mall- and country-club-based ecology. On our second day at Tree of Life at lunchtime a monsoon arrived over the mountains from Mexico in something like 5 minutes from a transparent blue sky; then it poured for an hour, bringing high winds, lightning, and Mahler-like thunder, as it blew the raw crackers, napkins, and some of the food out of the cafeteria tent, but most people stayed and got refreshingly wet. I heard variously that it was the first rain of any kind since February, the first real storm since September, and the biggest rain in two years. It has continued to downpour intermittently and with similar out-of-the-blue sudden-ness since, the two most notable after-effects being the rich smells of plant and stone life, especially the sage, and the agitation of ants who are digging out their villages or planets like mad. Oh, and the double rainbow that immediately followed one storm.

Other high points here are the saltwater swimming pool (I’ve been in it three times—no chlorine!—but one of those times I went running when the clouds and lightning came in because I believe you’re not supposed to be around water when that’s happening; in any case, I didn’t want to test the maxim)—that and the gigantic labyrinth in which Lindy and I walked. I experienced it as a facsimilie and microcosm of the labyrinth we are driving from California to Maine. I have yet to get to the center of the Tree of Life one, but in the process of not, I have walked through at least one lifetime and hints of others.

We left Patagonia mid-day on July 5th, walking the Mesa Trail before brunch for a view of the whole valley with its house and ranch lots, cattle and horses sprinkled among sparse trees. Sometimes one is an acquisitive tourist, not wanting to miss what everyone else is raving about: the particular trail and view in this instance. Lizards certainly love the Mesa Trail and dash along ahead, almost flying just off the ground. The buzzing insects about our heads were so phonemic that they reminded me of Castaneda’s vocal insect familiars. It would take years of meditation to attune to their esoteric level, but I do believe in it more here, closer to Yaqui country.

Tree of Life is an active healing center, so people were both at their final meal before checking out and their first meal after checking in, a spread that featured nutburgers and coconut and cherry cream desserts, a pleasant surprise at a fasting spa. [A small subsequent correction here from Gabriel Cousens (in his own words): “One important point….the Tree of Life does fasting in a spiritual and sophisticated way, but is not a fasting spa as you write. It is a holistic organic live-food spiritual healing center, retreat, and learning center.” Sorry for my quip. Sometimes one just tries to vary the language and condense descriptions and, like any hasty (m)adman, loses or corrupts the central point.]

The lunch mix and cross-table conversations held us for an extra hour. There are usually less than six degrees of separation everywhere and plenty of synchronicities in any situation, but that is especially the case at a healing center, as it runs a kind of unconscious energy that draws kindred people toward it. Sometimes it seems as though this whole drama is rigged at a higher dimension, and everyone is implicated with everyone else, no matter how incidental the contract. We are all at multiple phases simultaneously, even the animals, and scripted to intersect each other’s paths in the Great Dance.
El Paso (July 5-7)

It was 330.8 miles door to door from the cafeteria at Tree of Life to Bobby and Lee Byrd’s house on Louisville Street in El Paso. After leaving Patagonia and passing through a border inspection on 290 North, we eventually rejoined Highway 10; then we spent the better part of an entire day, as the sun crossed the heavens, crossing Arizona east of Tucson followed by a good-sized chunk of New Mexico before turning south into Texas via the hills of Las Cruces.

Entering the controversially annexed republic (just as controversial and secessionist today as before the Civil War) was epic in itself: Texas is a metaphorical, ideological, hyperobjective domain as well as an indigenous landscape joining the American South to the American Southwest. A state-line road sign showed El Paso a handful of miles and Beaumount at something like 849. That’s not a state; that’s a country like France or Holland.

Two singular images stand out from the day’s drive itself: (1) cumulus clouds growing above the far-off mountains in exquisite cauliflower fractals, tinier replica clouds forming within larger ones and extending the pile higher and higher; (2) rocks in giant, exotic, mutely hieroglyphic arrays like modular petrified dinosaurs in their millennial zazen poses inhabiting the semi-desert. Then there was pure space itself: space like mind, like emptiness. I have no idea how far we could see in all directions, but I would not be surprised if it was fifty or a hundred miles.

In most places between Patagonia and El Paso, there was not just nothing human but not even the possibility of anything human: no soil worth fertilizing or sowing, just dry scrub getting drier by the minute, and lots of it: whole unbuilt cities, unfarmed farms, uninhabited streets: planet Earth in a baseline local response to the universe.

It was also endemically New Mexico, how one from away might picture it: jagged-toothed mountains, eroded hills, red and orange rocks, tabletop-like mesas, and little dust devils swirling around in the distance, providing ironic, tranquil validity to traffic signs warning motorists to “pull off the road and wait till the dust storm has passed.” In fact, we were warned repeatedly that blinding dust was “possible.” But it was a placid sunny day all the way with only occasional moments of heart-in-one’s-throat wind shear, over and done with before any driver overreaction.

Las Cruces was more habitation than we had seen since traversing the outskirts of Tucson. Then as we passed from New Mexico into Texas and came down out of the Las Cruces hills, El Paso presented a gigantic, sprawling-in-all-directions metropolis, a worthy challenge to any city on the continent. On entry it resembled San Francisco or Denver, though some of its urban expanse was actually an undifferentiated mass of El Paso, Texas (USA) and Juarez, Sonora (Mexico) clustered around the Rio Grande snake—a geographical unity fractured politically and culturally but resisting fracture as a fact on the ground.

Earlier in the day while using the iPod in the car speaker, I had selected the two kitschy but moving cowboy ballads of Marty Robbins that had colored this place before I ever got there in person: “El Paso” and “El Paso City.” In the sequel, with its chorus of “El Paso City…by the Rio Grande”—the singer of the song, as he looks down from an airplane at thirty thousand feet above the desert floor, suspects himself to be the reincarnated cowboy bandit and forsaken lover of the first ballad: The singer sang about a jealous cowboy / And the way he used a gun
To kill another cowboy / Then he had to leave El Paso on the run….”
Now, in a different time, exploiting a technology that allows good old boys to fly: “I can’t explain how I would know / the very trail he rode back to El Paso.” You have to wonder if Marty Robbins is speaking his own truth or merely spinning a good ballad as in “Old Red” or “Mr. Shorty,” but it always had resonance for me:

“Can it be that man can disappear
From life and live another time
And does the mystery deepen ’cause you think
That you yourself lived in that other time.

Somewhere in my deepest thoughts
Familiar scenes and memories unfold
These wild and unexplained emotions
That I’ve had so long but I have never told.

Like every time I fly up through the heavens
And I see you there below
I get the feeling sometime
In another world I lived in El Paso.

El Paso City by the Rio Grande
Could it be that I could be
The cowboy in this mystery
That died there in that desert sand so long ago.”

         Yes, El Paso city, by the Rio Grande. It was exhilarating to hit the actual urban freeways and count exits till our one (North Piedras). We were suddenly out of 80-MPH-posted spaciousness back in LA consciousness with its dare-devil, lane-switching bravado. Epiphany and terror both—that’s modernity in a nutshell, and I’m not sure that cowboys are necessarily happier in, as another singer, Don Edwards, put it, no place for an hombre like I am/In this new world of asphalt and steel.”

 

I have come to recognize more and more the ways that our road trip is both a labyrinth and a ritual for departing California after thirty-eight years. In fact, the two aspects converge in the same landscape. Our meandering itinerary is an actual labyrinth leading us through the Old West and Midwest to Maine while it reenacts a microcosm of our life together. Every stop seems to hold in its loop a special, indelible meaning. We saw our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson in LA—an indispensable offshoot of our life ritual. Then we stayed with Mark and Susie Ireland in the spiffy Scottsdalean suburbs of everyone’s alternative upscale tropical-vacation reality, at least every gringo’s. We had a few days immersion including Lindy’s 70th birthday cake at a retreat center run by my college friend Gabriel Cousens whom I probably met within months if not days of meeting Lindy in 1963. Fifty-plus years later we conducted the second phase of shared ritual (the virtual publishing collaboration sealing a bond in between). Fifty years in this universe is not much, not even a blink of an eye—Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick plastered metaphors for that human-cosmic conjunction across Space Odyssey 2001, beginning to end.

During the summer that Lindy and I lived together in Aspen, Colorado (1965, after our junior years of college at Amherst and Smith), Bobby was our buddy, the best poet (to our sensibility) at the Aspen Writers’ Workshop. That was the summer when my father had insisted that I work for him (again) at his resort hotel; meanwhile Lindy’s parents refused to let her leave the state of Colorado. So we met in Aspen, a scary and ambitious fugue for me then—to drive further west than the Pennsylvania boundary of my youth, through Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska—and a big toss of the dice and act of faith for both of us, to throw in together, that didn’t come easily, especially that young.

After the summer, Bobby and we stayed in poetic touch. He appeared in early issues of our journal Io; then his book Here become one of the first titles of our new press, North Atlantic Books. He met his wife Lee the summer after the magic one of ’65, when he returned to the AWW while Lindy and I got married and headed to graduate school in Michigan.

Between 1965 and 2014 we had only one in-depth visit together, sometime in the mid-eighties when both of our two kids were still kids and Lindy and I lived on Blake Street in Berkeley. Bobby, Lee, and their daughter and two boys came to town. He did a reading in our backyard, in fact attended by polio victim Mark O’Brien, wheeled down our driveway in his iron lung and commanding the scene, as played decades later by John Hawkes, our daughter’s first male lead in her screen-writing, acting, and directing career.

Bobby and Lee took a look at fledgling North Atlantic Books that day and decided on the spot, as they reminded us again in El Paso, to start their own literary press—it was how they wanted to earn a living. They knew that after seeing our set-up—and North Atlantic was in its bare infancy then, without even an employee. Cinco Puntos, based in El Paso, became one of the premier American independent presses, specializing in border literature and meta-politics and featuring educational children’s titles, also books of Choctaw Indian story-telling, drug-lord biographies, and bilingual fiction. Check out Bobby’s own book On the Transmigration of Souls in El Paso. He pretty much says it all about the place and his life-long tenure there; for instance:

“El Paso is a desert city rooted like a thicket of salt cedar, cottonwoods and mesquite on the banks of the Rio Grande. The Mexicans call it the Rio Bravo. This shallow ribbon of muddy water becomes, within the city limits of El Paso, the border between Mexico and the United States. On the other side is Juárez in the state of Chihuahua. Many different people, whether they like it or not, have to come through El Paso. That’s what el paso means, the pass, a place to go through. Some, like myself and my family, end up staying a long time.”

El Paso became Bobby’s place, his site in the Castaneda sense, his life, his mission, his spirit-body compass. He raised a family there; he wove his body and soul into the town’s political and cultural interstices. He rooted in El Paso’s desert roots.

The West Texas station on our California-to-Maine labyrinth marked our third karmic phase with Bobby Byrd, the one in which each of our four lives as actually lived came under joint recognition, nonjudgmental comparison, and review, like reading each other’s akashic record of this incarnation.

It was also a big adjustment from place to place. The Tree of Life was a spiritual purification zone, both explicitly and implicitly; it spoke to emptying ourselves and focusing more incisively and inwardly. The food, the landscape, the banter were all honed to the same radical healing edge—the shamanism of inner-body adornment. Without fully realizing it, we were carrying that vibration with us like our heart on our sleeve. The adjustment to the Byrds’ home in El Paso was thus an awkward one: from the monastic sanctuary into all the complications and messiness of a household, a life in a divided city (mostly Hispanic, non-Anglo), a family’s empty nest (though with the Byrds’ three children, in-laws, and grandchildren all nearby, in fact their daughter and son-in-law one house, one yard, over), plus the relatively realized and unrealized lives of matching artists, poets, publishers, and revolutionaries.

Bobby and Lee fed two outdoor cats whose owners, neighbors on the other side, had been killed in a car accident a few years prior. The cats had simply shifted feeding zones and lived on the porch, ruling and defending it. They were not allowed in the house, where the Byrds’ own cat lived, but they seemed quite happy greeting visitors and accepting the mocking birds’ dives with the intention of ultimately rolling over, playing dumb, and getting one. Bobby says it happens, more often than you’d expect.

There’s a touch of many other, familiar writers in Bobby, at least from Lindy’s and my view, as three of us grew up in the same general sensibility, a bond that transcends a host of other cultural and personal differences cultivated and reinforced during a lifetime; we share native American story-telling, Black Mountain, Robert Kelly, Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, the Beats, etc. There’s snippets of all of that in Bobby and in us, and it makes for a commonality hard to explain to outsiders. What is a literary tradition? It’s more intimate than family in some ways. Bobby’s wilder, grungier, tougher, and more committed on the ground politically than we are, but if you were to drift into thinking that, in going from Patagonia to El Paso, we had moved from sacred ground to profane, secular territory, then you’d be dead wrong. We had driven all day merely to a different vibration of the same karmic note and sacred realm as Tree of Life, a different ring of the same cosmic bell—that is, the next zone in the cross-country labyrinth. We had gone from sacred ground to different sacred ground.

I did have trouble adjusting to the pasta and eggplant dinner with salad Lee Byrd had generously prepared for us (and ate little of it in keeping with my ongoing food vows)—for the meal in itself represented a sharp departure from raw purity.

While Bobby may be an old-fashioned roustabout, hard drinker, and pool player, he picks up loose paper, plastic, and bottles on our walks through the streets and into the hills, and deposits them in recycling, and is a certified Soto Zen teacher. His small El Paso sangha meets every Sunday (happily our one full day there) in the remodeled garage in his backyard, so we attended.

The session was quite essential and crisp, especially for existing not at a secured retreat center but in the very heart of a working-class district (not even middle-class or UTEP—University of Texas at El Paso—suburban; this was six-pack, auto-repair, and barbecue-smoke block).

Six local supplicants arrived at 10 AM for the start and at once committed themselves with evident sincerity in the midst of urban racket, both conceptual and explicit, as well as the high automotive and alcohol backdrop (plus a low-level cacophony suggesting zones of domestic violence, or at least friendly family friction and resolution, in the streets) to attain clarity: clear heart and clear mind. That sincerely added a uniquely El Paso note of Keatsian negative capability to the local sangha. For the hour or so, with bowing, chanting, walking meditation, sitting meditation, bells, clapped sticks, and tea ceremony, our shared experience was purifying and deepening at an entirely different vibration from the Tree of Life, but an incomparable and equally profound one that was as much and as indubitably part of our life and of America’s spiritual landscape. It touched us in a very different part of ourselves from the events at Tree of Life, as a couple who had been poets and artists together with the teacher, a member of his greater clan. I offer the following selection from what we chanted at Bobby’s direction. Cutting quite to the bone of our human situation:

“Let me respectfully remind you

Life and death are of supreme importance

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost

Each of us should strive to awaken

Awaken. Take heed.

This night your days are diminished by one.

Do not squander your life.”

 

Or the more renowned:

“Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to extinguish them.

The Dharmas are boundless. I vow to master them.

The Buddha Way in unattainable. I vow to attain it.”

 

Yes, souls in El Paso, passing and transmigrating amid all the hubbub and the rest. Later Bobby wrote me about what became of the zendo fund to which we donated seven bills that morning: “Lee and I just went to the store and bought $140 of underwear, bras, t-shirts, socks. Big bags of stuff for the kids waiting deportation. Oh, what a sad world. But the shopping trip was fun.”

For those who got the original version of this blog, I provided a snapshot from outside and inside the zendo, the inside one showing one of the members (tattooed arm) next to me and the Zen leader, Polly, seated in the corner, about to ring the opening gong.

Both before and after the session Bobby, Lee, and Lindy, and I did a lot of walking and driving around neighborhoods and in the barren mountains above El Paso, while the two of them filled us with plenty of local history and politics, particularly around the US government’s concrete trough for the Rio Grande, ostensibly to stabilize (actually gerrymander) the border via the Chamizal Treaty, back in JFK days.

This outing was one of the times when Bobby put a small dent in human detritus left in these old Pueblo hills.

I will mention one other curious detail from our drive: the UTEP campus is Bhutanese architecture, a style that extends to the immediate neighborhood and highway structures around it, as if Texas could facilely digest and incorporate anything, even all of Bhutan.

Interestingly Laura Bush attended a number of Bobby’s readings while her husband was governor (and despite his presentation of poems quite inimical to her husband and father-in-law), and Bobby even led a river-rafting trip as part of a fund-raiser for the border, on which the first lady of Texas tipped over and several of the officers attending her rushed to her aid, guns raised to keep the powder (as it were) dry, but she wasn’t really in any trouble.

The overall west Texas landscape is dry and arid, former riverbeds filled with grass. What passes for a park with its indigenous roadrunners and foxes would be an empty lot in New England. You have to look for the local aesthetic of drought-tolerant and native desert plants amid sand and litter.

El Paso is 85% Hispanic—think about that for more than a second. Bobby and Lee’s social world has been located pretty much their whole lives in a Hispanic town. They have committed to being part of its community, to raising their children there, to building a literary and spiritual core, a dynamic press. They have been in one house in that delightfully musical, downscale Hispanic neighborhood for thirty-six years. Their daughter Susie (living next door) has been on the El Paso City Council. Her husband and, I think, her brother-in-law, participate with her in a local Irish band.

The whole meaning of “illegal” and “undocumented” with their inflamed partisan politics loses meaning and frame of reference in El Paso. Though the US has re-routed rivers in tunnels and built fences and manned border stations and placed as many legal, quasi-legal, and bureaucratic barriers as it could afford, it is all meaningless, and will prove meaningless in another hundred or so years. The land will all go back to Mexico; it has to. They have merely inconvenienced the flow of water and creatures for a century or two; they have not halted anything. The rhetoric of rabid anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, Tea Party affiliates—gringos all—is absurd. There is no White Supremacy or White Entitlement on this planet or in this nation; the ultimate multi-racial flood will wash all residual White purity into greater cultural and biological planet. It will vitiate in its own consumerist, xenophobic, fundamentalist sand.

Bobby led us into Juarez on the El Paso Street/La Avenida Juarez pedestrian bridge over the dry Rio Grande riverbed. Of all the things he and Lee suggested that we might want to do at the end of the afternoon, this is the one we unambiguously chose. We couldn’t imagine coming here, this close, and not doing it.

From the mountains around El Paso, as noted, it is hard to see the line separating an American metropolis from Sonoran Juarez; the separation is provisional, yet of course quite real. I have seen Juarez listed with Mogadishu, Barcelona, Lagos, Baghdad, and Kabul as among the world’s ten most dangerous cities, which wouldn’t be possible if it were in the US. I feared going there almost to the degree that I was compelled. But I was not going to let fear win out, not this time this late in the game.

Lee dropped the three of us off at a park near the border. The Mexican barrio of El Paso there is similar to Juarez on the other side, of which it used to be part before the US figured out how to move the border and grab some more acreage. Many of the people and, of course, most of the buildings stayed, resisting the aspects of the political change. Bobby thought it a particularly lovely part of town, not fully either American or Mexican: an assertedly different aesthetic from the American dream, in fact the diametric opposite of ambition for cleanliness and easy-access commerciality though clearly part of the local transmigration of souls. Crossing the pedestrian bridge would to a very different culture and energy that we would soon experience.

You pay fifty cents to enter the span on the American side, thirty-five to get back on the Mexican end. The bridge itself is like the zone between universes in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, a place of wandering souls in dire confusion. In the World War II movie, glass salesmen continue to hawk their wares, though there are no people to buy their panes and no rationale except habit. In fact, the glass is not really glass, though it is represented by real glass in the movie. On the footbridge joining El Paso and Juarez, there are other sorts of itinerant salespeople in their own bardos: beggars selling doodads, pottery, candy, gum, booklets, amulets, jewelry, clothing, indescribables, just about anything not othrwise nailed down. I am not sure if these men and women in their avid if indolent actions strayed across the Mexican-American border into the bridge’s center, but they became exponentially more numerous and bedraggled as we passed through the irrevocable if invisible barrier into Mexico over the dried-up river. In fact, these souls virtually blocked the way, hindering any ease of passage without bumping into them.

It was heady crossing into Mexico, a sense of anticipation, a sensation of dread, plus a light-headedness rising from the overall feeling of unreality.

We spent about ninety minutes all told in Juarez. We walked the main drag for about six blocks, then turned right to the park and cathedral. We stood for ten minutes among the parishioners, listening to music and prayers. An incredibly lifelike statue of dead Jesus just lifted from the Cross sat in a glass “coffin” in the alcove. After our visit to the pews, we circled the perimeter and walked back to the bridge exactly the same way we came. Lindy asked if we could take a different route. Bobby said, “No,” then added (understatement of the day), “It’s not a good neighborhood.” Later he described a friend living down one of those side streets; he had seen people murdered in his backyard. In fact, his young son had too, from birth.

During our slow trek I couldn’t find any satisfactory way to exist as who I was. I tried to be alert yet low-key, invisible but empathic, and I don’t think I did a very good job of any of it. I am not proud of myself that day, and I am not being disingenuously humble either—I didn’t have the goods in me. I didn’t like being one of “us,” but I am. I was uncomfortable every minute, on red alert, yet fascinated and drawn in a horrific sort of way.

This was the earth, the real earth, the way most of my species lives and dies.

I took about twenty snapshots with my cell phone, but I felt inappropriate while doing it, hurriedly putting the object away after each shot; it was as though I was advertising my American-ness and practically inviting disapproval or retaliation. I aimed away from people, except in the crowded park, and none of the pictures look like anything at all.

In order to capture what Juarez was like, I would have had to aim the lens at actual people and take pictures in a blatant way, as of animals on safari, and that would have only accentuated my privilege and stance of entitlement as well as my separation from them, my role as one more insensitive, gawking gringo from across the Rio Grande. They know all about us; they know more about us than we do about ourselves. That is why we are the anglos and barbies. We have everything and are dissatisfied and don’t know what life is or what to do with it. They see that and pity us and do not feel like victims at all. We are the ghosts who blow through; they are the ones alive.

I had the abiding regret during our brief somber stroll that I had done nothing, ever—that is, that all the things I had done didn’t count on a planet that was operating at this raw and sheer a survival level. The stuff we passed on Juarez’s streets did count, was life on Earth in its protean psychospiritual guise. I had passed from birth in a wealthy hospital to protected mall after protected mall, some as larger as whole villages or counties, all within the greater protectorate of the Empire and its corporate affiliates. Everything in my life including actions that I had once considered important or profound or even lasting (like founding a publishing company or writing weighty books) was just more commodity aggregation, of goods or persona. Even my bleats against the Empire were just more imperial grist and fodder All that I really had to give back now on the street was my tacit acknowledgment of that fact, and an attempt to apologize silently, to sustain humility in keeping with the reality.

I don’t think that I carried even that off, though I put most of my effort and attention into cultivating the right attitude, knowing that even my attempt was arrant affectation. Not that they even cared or that most of them would have cared if they had known. It would have been a waste of their awareness, let alone their time, a gift I hadn’t earned. Bobby had; he brought plenty of coins to distribute along the way. I felt that he was prepared to cross the Styx that dayt.

What didn’t show up in my snapshots were people lying on the sidewalk sleeping or begging, amputees and old women, children, dogs, sick and mutilated people in states well beyond what is permitted in our culture, some of them moaning or making sounds that you never hear in America (or don’t hear for long). In any of our fine cities the gendarmerie would come and peel them off the streets, take them god knows where.

You also need the sounds and the smells of Juarez to get it: a constant stream of mariachi and mariachi-like music coming from bars and other establishments, as if some sort of carnival were transpiring, only a dark, surreal replica of a funereal one. Beneath that were a variable murmur and din, many more voices and more complicated sounds and interactions than on most North American concourses. As we approached the park, a preacher’s voice added its layer to the music. Nearby him were Aztec dancers and two young male and female models dressed in phosphorescent, clown-like, faux-Aztec costumes, doing a frenetic dance of their own that seemed a mockery of the old men—they were selling phones for Telecom.

Yes, there were prospering, stylish Mexican families and hip entrepreneurial-looking youth too, distributed unequivocally with the rest, folks who could have passed in any American hamlet.

But then there were those who had matriculated beyond the level of ordinary beggars; they were begging too but in an irrefutable visceral fashion from their sunken stations with a weird assortment of cries and moans, like a movie version of Dante’s Inferno.

If I closed my eyes and just listened to all the sounds, they had an astonishingly rhythmic, anti-rhythmic melody, flowing into and out of harmonies, moirés, bridges, and intricate cacophonies like something composed by John Cage. Collectively it was more joyful, celebratory, and I AM HERE than a pure dirge or collective expression of sorrow.

The smells were of whiskey (from the open doors of bars), sewage, incense, perfume, ripe fruit, bitter herbs, baking, and life; as they blended, they engulfed us.

Things were falling apart everywhere—the sidewalk, the walls, the buildings, but people operated undaunted and unfazed around the disrepair. There was minimal ritualistic maintenance of infrastructure here, certainly compared to El Paso.

Mostly Juarez was beyond sight, smell, or sound; it was truly an energy field and aura, a distinct vibration. Rarely have I felt such a extrinsic presence so powerfully: everything had changed from El Paso on both a subtle and gross level, and that transubstantiation consumed and heightened everything, psychic and otherwise.

Plus, everyone was engaged in life as it was given here, so that was where most of my flights of fancy went, into trying to find my own alternate life down these orphic streets as if I had been born and grown up here—what they felt like to those for whom they were home and who had no other place to go day and night, day and night; what it might feel for some future being on my karmic thread, either here or elsewhere or on some other world, to get born in such a place. That is what Juarez opened in my heart and soul. That and the sense that my humanity was measured by the amount of compassion I could muster, amidst my knee-jerk self-protectiveness, the desire to be separate and get back to America as soon as possible and not be this, the wish not even to look too seriously at what was there nakedly on the ground to see, living and dying. Juarez disclosed the baseline denominator, where all things eventually end up.

As we approached the bridge for our return, I felt remorse for leaving it behind without fully absorbing it or testing myself and my limits against its limits, tasting its actual grime and surviving, but I never would, not in this life if I could help it. In the end I was taken with the beauty of the place, and by that I mean how its chaos, human misery, and warlord exploitation settled at the level of a complex ceremony that overrode each of them and served a greater cosmic esprit. If the infrastructure of the United States collapsed to the same degree, it would not be nearly as beautiful, not beautiful at all. It would be quite ugly, and things would get far uglier very fast. That’s what all those anti-immigrant ideologues don’t grok: the real poverty, vacuity, and degradation is in their immediate mall-epiphany midst, represented by their gunnism (that blue-collar existentialism), their rabble-rousing and sloganeering, because they are all bravado and, as Yeats had it, “passionate intensity,” supported by nothing else. They are flimsy to the point of meaningless, on the border or in Mexico, and all that is holding up the thin veneer of these folks’ avidly-sought and held upscale living, civility, and the civil order around them are banks, temporary permission of Wall Street, the various Wal-Marts and Amazons frenzy-feeding off their consumer line of cash and ersatz productivity, and the temporary largesse of so-called Citizens United corporations with their bought judges and other mercenaries. Take all that away, and Juarez would look like the acme of human civilization on Earth. That is, Mexico’s aesthetic of survival in a state of creative chaos and dynamic disequilibrium would prove to be the true art and civilization of this third planet from Sol, more than all the technologies of the West. That is what the jihadists are trying to tell us from their own states of anti-consumerist delusion, for they are in the same cabal. Juarez, though, gets a bye, a free pass. After all, they keep the peace, the joy, even with the drug lords testing daily how much God will permit, will let them get away with, how much mayhem and blasphemy, how many times over they can drown the ceremony of innocence, without His striking them dead (if He even exists). In the circumstance of Juarez, those anti-immigrant folks would kill and eat each other faster than the participants of a Survival Reality TV show, which is all any of this is anyway sans the producers and funding. But Juarez is reality itself.

Still it is a complicated, multi-level issue because, after all, with gangs thriving and drug wars presently raging, the major and police chief of Juarez choose to live in El Paso, out of reach. With apologies to Yeats, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Mexico City to be born?” Or Washington D.C., or Damascus, or Lhasa, or Paris.

 

On re-entry to the US, I watched the woman immediately in front of us get led away by an agent, who looked about sixteen (for all his designated power). He returned from an inner room; she didn’t. And this from was the privileged short line for US citizens only. The non-US-citizen line stretched well back into Juarez.

On the way into the purgatorial building, I took one snapshot of the line of cars (El Paso in the background) before Bobby told me to put my cell away because they didn’t need much of an excuse—and they hold all the power.

When my turn came, I showed my passport to the youth in uniform. Our dialogue went:

“What were you doing there?”

“We just went to walk around for a couple of hours.”

“What did you think of it?”

“Intense.”

No response, he just looked at me.

“It was the real world,” I said.

He looked at me a bit longer, then said, “Did you buy anything?”

“No. Just looked.”

This journey to Juarez was a high point of Bobby’s and our long association. Lindy and I couldn’t have gone there ourselves, and we couldn’t have asked for a better guide through the town. We had Kerouac qua the Soto Zen Master as Beatrice, leading the way, keeping us safe, telling us stories of current events, political watersheds, crimes, pool games, incidents involving his son, etc., stuff that took place at different bars and other establishment, including BTW Kerouac’s own adventures here too, including Bobby’s escapade of taking a photograph for a Cinco Puntos cover at the Kentucky Club (where everything begins and ends, like the book says) or (as Bobby says): words to live by. He made it both educational and initiatory, and all along we felt in impeccable hands, as though he was prepared and at harmony with the people and place, as though he was leading us on a walking meditation through the circle of the damned, though it was unclear whether that meant us or them. That was the key to the walk: Gate gate, paragate, for sure. Thanks, Bobby, for being a true poet and warrior and for striking the right chord, human and political, all the way. Thanks all the way from Aspen (age twenty) to El Paso (age seventy). Thanks for holding the station on the fort.

 

The next morning Lindy and I set out, planning to leave Highway 10 and head south to Marfa for the day but, as soon as we got on the road, Lindy said, “We need time to think and absorb all this. We don’t want to go out of our way; we don’t need a whole irrelevant stop.”

I agreed. I was not in the frame of mind to sight-see in Marfa, and the so-called organic bed-and-breakfast in Marathon at which we planned to stay turned out (by phone) to serve supermarket bacon and white-flour-and sugar pancakes with fruit syrup, so it was organic only by standards of West Texas metaphor.

After I complained, the woman said that she would change their website to Organic When Available. Isn’t America great? Compassionate when convenient. Good guys when we want to be (and when we get to wear our guns publicly). Bad guys when the President is black, I mean socialist. Why there’s even a new device to alter your engine to give off more carbon and lots of black smoke, just to say fuck you to Obama, the EPA, and the whole Prius crowd.

So we committed ourselves to Highway 10 all the way, planning to get as far as we could in one day. Ambition to reach Austin was immediately catapulted by a spectacular, chilling accident just ahead on the road. We saw the smoke and heard the initial explosion: an SUV had caught fire. A border-patrol officer who happened to be on the job stopped all traffic and kept it stopped until the fire died down—the explosions from the vehicle were too powerful and unpredictable to allow anyone to pass in range of flying metal and glass. That delay took about 45 minutes while people left their cars and gathered on the highway in an improvised social event. Folks from these anonymous cars and trucks turned out to be quite agreeable, knowledgeable, and authentically empathic for what was happening up ahead. No one knew if the people in the SUV had been killed, but there was concerned speculation.

A few of us edged closer, but I stopped at a certain point while the rest of the group, all younger then me and all men, continued forward. The smoke was toxic, so I had a real disincentive to breathe more of it. I did see the car explode several times and flames shoot higher, smoke turn blacker. It was macabre as well as tragic, but that’s about it. We were on the yuppie side of the Rio Grande and waiting for traffic to move again, which it eventually did.

We drove past our comfort level to get to Fredericksburg, 502.8 miles on the day. A full day of driving changes both consciousness and physical capacity. Everything in memory and being that comes to the surface is examined and re-assimilated. What is added is simply the slowly shifting landscape. We were always in Texas but had covered the equivalent of Denver to Wichita in the central US. The progress showed when we exited for gas; it looked less Arizona and more like Indiana or even the South. At our age, the spine resisted the set driver posture and, by the last stretches near sundown, we were alternating at every rest stop, stints of about forty-minutes minutes each.

We picked Fredericksburg off the map as a large enough town like to have decent food and a pleasant enough motel in the last stretch of 290 before Austin. It was a relief to find greenery, a town, a classic “Main Street.” We parked and walked around a bit like ghosts, instinctively spurning noisy, smoky pubs but seeing little else but those kinds of establishments and fast food or what we had long ago come to refer to as generic “Dennies.” Then we wandered, as it turned out, the wrong way off the main drag and found a park, a library, and public offices, deserted except for homeless males. These folks weren’t threatening as such, but we didn’t belong there, certainly not dazed and confused from 500 miles of driving; it was a caution that one can’t just wander naïvely in an unknown town. We got back in the car and cut a wider swathe. At a Christian mission house on the other side of the strip, we were directed to a different nearby part of town where we chose the cheap but spiffy Inn at Baron’s Creek from among several. The woman at the desk thought that we might still get service at the Navajo Grill. We called their number and were told that we had ten minutes get there to place an order. It was only two miles out the other side of town. We made it in time for some American Indian dishes after which (and dessert) we stood under the stars of a warm Fredericksburg night. Looking back over our trail, we were now clearly launched. This was all new territory, and Berkeley felt far away and long ago. That had been the point: get buried in the labyrinth and reemerge in Maine only after unwinding its depths.

 

Austin

I began writing these travel notes in medias res and, from the responses, I have picked up a few readers via Facebook and other sharing portals. Thanks to everyone who sent me their insights or encouragement. I want to emphasize here just how bizarre and radical this trip is for us. We spent most of a month packing up and/or discarding four decades worth of accumulation from our Berkeley life, some of it even older than that since it came west with us from Vermont with our two young kids who are now 45 and 40 with kids of their own. As the days passed, our house gradually became less and less a residential space and more a warehouse with stacks of boxes: 18 x 18 x 18, 18 x 12 x 12, 24 x 18 x 18. Then on June 25th two movers arrived at 8:30 AM, having parked their truck in the street. Two others showed up soon afterward in cars, and then they began their routine. They were equipped with pads, hand trucks, and their own packing materials. In one day the house was emptied and became bereft and hollow-sounding, as though it were a space for rent. Seventeen years of accouterments and habitation were gone, at least the props were removed. What remained were a few objects that the new owners had bought from us plus stuff for either Salvation Army or the edgy and preferable (but less reliable) Charity Squad. There were also a few items that the movers flat-out missed, while they were also mistakenly loading some objects meant for either donation or the dump. Neither outcome was reversible any longer: the doors were sealed either way. On Lightning Vans’s storm through our house, four people worked in hyperdrive, hauling somewhat indiscriminately and then, since they had skipped lunch (no fast-food joints near enough for their satisfaction), they wanted to be out of there at six sharp. We were astonished that it did not go exactly as planned. Who wanted to ship junk 3000+ miles for no reason or randomly leave behind items we valued?

It is hard to picture what something is going to be like before it happens. We just assumed that the meticulousness with which the salesman went through and itemized everything along the tags that we placed squarely on stuff that was not to be loaded would suffice to assure a perfect match. But that did not account for the distracted haste with which they worked or the language barrier (all Spanish—they couldn’t read the “Do Not Move” tags).

As he surveyed the rather obvious errors with us, Lightning’s foreman concluded that it would be cheaper for us to let the cargo go as packed; that is, we could replace the overlooked chair, rug, bureau, etc., on the other end, and discard the grungy futon, etc., for less cost and less collateral damage than we would incur having hungry men take apart and rearrange the entire load. It still grates on me, but less and less as time passes. I take in the deeper meaning of being “between worlds,” not attaching to objects that sooner or later have to be let go of anyway. That is a lot what this trip is about—a detour from everyday patterns, a turn in the larger road.

So Lightning Vans made their hit-and-run and put our load in storage in San Leandro. I verified that by email exchange with the salesman the next day. Initially he didn’t understand what I was asking him (“Do you have our stuff? Were those really your crew?”). I had seen enough episodes of the old Mission: Impossible! to not take for granted possible subtexts behind a bunch of unknown guys showing up in uniforms, clearing your house of all your belongings, putting them in a rented van, hitting your credit-card for $5000, and then disappearing into the dusk with mariachi music on the radio. Once he grokked the true range of my paranoia, the salesman wrote: “Yes our crew picked up your goods yesterday and they are safe in our storage location in San Leandro. We did receive the payment as well.”

We had stayed and ate that night two blocks up the hill at the house of an out-of-town friend, also the contractor who had worked on upgrading our property for sale. The next day the couple we hired to clean arrived promptly after breakfast. Lindy had found the husband-and-wife team on Craigslist though not as cleaners: they arrived as potential purchasers of a small kitchen bureau and then asked to look around and selected assorted other items for themselves and family members as well as the . They came to collect them in a fancy truck and paid with 7 $20 bills. When I saw the vacuum cleaner and chemicals in the rear as we were loading, I asked and José replied in the affirmative, “Yes, we clean. We do everything.” Then Lupita proudly produced her string of clients’ keys. She pulled them out of her purse like clowns’ handkerchiefs, and I am going to guess that there were fifty, maybe even a hundred, all braided together in what looked like an Inca counting knot or a motley strand of a dreadlock with found jewelry. That was her response again when Lindy asked for references: the keys. She said nothing but moved them closer to Lindy and shook them. She had a proud, almost imperial smile. “There they are,” I said. “The keys are her references.”

After José and Lupita finished their whirlwind of cleaning, we got on the road by 1:15, heading for LA, just like that: June 1977 in; June 2014 out. Most of a lifetime in between. It felt like a getaway because it was, and in that sense it was thrilling.

I think that part of me always wanted to get out of California and vamoose onto the highway going east, from the time we arrived for “one year” and yet “for good” in ’77, but things got complicated very quickly with young kids and the onus to earn a living. Real life had hit; we were no longer a young couple in a post-college enchantment with cute babies and who might teach college forever. No jobs had materialized; our natal families were in various states of dysfunction themselves and offered no support or backup. We had to do it ourselves. And it suddenly came together in countercultural Berkeley with North Atlantic Books in a way that had never occurred to us or been possible in Maine or Vermont. In the Bay Area people with upscale educations like us didn’t just look around or beg for college teaching gigs; they invented businesses, whole new realities. By the time we headed out of town, we left behind a fully-operating publishing company with twenty-five employees, albeit in a bad era for the publishing business with predatory Amazon on vulture watch, plenty of DIY technology in competition, and too much free reading material on the Internet.

But the eighties, nineties, and aughts were great for small independent presses, spurred by a change in inventory tax laws (driving commercial publishers into the bestseller business and out of more specialized and serious lines that we were developing like internal martial arts, bodywork, and shamanism), the emergence of the imprint-blind chain-stores (and early Amazon) who cared more for the discount rate than publishing-insignia prestige, and the development of large-scale independent distributors that allowed smaller presses to compete with larger ones on the same terms and turf—we used Publishers Group West for almost thirty years before switching to Random House in 2007.

Yet for all that, in some essential way Berkeley never seemed quite real to me. It lacked summer thundershowers, evening fireflies and August heat, fall chill and colors, first snows and then first lupines and forsythia.

What the Bay Area lacked in the depth of an internalized seasonal zodiac, it made up for in psychospiritual training, lifestyle, and alternative-career livelihood. I remember how shocked Lindy’s mother was by the turn of fate. To her death, I don’t think she ever quite believed that what we were earning was “real” money; it looked too easy, too much like mischief and fun. We were just doing our weird stuff and were suddenly earning many times what we did in our teaching jobs. Yet we weren’t being doctors, lawyers, lumber barons (like her father), or financiers. I wonder what she would have made of retired dot.com millionaires in their thirties, some of them down the block or across town from us—but she didn’t live that long. None of it would have seemed real by her old Colorado values.

Through the rich, complex decades of my thirties, forties, and fifties, I barely noticed Berkeley’s lacks, as northern California provided wise friends, mild winters, and lively ethnic restaurants while it trained me in meditation, diet, martial arts, palpation, energy perception, conscious breath, psychic awareness, and, perhaps most significant of all, given our family financial crisis when we arrived, how to turn something I loved and was good at (writing and publishing books) into an entrepreneurial endeavor and honest salary. Those were real, hard-earned skills, from the craniosacral stillpoint, sitting Zen, and internalizing a hsing-i set to how to co-venture book projects. Such an entrepreneurial scenario never would have happened for me in Maine or Vermont (or New York City). Too much there was fixed, resolute, and impenetrable, guarded jealousy by prior generations. Youth culture there was an oxymoron. But the spaciousness, open-ness, and big, sunny skies of Berkeley welcomed and initiated me, and it entertained both ofus for the better girth of a human life.

Now Berkeley is no longer Berkeley, and the transition, as they deem it, from hippie to yuppie to techie, has its own irreversible momentum—this is a millennial regional shift like the drought itself. In Beserkley’s geographical slot is a new city in a new century, the traditional avatars and seers pretty much gone, the Telegraph Avenue shops (except for Lhasa Karnak herbs) having withered and then died on the vine: the many bookstores, art studios, cutting-edge therapy centers, and psychospiritual sanctuaries. You wouldn’t find Paul Pitchford transubstantiating a bottle of tap water in the sun in an apartment on lower Woolsey Street as I did in 1975. You couldn’t drop your kid safely into the melée of Derby Dump. You couldn’t hear shamanic drums answering each other across Tilden Park. In the place of Peter Ralston’s School of Ontology and Martial Arts sits a staid antique shop.

Meanwhile the territory we left for the cutting edge out West now feels cutting-edge anew: northern New England, Maine, Portland itself, NYC (Brooklyn/Park Slope, etc.). So a getaway…yes. A less dire version of Tim O’Brien’s Going after Cacciato, a transit from California to Maine instead Saigon to Paris in wartime—state by state, province by province, reality sphere by reality sphere, Tree of Life to Juarez to Inn at Baron’s Creek.

It was propitious that each of the songwriters whose performances we attended the second and third night in Austin, Slaid Cleaves and Dave Insley, dedicated a number to Richard and Lindy, on their road trip from California to Maine. As Dave put it, “You’all been staying there part-time, but now you’re going for good, right?”

Nods from us. “Um huh.” Or sort of, but no one needs to know either the paradoxes and complications of our plan.

 

We were slow to get out of Fredericksburg the next morning, lolling till the maids hit the room at 11 (that’s how these blogs get done). Then we searched out one of the exalted peach-farm stands outside of town Austin-way to buy a sackful for our hosts. Our home-exchange.com partners already had family in the Mount Desert area, so the trade, instead of house for house, was for (on our end) books from NAB about Maine plus Fredericksburg peaches purchased on 290 on the way.

It was 70.5 miles from the Baron’s Creek to Jack Allen’s restaurant, situated about half a mile east on 71 from its juncture with 290. That’s where Robert Phoenix and his girlfriend Katey had arranged by cell to meet us for lunch. It was Robert’s regular hangout and so-called watering hole, only an eighth of a mile from his apartment and the stage for his online talk show featuring astrology, cosmic and local conspiracies, the general occult and weird, and pro sports, plus their intersections, often weird in their own ways.

I love Robert, but I didn’t love Jack Allen’s. I don’t care if, as Robert carefully explained, the owner (whose name isn’t Jack) is in partnership with Nolan Ryan and has a comparable establishment with him in the Round Rock Express baseball stadium. The food came off the menu and out of kitchen like something that Nolan Ryan would preside over. The waiter (and the waitress who replaced him mid-shift) were overwrought performers of what must have been a brand of Texas hospitality but felt to me like half-hearted vaudeville. The semi-edible fare was essentially Denny’s with a California-cuisine booster, the boost being menu language more than food. I forget what I found to eat, but I believe it centered around likely-pesticided vegetables. But I don’t want to be obnoxiously cynical. It’s just that Robert is a very radical bloke in most things, but as far as pro sports, diet, and interaction with the public go, he follows a mainstream denominator of his lineage. He honors his working-class roots, which are real things and not washed away by any degree of counter-cultural overlay. He likes his nachos and comfort food; he’s an extravert too, a player and volleyer of improv. He enjoyed giving back as freely as he got with Jack Allen’s crew, so the service surged to high theater. Plus his pining for a boysenberry whipcream event not on the menu that day blew any further cover he or the waiter might have had. At Jack Allen’s (and we all have our Jack-Allen-like addictions), he was a delightful and shameless sellout, a lovable downhome big-boy.

After lunch we followed Robert and Katey to his apartment complex. This was an unexpectedly spiffy affair (given his arrangements in Berkeley) of a sort that turned out to be endemic to thriving urban Austin—communal living without ideology. It was an upscale condo village maintained at a luxury level relatively inexpensively by locating many services in commons rather individual units. First we stopped at the business-center commons where Lindy and I were able to catch up on printing, scanning, signing, and emailing. Then we went to the apartment where Robert’s pair of indoor-only cats were hanging out, perhaps awaiting the return of the friendly primates, as they immediately became interactive. Later all four of us went to the complex’s pool commons where we sat on chaises in the super-bright super-hot sun and continued our quickly segueing conversations. The bathing zone was an ingenious miniature-golf-course of a pool with sectors, islands, and connectors, adults and kids frolicking as though it were still the fifties, only better, which is 2014 Texas in a way.

Mr. Phoenix is a special guy. I met him in, I believe, the mid-90s after North Atlantic was told by Publishers Group West to stop freeloading and get its own warehouse. PGW then arranged a shotgun marriage between us and Conari Press, and together we rented one of the extra Tenspeed warehouses owned by publishing and real-estate mogul Phil Wood. Because space was about 20,000 square feet, 5,000 too many for the two of us, we sublet sectors to six other presses, creating a small city or publishing mercado. The funkiest of the tenants was a magazine, Mondo 2000, and their music editor immediately moved in with his dog.

Will Glennon, the publisher of Conari, came to our office to inform me of this dilemma one day and suggested that I might volunteer to go tell him to leave since we weren’t zoned for habitation and Mondo wasn’t paying enough rent to house employees anyway. “He’s a huge guy,” Will said as if that explained anything.

When I got there, Robert charmed me in about thirty seconds flat. I found that he was not someone to kick out but a national treasure, we were privileged to have him there. As he put it, “You’ve got a night-watchman, full-time, no charge. And my dog Cosmo is psychic and reads tarot. Where else can you get that for free?”

How could we “evict” this guy?

Robert and I have been close friends since, as we share the classic if all-too-rare complex of the occult, conspiracy theories, politics, music, and pro sports. He can handicap Sunday football, talk NBA and the Oakland A’s, read tarot for the San Francisco Giants’ announcers (and at big computer company Christmas parties, flown back to California for such gigs), single-handedly move a gigantic desk into our house (around 1998), and tell you every Kennedy Assassination theory (later intricately interwoven with 9/11 synchronicities) and chemtrail/alien-brain-on-the-Moon conspiracies. Since we met, he has brought numerous quirky authors to North Atlantic, the main one being international channeling star and sea-mammal familiar Patricia Cori, an American living in Italy.

At the pool I asked him about the company at whose annual Christmas bash he reads tarot for individuals, and he said, “Your computer falls in the bathtub or get burned in a fire; you have anything left on the hard drive, these folks will get it for you. It’s not cheap, but then they can afford tarot readers at their parties.”

After Mondo folded, Robert went to work for a music website, met a woman at a staff party in San Diego, got married in Vegas maybe not that very night but not a whole lot later, had a son Griffin (who is now ten), and was coaching him in Berkeley Little League when his by-then ex-spouse and her new partner decided to move to Austin so she could take a job with Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation, at exactly the wrong moment (for Lance anyway). “I was finished with Berkeley,” Robert confessed. “I was waking up there with no interest, no will to do anything. Like every fucking day. I was fried. I had to get out before I passed on in my room.”

Later, he riffed off an earlier blog segment, saying “This is about the transmigration of souls from Berkeley, Richard. You and I aren’t the only ones in motion, my friend.”

Robert remains inimitable, of course. Such folks stay in one groove or another. His present partner, Katey is Celtic, from England, raised in Italy, has a PhD in physics, and is a professional energy healer and psychic. She lives and practices in San Diego but visits him in Austin regularly.

All afternoon Robert kept up a steady banter regarding cats, chemtrails, the For Lease and For Sale signs on Highway 35 between Austin and San Antonio (“You won’t recognize it in five years, the two cities are coming together”), sparrows with a nest of six babies on the spigot for the emergency sprinkler system on his deck (Lindy ironically worried about them getting enough water, so he cut up a plastic gallon jug on the spot, filled it with water, and set it outside, christening it “Lindy Springs.” I mean, Will, did really want me to evict this guy?)

Outside by the pool, Robert continued with an analysis of Jason Kidd as a super-Aries, how lucky the Nets were to get rid of him now before he destroyed the team. “He’s an over-the-top Aries, so he can’t control his actions. He’s power hungry and a genius, but he doesn’t understand it, which makes him really dangerous. I’ve done the guy’s chart.”

He might have discussed this matter anyway, but it was put in mind by my wearing my Scottsdale-mall Brooklyn Nets cap to the pool, the Arizona (now Texas) sun being too hot and unforgiving not to put something on my skull—I was getting lightheaded from the burn. Robert looked at it and, without prologue, read its Knight of Swords aloud.

He also brought up the outrageous notion that Richard Hoagland got his information about Mars and the Moon by being Arthur Clarke’s secret lover (not Robert’s idea—he was passing on a rumor that someone else had started). I told him that Hoagland was an old-time vintage “lady’s man.” Katey offered that that might be a cover, but I said, no, in Hoagland’s case, it definitely wasn’t a cover. But Robert’s net is wide, and he gets the full complement from nutty to brilliant

We next touched on El Paso, which Robert called a model for the future American city: lots of people in one another’s vicinities operating under the radar or any government interference, no boundaries either internal or external as the megapolis spread legally and illegally across the desert: Indian casino money mixing with Mexican drug-cartel money (check out the McMansions in the hills built by people with downtown shops lacking any real products), all that nouveau riche mixing with old gringo ranch wealth. “The entire country’s going to be a version of El Paso someday. It’s the future, in fact the most radical urban scene going.”

“I guess that New York and LA haven’t noticed.”

“They will. In fact, they don’t know it, but they have.” In fact, it was the already the basis for the FX crime drama The Bridge. We had just walked across that bridge.

Our largest amount of time was spent on an analysis of Griffin’s current baseball coach, a sociopath Robert attested. I won’t go into all the details of the coach’s lies and misdemeanors, but for instance, Griffin had gotten stitches for a ball smashed at him so hard during a practice that it melded his lip to his teeth and he had been denied his rightful shot at being game captain time and time again, likely because he plays the same position (third base) as the coach’s son.

Robert explained all this in terms of Carlos Castaneda, a fable he was also tailoring for Griffin. “The guy lacks an assemblage point. He’s closed. There’s no way to get to him. I told Griffin to tough it out. He’d be stronger for it. But where there’s no assemblage point, a person is not educable or changeable. Plus there’s lots of politics in Texas kid baseball as it is. Some teams recruit ringers from Waco or Laredo, and a kid who’s better comes along, the other kid is gone; that’s what we’re competing against. Some of these teams from Laredo and the border, the ten-year-olds are shaving.”

We headed to our place at 6:00 PM to meet our hosts. I should explain that in May I had suspended our homeexchange.com listing because I was tired of telling wannabe exchange partners that we had sold our Berkeley house and were leaving town (we almost never got inquiries for our Maine house). However when our house sale got pushed later into June (as the first potential buyer bailed after reading seismic and inspection reports), our Austin connection for a place to stay also fell through. The window for David Lauterstein at either his massage school or house passed with the month of June, and any bed-and-breakfast or inn was going to cost about $1500 for the week.

For the last few years, I had almost always come up with great options, meaning great people and great places, on either craigslist or homeexchange, which was what I needed then for Austin. So I spent several hours one morning in a timeout from packing, renewing our membership and extracting the Berkeley house and its photos from our listing.

Once I was back in and able to operate, I cut and pasted a request for a Maine exchange, simultaneous or nonsimultaneous, on twenty Austin listings (out of ninety on the site). I got a surprising seven positive responses but only one that lined up with the right dates and also had a respondent who followed up the initial back-and-forth. Furthermore, she and her family didn’t need a place to stay in Maine—they had relatives on Mount Desert—but they were willing to let us stay in their extra room. I still sought the ritual of a trade, and that turned out to be the informal “potlatch” of books and peaches.

They are a couple in the general age range of our kids with a daughter exactly the age of our oldest grandson, Leo. I won’t use their names in this blog in order to keep bystanders and civilians anonymous. The connection may have been completely random but, once we got there and began talking, we discovered that we had met the guy’s father and stepmother at a brunch the previous fall on Mount Desert, at the house of Bob Gallon, a forensic psychologist that North Atlantic is publishing. Gallon and our host’s father teach together at the senior college.

Later we discovered another connection—that, as a graduate-student architect, our host had gone to see a close associate of ours, alternative technologist and biochemist John Todd, in Burlington, Vermont, where John now teaches. Though he hadn’t hooked up with John directly, he did see one of his living machines on the roof of a local building.

I had taught with John at Goddard in the mid-seventies, and then we packaged one of his and his wife Nancy’s books for Sierra Club; we later republished it under North Atlantic. John was on the North Atlantic nonprofit board for many years, and he employed our son Robin on Cape Cod for two summers building alternative sewer systems (he is now a forty-five-year-old historical geographer and environmental biologist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute). So we and our new friends logged in at well under six degrees of separation.

The eight-year-old was ready for us; she handed out gift necklaces she had made and insisted on helping carry in our things, though most were on the heavy side for her. Then she showed us around the house while introducing us to the three resident cats, the oldest of which, Dante, spends most of his time sauntering between the Scratch Lounge and a mostly collapsed cloth dollhouse. On our last day in Austin, Robert, Katey, and Griffin came to visit. Robert observed the situation and said, “So he’s got two properties and occupies both.”

Our hosts were not only home-exchange partners; they were wonderful company, as we enjoyed their graciousness, hospitality, wry humor, reggae music, lightness, live chickens, vegetable garden, beneath-the-surface guide to Austin, and daily ceremony as a family.

(Another offshoot BTW of re-listing on homeexchange.com was that, within an hour, I got a billion-in-one request for a trade with Toronto for our Maine house on exactly the days we are planning to pass through Toronto.)

It is very very hot in Austin in July, at least on this year’s passage—mid to high nineties. It feels like a blast of sauna whenever you leave the air-conditioned indoors; it can be dizzying. The second day our car thermometer, when we left the vehicle parked in the sun, hit 111, and a lot of food inside melted. But it isn’t bad: it’s climate, way over our heads, and people make due. To me it feels like New York City many long summers long ago.

The house is located in a creative development east of town called Agave—you can look the particulars up online (http://austinmodernliving.com/agave-austin-nine-sixty-nine-969-modern-homes.php, for one). Most of the homes are uniquely designed and then crafted for a modern, modular Santa Fe look, lots of rare adobe colors (purples, mauves, browns, lavenders), creative placement of glass, stacked box-like sections, and unusual angles, also with houses and lots not at right angles to each other. The whole scenario overlooks the city from the eastern hills. Planes from the airport cross here low at night.

The first day we followed directions to downtown, which is four to five miles and twenty-five minutes by car. We took MLK (formerly 19th Street and Highway 969) into the city itself. Then we turned left where MLK dead-ends at Lamar. In thirteen blocks we ended up at Lamar and 6th, which is the location of both Bookpeople of Austin and Whole Foods (the flagship store, as the chain began and has its corporate offices here). Bookpeople is like the late Cody’s Books of Berkeley, and its survival in situ is symptomatic of the transmigration of souls: Austin can support readers that Berkeley can’t anymore. And its customers are willing to abjure Amazon. Berkeley meanwhile is part of the techie empire, one of many Texas-California paradoxes, given the politics otherwise. Cody’s and Shambhala are long gone. Moe’s barely survives.

After lunch at Bookpeople and a food run at Whole Foods, we continued to the Colorado River, found a dubiously legal parking place, and walked on the trail alongside the water. The landscape and air had a Mark Twain tang, as though we had truly left the southwest and were approaching the lush Mississippi.

After our walk, we got majorly lost trying to find the Lauterstein-Conway Massage School on Burnet (a major thoroughfare that our GPS wouldn’t admit was even a street in Austin). We had to ask directions three times, and after trying to apply each amateur explanation of how to go, we seemed somehow only to get farther away. It took three employees at a Holiday Inn, willingly sucked into our plight and debating with each other the best and most understandable route, to finally get us there. Even they changed their advised map twice before setting us on a consensus course. We had left ninety minutes early for a fifteen-minute drive and barely got there in time.

I had never met David. He is a Facebook friend. Plus years, perhaps decades ago, he had submitted a somatics manuscript to North Atlantic that I regretted not accepting. It was eventually published as Deep Tissue Massage by Complementary Medicine Press. We succeeding in meeting him at the school, as agreed, at four, and our connection soon opened to a delightfully improvised afternoon and evening. David is a kindred spirit, sharing many crosscurrents with us, someone we had (in a sense) known all along without knowing. His school is also one of the premier bodywork training centers in the country, and it was an honor to be his guests there. As we sat in his office chatting for a while, my favorite moment was when he described moving to Austin from his native Chicago and first realizing that he could actually live there, “just the way,” he added, “I thought about my wife-to-be after I met her: Can I love this woman? I think I can.”

We Would see why later when we left our car at its 111 degrees in the school lot and went with him to his nearby house to meet Julie for dinner. She is both elegant and wickedly wry. I don’t think that Laura Dern is quite the actress to play her, but it’s in the right direction. Like us, she and David are a mildly mixed marriage, mild at least by today’s standards. He is Jewish; she is Protestant (Methodist), while Lindy is Episcopalian, but her mother was raised Methodist. Taller than her spouse, Julie Harper Lauterstein is as Texas as Lindy is Colorado.
Before heading to the house, we had arranged to pay David for a split zero-balancing session at the end of his workday, so we each got a half-hour treatment. Good palpation is as profound and “other” as a dream-state, and this was no exception. David’s art found the dream of the body wound within the accumulated tension of so much driving and life transformation. Half the time I was in a trance rooted in the skeletal system and some of my lost alter egos; half the time I was tracking his work and trying to discern skilled techniques.

Much of what we try to do in dreams, likewise in sex, art, prayer, and shamanic journeying, is to seek our unconscious bodies and give them a conscious body too.

After we joined Julie at their house, they took us to dinner at a fancy Mexican restaurant called Fonda San Miguel. It had fountains, spaciousness, high ceilings, and its walls were filled with art like a museum.

Not knowing the source of the meat (as the waiter didn’t either, even after inquiring of the chef), I took Julie’s lead and ordered squash stuffed with goat-cheese/corn gruel. Quite worth it, though she made the point with the waiter that they should know things like where their meat comes from, and that led to our exchanging stories about the topic, e.g., how much of the unit at Abu Ghraib had formerly worked together at the same chicken factory in West Virginia where they spiced their recreational by throwing birds against the walls, mutilating them alive.

The next morning we made plans to meet Neil and Elizabeth Carman for lunch. North Atlantic authors (Cosmic Cradle: Spiritual Dimensions of Life Before Birth), they had rented the downstairs of our Berkeley house two summers ago when we were in Maine to get out of the Austin heat. We reconnected at a typical (for them) choice, Casa de Luz, the dining area of a spiritual school for all ages near where we had walked along the Colorado the day before. Macrobiotic with a fixed menu, it was not very good (the corncobs were dry and the soup tasteless); it made Potala, the Tibetan macrobiotic fixed-menu place in Berkeley, seem like Chez Panisse by comparison, but it was healthy, and we were there for the company not the food.

Neil and Elizabeth are a little younger than Lindy and me and they have one main topic which they handle at post-graduate level: the communications of souls who have just passed as they talk about the change of worlds as well as the very different communications of souls who are waiting to be born and establishing connections with their desired parents (or trying psychically to find the right family and close the deal). The couple has researched thousands of the latter such incidents, hence their book with us.

On souls maintaining a link after death, they were particularly excited that day by a new book, The Afterlife of Billy Fingers, written by Billy’s sister Annie Kagan (Billy Fingers is her nickname for her so-called bad-boy brother). According to the Carmans, this is the most paradigm-shattering account of a passage beyond death ever, though I wonder if they know the full available oeuvre of nineteenth-century pioneer researcher Frederick Myers.

The main thing about Neil and Elizabeth is that they so firmly and unshakingly (and good-humoredly) believe in a karmic, reincarnational universe that they bring contact recognition with them. In their presence, everything about one’s own life falls into cosmic perspective: this whole Earth journey (with its mini-odysseys, road trips, etc.) becomes part of the greater overall pilgrimage of souls through the universe’s many realities, aspects, frequencies, states of awakening and going back to sleep, and sub-cosmoses across an unknown, profound, and emergent realm that could only be dubbed All That Is.

Neil’s day job is quite a contrast. A chemical botanist by training, he has worked for years for Clean Air Texas and the Texas Sierra Club, mainly to help close down coal plants (nationally but mostly in Texas). He helps fight permits and file lawsuits and prepares testimony for court appearances. In general, he opposes rate increases that would give the plants more operating capital as well as buy off their inefficiencies. “The plants are old technology, dinosaurs,” he told us with the same wide-eyed, ingenuous good humor when discussing the incarnation of souls, as if they and the improvement of the energy grid were calibers of the same ultimately sanguine outcome. He noted that just a few years ago it seemed impossible that anti-coal forces would make a dent or close a single plant, plus the Bush administration was proposing 200 new units in a rush to achieve US energy independence. But both the economics and technology had changed breathtakingly fast. Only a few of those 200 were ever built (including one or two unfortunately in Texas), while 165 plants, thirty-five percent of the entire US coal fleet, had been shut down in that same time. “Coal plants only turn about thirty percent of their output into useable energy,” Neil said; “the rest, seventy percent, is just lost. $85 million worth of coal burned a year now produces less electricity than the same amount of money invested in solar and wind. San Antonio needs about a billion dollars to clean the scrubbers of their Deely coal plant built in the eighties, but they can generate the same amount of electricity from solar for a fraction of that cost.”

When I told Robert Phoenix about this discussion, he asked me if Neil had provided information what happened to the coal-plant workers. “No, he didn’t. I imagine that there are a lot of individual stories and outcomes.”

Robert rejoined, “I’m betting that, for every coal plant shut down, three of four meth labs spring up.”

When I presented this exchange to our Austin host, he added, “More likely they’re fracking or working natural gas.”

When I passed all this baner on to Neil, he differed, “No, that’s part of the negotiation. Some get retirement with severance pay; some get re-trained; it’s not perfect, but it’s not like they suddenly close the plant and kick the employees out on the street. They can’t do that.”

Robert (BTW) told some good fracking stories—I mean there are no good fracking stories, but they’re ghoulishly engaging, like companies convincing families to have water carted in for their drinking pleasure so that their engineers can turn the local supply into industrial use only. Then there was the friendly guy at a Jim’s who told Bob he’s had a wife with Alzheimers at home and an oil well in West Texas that earns him just as much by selling the water around it for fracking. “I admired the guy until I realized he was an oilman. ‘I guess I am,’ he said when I put the question to him.”

Barton Springs, mythologized in a Slaid Cleaves song (“New Year’s Day”), was close to our lunch site, so Lindy and I planned to go swimming there afterwards. Neil was quick with not just directions but a lot of information: “Sixty-eight degrees year round, the length of two football fields, huge aquifers under Austin of which Barton is a major vent, a million gallons of fresh water per minute….” However, what he didn’t know was that the pool is closed on Thursdays for cleaning, so we joined a host of other disappointed folks, many of them tourists, staring in from outside the gates. A good number of locals, however, were swimming beyond the legal boundaries in the outflow. I still find a million gallons per minute hard to fathom, let alone believe. Lindy and I wavered on whether to join the illegal swimmers but finally decided to leave Barton for the next day.

One thing I have mused about all along and that also drew us to allot six days to Austin: how so many people who have never been here speak of it as an oasis in Texas as if an anomaly. Now I don’t think that that’s quite accurate except that the area is literally an underground sea. Actually Texas itself is both awakening and alive and Austin is merely the harbinger and external manifestation of something much larger.

In the evening we and our hosts went out to dinner at Hillside Farmacy and then together to hear Slaid Cleaves perform at the Cactus Café on the University of Texas campus. Lindy and I have been listening to Slaid since he did a homecoming concert at the Grand in Ellsworth, Maine, in 2002. A songwriter/folksinger on the Portland and southern Maine circuit in his earlier youth, he had moved to Austin to apprentice at the roots of his sound a few years before the homecoming. Even then (at the Grand) he was as much Texas as Maine: blended landscapes, politics, and chords, plus all-out Texas yodeling. By now he had become an Austin mainstay, packing a sold-out lounge space of about 100 on his farewell night before departing on three months of US and international touring.

Slaid is good enough to have not only a loyal local following but pretty much fill venues across the US and Europe every year. He is either playing in Austin or touring most of the time. He is also good enough to have become more famous than he is. In our winner-take-all society I think of him as perhaps the best unknown songwriter/country-and-western singer going, if you take into account both the quality of his work and its relative degree of obscurity.

Slaid’s language is fresh and politically astute at subtle levels; he mixes words and melodies effortlessly, and he has a natural feeling for the depth of human longing, loss, and pain. He also has an authentic warble or twang that descends into the soul: a mysterious combination of song and voice that, each in his or her own way, marks the greats: Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Bob Dylan, Jolson, Sarah Vaughn, Bobby Darin, Willie Nelson. I am not saying that Slaid resembles any of them in any way. I am saying that he does more than pen and croon country and western ballads. He puts his heart and full being into the songs, and people hear that, recognize the authenticity, and want to be around it. You can check his out lyrics online or watch him play on youtube. For instance: “On a corner, trembling in the wind/Amazed at the mess they’re in” or “You’ll never see those blue skies/through young eyes again.” Or a recent gospel:

“It ain’t the silver, It ain’t the bronze
It doesn’t matter, Whose team you’re on
No precious metal, Will save your soul
But if you seek glory, Go for the gold.”

         With graying hair now at fifty, Slaid has reached his prime, and the audience knows it and responds accordingly, lots of repartee and encores, including unplugging the mikes for the last number and going among the audience. He played two great sets July 10th with local guitarist Scrappy Judd Newcomb. Both of them walked the crowd for the final number.

It was gratifying to get to see Slaid on his home turf, as we told him between sets when he went outside to mingle. He knew about our long road trip from my emails, and he offered to sing one—only one—of three songs I requested: Oh Roberta, which is not by him but his protégé Graham Weber. Great song: “Used to think I was something, / I’m still something I suppose” and “I’m here clear left of center on the unridable road, / Wish I knew the way / that I was ’sposed to go, / But I’m still the same old fool you used to know. / Oh Roberta, where have you gone?”

Slaid introduced the song with the following repartee with Scrappy. “This is for our friends Richard and Lindy who are stopping by tonight on their road trip from Berkeley, California, to Portland, Maine.”

Scrappy: “That’s far.”

Slaid: “Farther even than we’re going on tour, buddy.”

A back story of the evening was that I misread the email from our hosts and thought that they had reserved seats for all four of us, whereas they thought that we already had our own seats. Since the show was sold out, Lindy and I spent an anxious forty-five minutes mingling at the door, trying to get a note to Slaid. I even did a psychic exercise to help salvage things, while our new friends were offering to sell us their tickets and go elsewhere. None of that was necessary (well maybe the exercise helped). The ticket taker, when she finally appeared in front of the line, heard Lindy’s explanation and lament and waved off her note to Slaid. She sold us two tickets on the spot and then sent us in at the front of a long line made up of those who already had purchased tickets. We were the first ones in the room and saved four seats in the second row.

Once Lindy and I prioritized Barton Springs early the next afternoon, Neil and Elizabeth decided to meet us there. 95-degree air and 68-degree water were a perfect combination. The fresh-running spring, whether it actually delivers a full million whatever per minute, eliminates the necessity for chlorine and keeps the water clean. In fact Barton is really a large pond with native salamanders in its reeds and the mud below. Posted signs warn you not to disturb their habitat.

The scene was reminiscent of many a bathing site from my life (Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, hotel pools, Vermont glacial ponds, and Maine and New York State lakes). Only a dollar each for us to get in as seniors, followed by an open-air changing room, which relieved some of the funereal quality of an all-ages dressing zone. Walls alone protected privacy.

Barton’s water is quite alive and charged, homeopathic no doubt, not as cold as Maine lakes but plenty startling. I felt a transformation as well as a healing crisis from the core on out, especially swimming underwater with my eyes open: a murky underworld.

I went in three separate times and in between lay on the grass under the trees with Lindy and our friends. As Rudolf Steiner (among others) has pointed out, water brings in astral energy and fills this plane with a mystical, joyful energy, pretty much wherever it is (bar of course a ship in a storm at sea or a hurricane hitting land).

We had to hurry back to the house to get ready for watching Dave Insley play solo at the grill of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin—a 6-8 stint at which we were also meeting an unknown, distant relative of my generation from my mother’s father’s side of the family. Since I never met my genetic father and know nothing of his lineage, my mother’s mother’s family is the only blood genealogy I have had. But Ellen Rothkrug gave me a family tree by email, the first I ever had of my mother’s father’s line. Our shared ancestor was our great-great-grandfather Ezra. Ellen’s line was via Ezra’s son Abraham, as were the only other Rothkrugs I had met other than my mother and her brothers and their families: a cluster in Great Neck, New York. We, on the other hand, came through Ezra’s son Nathan.

Ellen’s father had moved from Brooklyn to Amarillo, decided to be no longer Jewish in response to the Holocaust, married a Catholic, then raised his kids Catholic and Texan. Ellen was so Texan in fact that she had promised to bring along her friends Willie Nelson’s granddaughter and Kinky Friedman (of the mystery novels like Elvis, Jesus, and Coca Cola and Kill Two Birds & Get Stoned, and the music group “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys”), but when she arrived at the Driskill with only an old college friend, she said that Kinky wasn’t answering his phone and Willie’s granddaughter was too busy. It’s a wonder she didn’t offer to bring her other friend, Wendy Davis.

I felt bad for Dave. It can’t be fun playing for people who are sitting around clinking cocktail glasses, chatting, telling jokes, ordering again from the bar, and not listening or even noticing the guy in the cowboy hat stroing a guitar at a mike. But Dave said that he likes the gig, only a few blocks walk from his house, so he plays it often. He did mostly covers in the first set: Merle Haggard, Statler Brothers, Johnny Mercer, Willie Nelson.

Before the set, he greeted Lindy and me enthusiastically. After being introduced to his songs on WERU in Maine about nine years ago, we had gone to hear him and his band The Careless Smokers at a brewery in Santa Rosa (the tour dates and venues were on his website). The following year, North Atlantic had enough of a profit to do philanthropy, and we gave $5000 to WERU to invite him and the band to the station’s Full Circle Fair in Blue Hill. That turned us and Dave into friends and got us hanging out together a bit in Maine. We hadn’t seen him since, till he came in with his big Stetson July 11th and gave us a hug.

It wasn’t entirely comfortable visiting with Ellen and her friend, too much small-talk and endless over-amped conversation. After a while it was one or the other so, without any more in common between us than 1/32nd DNA, I separated for the second set and went to the bar to focus on Dave. Lindy soon joined me, promising Ellen we’d reconnect afterward.

Mr. Insley is a good songwriter himself, funny and soulful and, after we got into the vicinity, he played a lot of his own stuff for us, including his masterpiece Other Trails to Ride. “I don’t do this for just anyone, you know,” he whispered.

Here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago:

Consider these lines from “Other Trails to Ride”; it starts: “Put me on my favorite pony / Point us toward the settin’ sun. / Please make sure my hat’s tipped right / And there’s bullets in my gun….” Then: “Give my weary mind a rest and let my spirit sleep.” This death song only gets more awesome: “When this ol’ paint comes back alone / Give him oats and give him hay./ Brush him down and turn him out/and put my tack away.”

Step aside; the man is on a song-writing roll: “Know how much I loved the road that I’ve been down with you / and all them pretty sunflowers and all the hard miles too… and “I loved you in your waking hours, / Now I’ll love you in your dreams.”

Then he tosses out the magic invocation, the hope and wish, the terror and haunting too, for life on Earth since the Ice Age shaman found the planetary mind inside himself and peered into the darkness, from where he heard an answer coming back that we still hear, listen or not: “Even though you can’t see me, / I’m still here by your side.”

After the show, Ellen took pictures of Lindy and me on the steps of the Driskill. It is a fancy piece of the old West, and the gauntlet from there there to where we parked our car a few block away was like a honkytonk version of North Beach: girls in bikinis and hot pants alongside aggressively confrontative and bored, goofy barkers trying to lure in tourists, even getting in your face with their antics if you try to slip by (Lindy played along because she’s good at that, but I’m not and didn’t, so she teased me too, making for a double whammy), loud bands overlapping in the night air, a new one coming in from a rooftop stage as a prior one begins to fade from ground level, then repeats of the sequence. “That’s why it’s called ‘Dirty Sixth,’” our host explained later “the part of Sixth Street you were on.”

Lots of great ideas but limited energy to enact them all, so the next day, Saturday, we focused on the Blanton Art Museum at the University of Texas. It is hard to say much about a random part of collection viewed in a museum in this type of narrative. Either you say a whole lot about the specific works, singling out key pieces or you check the “art museum, generic” box and move on. I’ll try to find a middle road.

First of all, what stood out as special was the border art by, no surprise, El Paso artists: a statue of a “coyote” carrying a woman across the Rio Grande, the figures coated in automobile-chrome colors; likewise a sculpture of a rodeo event, the bull and cowboy both with demonic lamp-lit eyes, other smaller figures below (like an owl and captive rabbit) extending the rodeo theme into a general statement about predator and prey in nation and border and relations.

What mostly struck me about the museum was context—how much you are always looking at that more than content—more than individual works. First of all, there is the context that puts an image or object in an aesthetic setting of one sort or another, which applies to every object in a museum in some way or other. Then (nowadays) conceptual art is mixed with old-fashioned representational art at almost every major venue, and the two open sets overlap without any sort of disclaimer about their odd miscegenation. That is the second context, the way in which every piece of art puts the art around it into a different context. In that regard, I took a picture from inside a room of Greek sculptures of Lindy looking at modern expressionist art in an adjacent room. Elsewhere Peruvian whistling jugs morphed into Renaissance representations of Mary and Jesus and the Crucifixion and Beatification, the other way into North American Indian artifacts, sculptures built out of Nigerian beer-can metal, and a continuously running loop of a Korean woman listening to and then mimicking, I think it was Lightning Hopkins, as what he was singing about, lady-lover ghosts, got turned into some sort of occult Korean dirge. Since all of this stuff gets integrated in one’s brain and imagination at the same time, the various pieces form a collective background for each other and frame their meanings.

Then there is the context of their all being in a University of Texas art museum and what that says about the flow of resources in modernity.

Three other things: it struck me, while looking at Italian representations of God, Jesus, and Mary, that the fundamentalist, holy-roller notion of God as a wise or stern old man is deeply imbedded culturally. The projection of other wise or stern old men onto the space that God supposedly occupies outside of ordinary time and space drives authoritarian and punitive belief systems and religious self-righteousness. It is not as though God for them is ever a swirling alphabet or genderless beam of light. They behave as though he was always a gringo judge on the Supreme Court, and that’s how the mainstream Renaissance saw him too.

Caesar Augustus in his rendering by an anonymous Roman sculptor is modern and empathic enough to be a Western Buddha or Thomas Jefferson, and he underlies images invoked by Charles Olson in his poem “The Distances,” a mystery trope I memorized and iconicized back in college. Now I saw “old Caesar” and “young Augustus” in another medium and thought about my passage through life from the age of Augustus back when I first read the poem in high school to the age of Caesar now. Ten years older than Olson himself, our patriarch, when he died.

A lot of modern art, even going back into the mid-twentieth century, is made up of parts of hyperobjects in the sense that Timothy Morton (whom we will meet in a few days) uses the term. That is, the artist presents only the portion of a much greater reality that he can grasp or access, but the portion is constructed in such a way as to key its meaning contained in an unseen reality which in itself is more massively distributed in time and space, yet also viscous enough to stick to every onlooker like the tar baby, especially in ways that it doesn’t exist materially, ways that are primarily unconscious. In the Blanton, two works of a Persian woman’s op-art-like paintings were especially hyperobjective, having no meaning except to jar one’s visual optics, optical cortex, and brain into a state of axiomatic uncertainty.

Hard to believe, but we missed Dave Insley and the Careless Smokers at the White Horse. It came from trying to get dinner at the Thai Fresh restaurant before his concert, which was 7:30 to 9:00. We started too late, got lost looking for the restaurant, then had to double-back on the I35 access road, plus we had to wait a very long time for the food.

However while headed toward Thai Fresh, crossing over the Colorado River on the Congress Street Bridge, Lindy remembered that the bats come out there at sunset, a much celebrated nightly event. Pretty certain by then that we would not finish eating in time for the concert, we calculated that we might well be re-crossing the bridge at the bat’s hour. In fact, we were approaching it at 8:20—July 12th sunset in Austin (according to the cell phone) was 8:35:09. As we reached the bridge, Lindy caught on faster than me that this was no incidental deal and the milling crowds were for something big. People were gathering in droves for the event, and they were parking in the Austin American Statesman lot right before the bridge. You see, I misread a sign and thought that they were gathering and parking for a high-school performance of Oklahoma! By the time I understood, I had passed the entrance and was headed over the bridge. I had to turn around on a dead-end side-street at the river and then double-back, a time-consuming event that took us almost to sunset.

A security guard was waving cars in to the Austin American—it was all on the up and up; another was helping people park as if it were a sporting event, and there was no charge. Then we joined in a football- or baseball-like throng leaving our respective cars. The crowd divided. A cadre of people headed right for the bridge; others got themselves seated on a small grass knoll facing the bridge foundation on the southeast side under an Austin American Statesman Bats banner, probably about 150 there, many with cell phone lenses raised expectantly or movie cameras on tripods.

The river itself was filled with waiting boats, kayaks, and even a large ferry. Up above, the pedestrian walkway of the near side of the bridge was packed too and, just as we were trying to decide whether to go for the meadow or the bridge, a spot opened up in the upper crowd and we went for it: the bridge.

You had to wonder if the bats would perform on schedule or if they were even perhaps intimidated by the mob. If this happened every night, perhaps they were inured by now.

Time passed, and nothing happened; yet the crowd seemed undeterred and anticipatory, as though the appearance was inevitable. Those bats were going to come out, no matter.

It was about fifteen minutes past sunset when the first creatures appeared—the unmistakably erratic flying-mammal dance in twilight. After that, it was batmania. They came from under the bridge in such great numbers and moving so rapidly that it was like looking at a moiré pattern rather than individual animals. The exodus was hard to see, let alone photograph in dusk, though flash bulbs were going off everywhere. The wave became a swarm, angling over the river and then traveling in the fading light behind buildings on the horizon, looking like successive swarms of mosquitos. Every time I looked under the bridge, the wave of emerging bats was still undulating, which meant hundreds more per second were emerging. Every time I turned to the far-off buildings, I saw ebbing and waning phases of a heliacal swarm diffusing into the city, ostensibly to hunt the by-ways by night. No, they were hardly intimidated. They might have even enjoyed the audience in their way, a sort of fellow-mammal confirmation of their way of life and nocturnal motif.

I can’t tell you how many bats emerged overall: certainly thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands; it hardly matters. It was the human mirroring of the event that stands out.

I think that it says something, not unrelated to the art museum but much more powerful, that this many people wanted to see bats emerge at dusk—a natural event masking an alien intelligence behind it. After all, it wasn’t Batman they were gathered for or looking at; it was bats themselves, though maybe the two have a prior interreferentiality, as if to say, “I know that we won’t see Batman, but maybe bats are his original force-field and closer to my heart anyway.”

The need to have the natural world mean something, to speak to us, to have the unseen real make itself visible in its proximal aspects, to display as the dark goddess and the pagan veil, is profound and unquenchable enough. For all the superheroes and video games and sporting events and guns, here was something spiritually and nakedly inspirational: a cross-section of the secular populace acknowledging the indelible meaning and essential beauty and mystery of another mind, a vortex of nature buried in their city. Coming out of a cultural artifact adapted for their prehuman ritual, the bats redefined space itself with their bodies and hard-wired skills, redefined life and what it means to be here on this planet and feed. Meanwhile the gathering said that humans are not too far gone during this phase of their video-game, virtual-reality, cash-and-carry commodity obsessions and accompanying mega-extinction of the Earth’s biology to appreciate the planet itself, the Greek gods of nature, at a vestigial level. It doesn’t help much, but it doesn’t hurt either. It’s a quantum of payback for civilization worth of betrayal but at least that.

I think that “Bats on the Congress Street Bridge at Sunset Show” also says something about civic dignity and pride—that there is energy and belief and innocence enough to look and feel awe and wonder without the requisite postmodern imposition of irony, cynicism, commercialization, exploitation, and blind arrogance. It says as much about this place, Austin, as Bookpeople still flourishing or Slaid Cleaves packing the Cactus Café. Austin is not just a vanguard and oasis but a homeopathic dose of what is needed to replace all that meth and coal someday, somewhere. The transmigration of souls in Texas indeed!

 

Houston

The Houston freeways and toll roads are fast-moving and more complex, challenging, and terrifying than the LA freeways. People seem to believe in their bubbles more fervidly. One keeps getting confronted with having to move over a lane to the left so to not be in an exit lane, while other drivers, pedaling at 70+ will not let you in, on principle. It’s routinely a lane shift and a prayer. Drivers pass on the right at startlingly high speed, everywhere and without warning or concern, even where there isn’t a lane. Markers to tell you what lane to be in for what road and shift are painted on the pavement in front of progress rather than on long-view signage above. And there are many local lane-permission euphemisms about fast-trak, HOV only (High Occupancy Vehicles) not immediately obvious to us). It adds up deficits in the nervous system until you are exhausted and want to scream, “Let me out of here! How did I drive into this road-rage nightmare?”

What is notable about Texas in general is new construction everywhere. No depression or recession or stagnation here, no sulking while blaming Obama. They can’t build stuff fast enough. Cranes, cranes, cranes, like landers from War of the Worlds. And Houston’s vast medical complex with its idiosyncratically and exotically architected sky-scrapers, some circular and webbed, is really a city within a city; it looks like the skyline from a planet circling Alpha Centauri.

Rick Perry may be a lackey for the bosses, but when he sells Texas abroad, say in JBrown’s California, he’s got a legitimate tailwind and serious McMoney backup. Even rads like Robert Phoenix admit that California is a hopeless tangle of maddening regulations and red tape, for them! Can you imagine what it’s like for a big-footprint corporation.

In El Paso, people either locked their doors or (more often) didn’t when leaving their houses for a spell. No big deal either way. As Bobby pointed out, each block is a small community and much of its life takes place on the street, so neighborhood watch is implicit and fundamental, like who the fuck is that dude wandering through the barbecue?

In Houston it’s the opposite. Everyone is locking their door and sometimes a double-door as if it were Baghdad and the Sunni invaders could be here any second. You don’t go in the backyard without making sure that at least one of the front doors even has a bolt in place. And I am speaking about autonomic behavior rather than actual concern. No one really expects trouble; it’s a habit and a mood. It was explained to me that this precaution has a lot, but not everything, to do with the 250,000 refugees from New Orleans and Katrina (with Louisiana educations, morals, and chutzpah) that this city had to absorb in about a week: school system, social services, hospitals, jails. Home invasion robberies are common enough to have gestated a general level of vigilance and paranoia. It has been both hinted at and confided to me that the rogues are all black people who have no manners, ethics, or scruples, pure L’siana. This may or may not be the case, I mean the source and prevalence of the myth; I am just sharing hearsay. If these dudes want the contents of an ATM, say, they steal a pickup, park a block away, tie a chain to the machine, pull it out of the wall with their stolen vehicle, leaving behind debris and collateral damage to the structure (and, later, the stolen pickup). They put the ATM and accompanying chain and cement in their own car for later deconstruction, and vamoose. Louisiana kids are two to four grades behind their age level and consistently turn down their school lunches with lines like, “We don’t eat this shit.” When told that his Katrina benefits might be cut off, one half-smiling, unabashed chap told a reporter, “If they cut my benefits, I’m gonna have to get my hustle back on.”

Of course I experienced none of this directly, only the apocalyptic travel corridor, generating fender benders, stalled trucks, and ambulances. Not an epidemic by any means but a steady enough algorithm to let you know people are driving too fast in their abstracted air-conditioned bubbles.

It was a 162.2 miles from our Austin hosts’ front door to the front door of our friends in Charlestown Colony, Bear Creek, suburban Houston, and that includes a spell of getting lost after Interstate 10. We detoured further south to Houston (instead heading through Dallas, the more direct route to Maine); we did so for two particular, very different reasons because it was really out of our way and we faced a huge haul north.

First, we wanted to meet two authors, who are professors at Rice University, Jeffrey Kripal and Timothy Morton. Second, we wanted to visit Bill and Paula Blakeslee.

These have quite disparate back stories. Bill worked in the convention department of Grossinger’s, my father’s hotel, in the late seventies when we visited regularly from Vermont and (that once) from California. He is thirteen years younger than us and back then was a man in his early twenties at his first gig (out of Elmira-Corning, New York, by way of a job fair at his college, SUNY at Delhi, hired before he even graduated, initially to kitchen preparation, but he later persuaded them that he was management material). That was when Lindy met him while she was using my stepmother’s office in which to write during our visits there. Their conjunction created a bit of a magical anima-animus thing; she wrote a short story about it and him, gave it to him, and also signed and gifted a book of her poems. Approximately thirty years passed. We moved to California, and Grossinger’s went out of business. It was a big surprise when, in the mid aughts, Bill tracked Lindy down online and told her how he had reread and valued those poems of hers over the years. In 2008 he came to the Bay Area with his wife Paula and visited with us in Berkeley. We don’t share a large thought realm, but we had enough of an overlapping sector of American pop culture for happy conversation, plus Lindy is intuitive on people anyway. Bill is, to work an overworked cliché, the nicest guy in the world—gracious, generous, receptive, open-minded, thoughtful not just at random moments but as a general practice. If anyone is inconvenienced or he gets in their way, he apologizes with credible sincerity even if the misstep it’s not his doing. He treats his employees royally like family. He will even drive a worker lacking a vehicle to his or her home at the end of the day. He still plays pick-up basketball with much younger guys. One of his favorite comments is “There you go!” That’s a nice guy’s signature phrase; the kindness is in the blood.

He told us that his father once said to him, “‘You bring me gifts, fill my car with gas, wash it, vacuum it, leave me beer, mow my lawn, do the edging with the clippers. You are a decent kid. Your brothers drink my beer, eat my food, use up the gas in my car, leave a mess, and then ask for money to get them home.’ And I didn’t solicit that from Dad. He just said it.”

Bill runs Del Vecchio Foods, which is—there is no other way to put it—a sausage factory. It is located in the Chinatown/Japantown district of Houston, when street signs are, I think, both Japanese and Chinese as well as English, though I am not a quick study on the different graphemes.

You might wonder (but probably not) how, in this bizarre samsara, one goes from the Tree of Life to a sausage factory in the same pilgrimage within the same self-deigned labyrinth, but really, when you come right down to it, aren’t they both part of the same connected reality along with Juarez, Slaid Cleaves at the Cactus Café, the Scratch Lounge, and bats at twilight? I don’t think that the slaughtering and grinding up of pigs, decidedly non-range-fed pigs from Oklahoma at that, to fashion a variety of “all-natural” sausages is a wonderful thing in itself, but it is on the same vibration as all the rest of what is happening to us: the roads that got us here, the petrol products that make Texas Texas and the West the West, the vast infrastructure beneath “Messages from the Afterlife,” Tree of Life, Billy Fingers, the El Paso zendo. There’s no good and bad, right and wrong, as such at our level. We don’t suddenly leave the sacred for the secular or vice versa. This is all one phase, one big bell ringing in a one big spacious sky, generating one reality, for the Dalai Lama and al Qaeda both. All this stuff we are encountering, from Tree of Life to Del Vecchio Sausage, are somewhere in the vast American upper-middle-class middle ground and the Planet Earth physical-plane vibration.

When we got our tour of Del Vecchio’s Foods, what I saw were men in honest well-paid employment, supporting families, collaborating in a very cold room with good spirit and camaraderie, a bounce and spring in their step and repartee. That doesn’t help the pigs much, but you can’t cover every base, let alone all of them at the same time. There are plenty of other victims on the road from the Stone Age to civilization and prosperity, from the birth of the symbol through the migration of sentient beings into modernity.

Who was Del Vecchio to Blakeslee? Well, after Bill left Grossinger’s in 1979, he and his Elmira-Corning buddies discovered that there was no suitable work in New York State, so they migrated en masse to Houston (for mutual support and to keep their community intact). Bill met Paula while working food management for Exxon Chemical where she was an executive secretary to a vice-president.

Frank Vecchio (Del an ornamental preposition—“of” in Italian and Spanish) was Bill’s neighbor in Elmira (actually Big Flats, between Corning and Elmira); he followed the crew to Houston a few years later. First he tried industrial food service but didn’t like the bureaucracy and unforgiving in-step regimentation, so he proposed to the boys tackling something risky and entrepreneurial: “I can’t pay you much, but at least it will be ours.” He started the sausage factory in partnership with Bill but died of a heart attack two years later. Bill was heart-broken—he loved the guy, had known him since he was a teenager—so he bought out his widow and has been running the factory since.

Frank’s ashes rest in a case in the main office, though there aren’t many of them left despite that he was a full-sized man because thieves broke in and stole, among other things, the urn, spilling what didn’t go with it. What’s on the shelf had to be salvaged from the desk and floor.

In my sharing photos of Del Vecchio’s, you can see Bill, Lindy, and me dressed to enter the action zone, Lindy sniffing the oregano as Bill holds it out (very sweet in that quantity), then the men shaping raw materials into products on order.

The place is mainly about maintaining absolute coldness, keeping scrupulous records, and providing the little things for Government inspectors. The USDA even has its own desk and small office because someone from the agency is there all the time. Every movement of every batch of meat, whether sausaged yet or still raw ingredients, has to be tracked and catalogued. In fact, there are computer chips that retain the high and low experienced by every shipment of sausage and in every storage batch. In that context, there is a large -4 degrees storage chamber, a temperature that has become the industry standard in a very competitive business. You are selling negative degrees; it’s a big “extra,” a valuable commodity. Zero-degree trucks make up the company fleet.

Del Vecchio’s varieties of sausages are used in restaurants locally but travel as far as Boston and Washington State and are about to debut in Mexico City once the NAFTA-related paperwork is completed. This fare includes English bangers, classic Italian sausage, Argentinian style sausage (Bill’s bestseller, using the herb Aji Molito imported from Argentina itself), Cajun sausage, bratwurst, and pork ducken dressing.

The gist of the factory (again) is paperwork, as if a continuous scientific experiment were being conducted, except the experiment is life: a lot of ground-up pig (and some chicken, turkey, and duck). This fact has to be overlooked in order to maintain sanity, for employees too I think, but which of course registers karmically in the overall picture, meaning not on Bill’s conscience per se but all of ours, all of us who are in the game and surviving by consuming the metabolic and etheric energy of other life forms. As an Eskimo sage puts it:

“The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls like we do, souls that do not perish with the body, and which therefore must be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”
On our first full day in Houston, Paula ferried us to Del Vecchio’s for the full tour, then into the museum district. This was air-conditioned bubble-driving at its best, 70 mph, lots of sudden braking, with the car in front of almost bumper to bumper. When Paula changed lanes, she just did, letting the pieces fall. She liked to say to no one in particular (and without looking), “Thank you for being a gentleman,” or “Thank you, ma’am,” when the reality was usually the opposite.

We were ostensibly getting a taste of downtown, but we never saw anything like a New-York-style or even San Francisco urban cluster. Houston is a very spread-out place. In our three days there Lindy and I took three ordinary downtown trips, and it amounted to more than 150 miles. It’s usual to go thirty miles to shop or see friends on a combination of 10, 610, 59, and other roads.

That day we ultimately opted for the Asia Society Museum and Restaurant as our best option. That reminds me of another Texas thing: fairly fancy restaurants without waiters or waitresses (Thai Fresh in Austin, for instance, or Swad, the Hari Krishna Indian place where we went with Neil and Elizabeth our last night). You order at the cash register; they stick a number on your table, and then the food arrives. Add the Austin Art Museum, the Asia Society, and, later, Rice University to the list. Yeah, I know it’s common otherwise too, but it’s more startling at upscale places.

It was not easy finding the Asia Society, and we saw a lot of that part of downtown Houston in the process, also got in some high-heat-and-humidity walking. (There was however a brief torrential thunderstorm just after we arrived the day before, even continuing after the sun came back out brightly shining, a quickly disappear stream in the street.) I was particularly taken with the trolley—I tend like idiosyncratic public transports like the gondola linking upper and lower Quebec City. Houston has a major trolley line, so I took a picture of it and almost got run over. Also Lindy and I also had a bad moment when we mindlessly followed Paula into a street against a red light and encountered a stampede of cars. We had stopped thinking for ourselves; we went when she did.

The Asia Society featured a large, carefully curated exhibit entitled “Gods of India.” As we entered, a bunch of exuberant Indian school children and their chaperones were exiting in much disarray with bickering among them, especially across age gaps, grandmothers with their saris and jeweled faces shooing along veering tots.

The exhibit consisted of three versions of gods like Ganesh, Kali, Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, etc. The first was classic old paintings. The second was chromolithography on heavy paper with glitter. The third was giant modern photographs of Indian media stars (but also a stewardess and a CNBC anchor who became famous because of appearing in these very photographs) posing amid much paraphernalia and costuming as each of the gods. A bulletin board and post-its were provided for comments, and the kids we had just seen (or some kids) had participated. My favorite was Sameer’s: “I love the gods so much.” Many of the others proposed about the same, just not as superbly.

We hung out with Jeff and Tim for dinner that night and then on the Rice campus the next morning through lunch. Our dinner group included Jeff, Tim, their wives (both of which Lindy and I remember vividly but, unfortunately, namelessly), and Tim’s children, Claire (12, I think) and Simon (5). This girl and boy were more than patient; they were beatific, charming, articulate, elegant (they do brief daily meditation practice, a gentle training which no doubt helps). When we got together on the Rice Campus, they came along because it was, as Tim said, it was “Camp Daddy” day. The wives weren’t present for that (except Lindy).

During the two events we had a riveting, hilarious, also gritty running conversation that would be impossible to reproduce without notes. I would mainly like to herald and recommend both these guys’ works. Different from each other as they are, they are at the vanguard of an unnamed, post-deconstructionist new wave of academic (really anti-academic) intellectuals of a sort that Rice turns out to support happily without holding them gratuitiously hostage to the professional academic rules.

I met Jeff at a distance when a mutual friend, Bill Stranger, recommended him as an intro writer for the first volume of my book, Dark Pool of Light: Reality and Consciousness. Jeff came through big-time. I didn’t know his work at all, just knew that he was chairman of the Department of Religion at Rice and had written a history of Esalen Institute in Big Sur: The Religion of No Religion.

Then earlier this year while I was fine-tuning a revised edition of The Night Sky, Frederick Ware, an American architect working in France and a long-time reader of my books going back to the seventies and Spaces Wild and Tame, told me that I just had to check out this guy Timothy Morton on topic of hyperobjects on youtube. Though discovered as I was refining a final draft, Tim’s work quickly became integrated into a few key sections of my book; for instance, the chapter on “Quasars, Pulsars, and Black Holes” turned into “Quasars, Pulsars, Black Holes, and Hyperobjects.”

I sent an email to Jeff soon afterward and asked if he knew Timothy Morton, and he wrote back, “Like Tim’s just about my best friend here.”

Tim is relatively new at Rice (two years in Houston after UCDavis; before that, Oxford, Princeton, and Boulder). He was practicing not in the Religion or Philosophy but the English Department, teaching the Romantics and Victorians and How to Read a Poem among other things. Jeff by contrast had been at Rice twelve years, chairman of his department for eight (a stint just concluded).

It was in that series of email communications with Jeff and then our subsequent exchanges about re-routing our road trip through Houston that an evening got put together and given a firm date several months in advance. It was on the docket for so long that it became referred to “our epic dinner,” as Jeff refined details like time and directions, changing the former as our own timing changed. We both enjoyed the fact that it was absurd on the face of it: couple drives from Berkeley to Houston for a July 15th dinner with two albeit radical dudes. Yet it was an immovable bellwether, and other travel agendas and trajectories were set up in relation to it, as it was about a hundred miles closer to the Gulf of Mexico than we needed to go. Here is a synopsized favorite quote from Jeff’s Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, which I was reading on the road trip:

“It is almost as though the real needs the fake to appear at all, as if the fact relies on the fiction to manifest itself…. It is not as if the appearance of the sacred can be reduced to a simple trick, as if the shaman is just a sham. It is as if the sacred is itself tricky. Even the well-documented medical placebo, after all, is a fake that has real effects…. [P]sychical researcher Russell Targ…first became aware of the reality of telepathy when, as a young stage magician in New York, he realized that he was receiving genuine telepathic information from within the mentalist trick he was performing on stage. The trick was a trick, but it was also, somehow, catalyzing the real deal.”

Okay, now on Tim. Hyperobjects are vast events made up evolutionarily, thermodynamically, semantically, and iconographically of natural and cultural objects colliding and forming mega-octopus-like realities of more than three dimensions, so large that they overwhelm human capacity to cognize or understand them. They are outside of ordinary time and space but profoundly influence them (and us). Check out his University of Minnesota book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which I didn’t read until just before the road trip. Before that, I ran together a bunch of Tim’s youtube sound bites and online quotes from his books in describing hyperobjects in his words for The Night Sky. He depicts five key properties:

One, Viscosity: The more we know about hyperobjects, the more we find that we are glued to them. Hyperobjects adhere to any other object they touch, no matter how hard an object tries to resist. In this way, hyperobjects overrule ironic distance, meaning that the more an object tries to resist a hyperobject, the more glued to the hyperobject it becomes. We find ourselves unable to achieve epistemological escape velocity from their ontological density, just as we were beginning to enjoy our ironic free play. No fair!

Two, Molten Temporality, e.g., Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting clocks: Any massive object distorts space-time. Many hyperobjects really are massive enough to do this for real with visible effects as in the case of Planet Earth itself…. Hyperobjects are so massive that they refute the idea that space-time is fixed, concrete, and consistent. There is no such thing as a rigid body extended in time and space for this reason. And for every object, there is a radically unknowable space and time because the speed of light sets limits on what objects can apprehend. Hyperobjects end the idea of absolute infinite time and space as neutral containers.

Three, Nonlocality: Hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space to the extent that their totality cannot be realized in any particular local manifestation…. Phenomena such as rain … become a local manifestation of nonlocal objects. Thus hyperobjects play a mean trick; they invert what is real and what is only appearance…. The wet stuff falling on my head is less real than the global warming of which it’s a manifestation…. Likewise, objects don’t feel global warming, but instead experience tornadoes as they cause damage in specific places.

Four, Phasing: Hyperobjects occupy a higher dimensional phase-space than other entities can normally perceive…, which is why they are partly invisible to us three-D humans. They seem to come and go like seasons; yet really they continue to unfold elsewhere than where we look.

Five, Inter-Objectivity: Hyperobjects are shared by numerous entities in a … vast nonlocal configuration space … of entangling ecological interconnectedness … that I call the “mesh….” Hyperobjects are formed by relations between more than one object; consequently, objects are only able to perceive to the imprint, or “footprint,” of a hyperobject upon other objects, revealed as information.

Tim is a mixture of—well, this is a bit of hyperbole—Mick Jagger, Tom Pickard (of Guttersnipe), C. S. Lewis, Namkhai Norbu, and Ken Loach. You can read most of Hyperobjects without even realizing that he has logged serious Dzogchen Buddhist practice. I said to him on the 15th at dinner, “The Buddhism is subtle, but it’s there.”

“I’m a crypto-Buddhist,” he replied. “That way people don’t have objections they might otherwise have.” He is simultaneously modest, polite to a fault, and outrageous. He has a way of making two sides of an issue (what we would usually called the “good guys” and “bad guys,” like the climate-change-is-real, do-something-about-it adherents and their climate deniers, into facets of a single, greater, elusive, rearranging-everyone’s-thoughts-and-deeds-in-inexplicable-ways hyperobject.

In the course of the evening, some interesting less-than-six-degrees-of-separation details popped: Tim knew the poet Ed Dorn and his wife Jennie (in the last years of Ed’s life) in the late nineties in Boulder where he also worked in the English Department with my Amherst sophomore-year room-mate Marty Bickman. Then he replaced Io mentor Gary Snyder at Davis.

In the ways in which they are both similar and different, Jeff and Tim sweep across somewhat-congruent, fantastic landscapes of what the Anthropocene. Jeff tracks the convergence of the paranormal, UFOs, pop culture, superheroes, traditional religion, and cultural symbolism. This is an active intersection not very thoroughly logged. I can’t begin to do justice to the depth at which he analyzes the confluences, but one major feature the tracking of enigmatic, shape-shifting modalities across centuries: Clearly at earlier times in human history, paranormal events—as blatant as praying (successfully) to God or, earlier, the gods, or receiving supernatural powers from—were taken for granted as what they were ascensions into a higher dimension and phase of intelligence in Creation. Then in the context of emergent science, while they were refuted on one level, they were being re-assimilated on another. Ancient, fathomless human potential could still flourish in a world of burgeoning metaphysical materialism without either one undermining or able to evict the other. Human potential could be reassigned to parapsychology and superheroes without any need for a resolution of its actual position in a puritanical Darwinian regime.

Jeff points out that culture not only determines social and behavioral realities in the usual anthropological sense but also actually creates reality in an explicit shamanic sense. In fact such perennial magical acts as remote viewing, telepathy, telekinesis, future sight, and the like took place quite often and convincingly in the nineteenth century in a scientific environment when many people still believed in them and in the integrity of the human soul. Jeff points out that this was not a consequence of sloppy, naïve, or insufficient documentation; nineteenth-century researchers thoroughly vetted and double-blinded their experiments, documenting them over hundreds of pages, far more thoroughly than even much twenty-first-century research. Something else was happening that it is not happening now—perhaps because we won’t let it happen, so it takes other forms (like comic books). The underlying form retains a fluidity in the underlying human psyche and meta-body.

Superheroes in their current prevalence reflect, in part, the denial and suppression of the human capacity for psychic transubstantiation and other materialism-defying feats; they are their metaphorical representation, camouflage, superegoic sublimation as well as their artistic expression. The next book of Jeff’s I am going to read speaks to this directly: Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. He gave Lindy and me a copy (along with four others) in his office on our day at Rice.

I had no inkling of how intellectually liberal and pantheistic Rice University was, let alone that it had such a beautiful campus or sympathetic administration. On the ground it looks more like Princeton or a very large Amherst or Williams than the University of Texas or the University of California at Berkeley. Tim pointed out, as we walked, how the whole place exudes a mellow spiritual energy communicated by patterns in building design and layout of paths and by the fact that the university is implicitly devotional but nonsectarian. Thus, gargoyles and other stonework on its buildings show secular endeavors or embody careers and education in one form or another. The engineering building could pass in most venues as a chapel with its cathedral-like ceiling painted with what could only be called, especially with Tim present, cubist hyperobjects. The official chapel itself exhibited no Christian references at all, though its stained-glass windows let in a timeless sacred energy. Certainly God could appear on occasion as neutral multicolored etheric light. So could a superhero.

Another kiva-like open pyramidal building—and I wasn’t paying enough attention to get this quite right—is set up to transform the sunset into pure rainbow colors at a designated frequency of chromotherapeutic purity.

Toward the end of our tour, we saw a formal ritual space through which students walk once as freshmen and agree not to walk again, though it is right in the middle of the action, until the day of their graduation.

Who would have thought: Rice University is a forerunner of the renegade collegium of our possible future—a utopian flame-bearer in a dark time. I am sure there are flaws. How could there not be? But a university in the city limits of corporate Houston is a placeholder for an academy of ecologists, lamas, and sorcerers, right in the heart of a hidden pagan Texas, while Rick Perry blusters about his Chamber of Commerce biblically tinged business in blissful ignorance.

Again, my attention and recall are not reliable but Jeff and Tim explained to me (in tandem during our walk and tour), that Rice was founded on a murder mystery. At the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, William Marsh Rice was apparently poisoned fatally by his attorney after he left the bulk of his money to start the institution. A second will then appeared, deeding everything to the attorney. This document was later dismissed in court, so the university got to be built. Rice’s lawyer turned out to be the grandfather of James Baker, Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan (late in his presidency) and George H. W. Bush (early). There is a James Baker Center on campus dedicated to something like “Democracy: Ideas and Action,” perhaps a concession left over from the second will, also a bit of Orwellian misdirect.

Tim described the Baker building, as it emerged in our view, more properly as the “Center for World Domination.” Of course it didn’t actually say that on the outside (it never does). When we got to the front, Tim added that he taught a class in that building, so he knew that the elevator is this amazing vehicle with a ceiling that glows phosphorescently like the cosmos, filled with light sources and a fathomless, celestial blue light. He characterized the impression as: “Someone needs to take charge of the universe and keep matters in order, and we do it here. Not because we’re evil or power mongers or obsessed with Manifest Destiny and protection of corporate entitlement, but because someone has to do it, and we’re the ones.”

By the way I wrote almost this entire blog lying around Bill and Paula’s living room while Bill showed off his speaker system by blasting the Eagles (“Hotel California,” “Desperado,” et al.) and Ziggy-Stardust-vintage David Bowie, and he, Paula, and Lindy alternately jived and acted like teeny-boppers, reminiscing about their youths and rock concerts and dances while razzing me for working so seriously on my blog and wondering how I could even begin concentrate. I could chalk up my lapses to the decibel level and maddening though sweet small talk. What is more maddening as a drain on attention than small talk? But riding through is what I do. I remember my first meditation teacher Paul Pitchford always saying a blessing for the guy repairing his motorcycle next door and giving us the perfect atmosphere for deepening meditation. Resistance is in fact the catalyst, the negative capability, of the creative act.

While I was keying these words, our Austin hosts sent an email entitled “thought you might be missing your buddy.” They meant Dante, a beast with no dignity at all, for he was lying on his back in one of his properties, the Scratch Lounge.

 

 

Houston, Texas, to Avant, Oklahoma

I have a certain amount of ambivalence about this blog every time I continue write it. I worry about imposing it on people, clogging their in-boxes, slowing their computers (especially with the photos), and, on the other end—the people and landscapes I am passing through—invading privacies, intruding on the sacredness of personal sovereignty and inferred confidentiality—e.g., being a paparazzi (the lowest form of wage slave and treasure hunter), i.e., being a pesty anthropology graduate student again—a status I held briefly and naïvely among the Hopi in 1967, badgering folks trying to go about their lives as if being educated in our technologically and politically dominant culture meant holding an ontologically dominant position too, or maybe like a news reporter commoditizing the “story” from the entitlement that it trumps people’s other meanings and realities. All those implicit critiques and uncomfortable truths give me pause.

On the other hand, I get encouragement that people are enjoying the blog, and its creative and imaginal aspects help me track deeper and feel connected to events and, at the same time, connect me to folks out there, both ones I know and ones I don’t. There have been many great comments too. Here are a few of my favorites:

 

“…reading and absorbing and thinking very carefully about your observations. It’s brilliant, Richard; it really is. There’s nothing else like it. The seamlessness with which you can breathe in the place, while at the same time standing outside yourself, is so revealing, so honest.

“The person you were “not proud of” on that day in Juarez is a person I could only aspire to be, and would probably fail at being. That’s why writers exist: to take us to places—geographical, spiritual, intrapsychic—that we cannot access ourselves.”

 

“… and you’re meeting JK and TM in the same week I’m re-reading JK’s foreword to Adi Da’s Knee of Listening along with TM’s Hyperobjects. love it. as you road-rub the USA, don’t forget HST’s advice: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

 

“The mind-set to want to install a device to make more black smoke to piss off the ‘Prius-crowd,’ was especially imprinting itself in the forefront of my mind…for some reason I keep thinking about it…

“Drive safe.”

 

“Now that was a great read…”

 

“oh yes, please do keep me on the list to receive your droll observations of americana on the road (its natural habitat). nice to cross the country in manageable jaunts with a delightful destination for each day’s travel. i did it in the spring of ’66 pedal to the metal in my mother’s Ford, cigarillo clamped in my teeth, in less than four days. ma was hysterical, gripping the dash and young brother and sister frantic, fighting, viciously clawing at my head, screeching like raccoons trapped in the back seat. but, i had to get outa Boston fast.”

 

“Loved it. Thanks.  Keep ’em comin’. And always drive with both hands on the wheel.”

 

Not boasting, just saying that there’s some “method” to this madness, a community out there that I like to dead-reckon and reach to.

I understand that it’s problematic—I’ve taken two friends so far off the list by request (and have two others have complained about slow loading and overly long posts)—so (again) let me know if you don’t want these.

As for unhappy Amherst classmates (if I have any), I have heard from about half a dozen of our fellow 66ers so far who want to keep getting the posts and no overt nays (yet), so I hope that you are able tolerate it a bit longer until we reach our destination later this month. Then I’ll return to radio silence. I well remember the brouhaha of Siegfried and the overload of cacti images, so I’m not going to go there.

 

Leaving Houston was as expected; i.e., we didn’t leave Houston after we ostensibly did, not for a long, long, long time. When I spoke to my near-ninety-year-old stepmother on the phone while still there, she mentioned having gone then many years ago and telling a friend at the time that it was suburbs in search of a city. That was my experience too. There may be more of a concentrated downtown than Lindy and I encountered but, if this is America’s fourth largest city, it earns that rank by sheer breadth and suburban clustering rather than by sheer NYC-style urbanization and metropolitan density.

We had an aborted take-off because I unplugged my laptop as the last item and was bringing it downstairs in its case when Bill and Lindy intercepted me, wanting us to have us pose for a few more pictures. I put my computer on the couch, participated as requested, and then Lindy and I got in the car and drove off. We were about four blocks away and about to turn onto West Little York Street when my mental checklist collided with the image of the computer on the couch and I felt a thud. We made a swift U-turn, saw Bill sooner than we planned, said fresh goodbyes, and took off for real.

That image of the case, semi-camouflaged on the couch so that Bill hadn’t noticed it either, left me with a woozy feeling of disaster barely averted for about ten miles; then it faded. Last year right before Labor Day Weekend we left Lindy’s computer and backpack on the porch of Alex and Alyson Grey’s house at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Wappingers Falls, New York, and then drove into New York City. We had to spend the entire next day on the Metro North, riding out and back to retrieve it because we weren’t going to try to drive through gridlock on a holiday weekend. Even with our vigilance on the train, we missed the station because the conductor (or computer) gave us approximately then seconds with an open door before it closed and we began moving again. Alex had to race the train to Poughkeepsie with the backpack.

As it was, those parting pictures reflect respective moods: Bill’s good-natured jocularity, grabbing the dog at the last minute (“C’mon, buddy; we’re not going to leave you out”); my pure reticence and never-far-from-the-surface autistic deer-in-the-headlights terror along with the desire to escape all objectively imaged existence–that by contrast to Lindy’s social aplomb and tacit “why can’t we all not only just get along [with Rodney King] but be delighted for these wonderful people sharing the planet with us.” She is living affirmation and though her very real shadow rests a lot deeper than mine, she can access situational jollity at the drop of a hat, whatever she might have been actually feeling right before it. It takes a lot of work for me to get that agreeable.

Eventually Houston vanished but not before a gigantic white statue of what had to be Sam Houston (and was), emerging from the trees on a curve as if he were dilating on the spot to outdo Paul Bunyan, a blatant accident-magnet.

The space between Houston and Dallas gradually became an asteroid belt: mostly wilderness and scrub. That made more sense than a continued megalopolis. After all, there are almost two hundred miles between the cities. In fact, well into the mid-afternoon, as we were finally approaching Dallas from fifteen miles out, it was hard to believe that another city could form out of so much undifferentiated, sparsely inhabited space, but that’s always the way it is with urban areas. The city that is on the map is always there in reality too, right where it is supposed to be, even if it is counter-intuitive and dramatically unexpected. I remember Halifax, Nova Scotia, a few years ago, coming out of the vast northern woods, artifact by artifact, as abandoned tractors and trashed lots turned into single streets with small houses, until we were on fast-moving cloverleafs and bridges.

The transition itself is so elusive and mysterious: nothing, then floating just outside a pregnant zone, then passing within the first signs and geometries, then in it physically, then fully and phenomenologically amid the traffic and discrete locality as if there were never anywhere else in the universe and no way out of those cars racing to urgent dockets being generated in those buildings—then the whole affair thinning out imperceptibly, then fading more substantially, then suburbs, then gone, then something else.

I have occasional dreams about entering cities from highways. Some of them about seem otherworldly as they masquerade under a terrestrial guise, some seem astral or etheric even while posing as “St. Louis” or “Reno,” while others have a true migrainoid quality, as if emerging from the brainstem or “Alice in Wonderland” states and merging with various ancient memories as they merge with each other. Each of those cities has a tremendous centripetal force and is sometimes entered from above. Actually they are entered etherically instead of physically, via their collective karmic steam.

It began to rain outside of Dallas, and then it began to pour quite hard, causing major adjustments in our car. The thermostat had been on “Low” the entire time through California’s Central Valley, SoCal, Arizona, and Texas, and the issue was mostly how much to run an air conditioner that had been mostly dormant since we bought the car in 2007 without overheating. Suddenly we were back in a northern California or Maine mentality and had to work the “up” arrow to get some heat and defogging going because visibility was clouding fast—a dream too but of the nightmare kind. As the downpour became torrential, armadas of trucks on Interstate 45 were throwing up breakers of spray, temporarily blinding us at high speed.

The sky cleared a bit just as Dallas arose to the right and came into full shocking view on both sides of the car, so the city was truly dreamlike, appearing with a halo of clouds as we sped through unimpeded. I was driving, so I did not grasp the photographic opportunity fast enough for us to capture the view from full sci-fi distance, but Lindy got out my cell as fast as she could and took a sequence of pictures that capture some of the magical, dreamlike sense of whipping through an unknown planetary metropolis—its vibration, aura, and signature of life—as we joined people coming home from work and other local business (it was about 3:00 PM local time).

I now propose this as an untagged art genre: Warhol-like imaging of unvisited cities from the highway. The more like a camera salvaging dream landscapes it is, the better.

We tend to forget: no one creates cities. No person, no group. They just arise or congregate. That is, they are the collective enterprise of millions of separate individuals, decisions, and acts, discrete outputs and activations that can never be coordinated entirely from any central point. Yes, there is city planning and governance, but the beast itself is alien, a crypto-zooid, a hyperobject getting born and awakened on the spot like Frankenstein’s monster, nonetheless masquerading as ordinary architecture and scenery. No one can possibly know what is going on in its interstices, not individually by class and count and not as a collectivity moving through time. You cannot mount enough cameras to capture the esoteric meaning being brewed—the fear of the constabulary when confronting the unknown terrorists; that is, the human unconscious.

It has been said often enough, but I will have another go at it here: at the scale of the universe we are no different from ants building and repairing their little hills and catacombs. Ours are more sophisticated and feature the symbol and its effects. Theirs are located perhaps more substantially at another dimension of the universe

On its northern end, Dallas took longer to fade, dwindling more slowly than it arose from the south. We kept encountering substantial urbanization and suburbs for about ninety minutes, in the process (per instruction by Google maps) segueing from Highway 45 to Highway 75 (which doubled as a central freeway). The rain increased again dramatically, and we found ourselves suddenly in a narrow two-lane construction zone (two lanes going each way); vehicles of every size, vintage, destination, and IQ moving along in a conglom at 65-70 miles an hour without evident deference to the conditions. We were caught in this aggregate flow. It was terrifying, particularly one sharp curve alongside a gigantic leaning truck during which Lindy, the non-driver, expressed her concern that this was finally it. It was the one scary moment of a moving algorithm, that, in the imagination beforehand back in California, seemed impossible to survive intact, Murphy’s law and all.

Only the narrowest margin separates us from death, the same narrow margin (and thread) that runs through all of modernity, from undisclosed crowds in stadiums, stations, and transportation systems to the mostly unenforced integrity of factories, food, and water supplies. This lesson was to be reinforced vividly later in the day the passengers flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, many of them en route elsewhere like Australia, encountering (by overflying at 10,000 meters) rebel separatist Ukrainian territory populated by some trigger-happy bumpkin macho militias with high-tech toys from Russia plus a video-game mentality (or maybe the Kiev air force trying to pin one on the bady guys). Those poor folks up in the sky were probably oblivious to where they really were or the complex drama below. You see them unconcernedly boarding their Malaysia jet in a video uploaded by a passenger earlier in the day. It is chilling because nothing is strange; it looks like an ordinary flight; the people are happy, being friendly to strangers in the aisle. That’s how it always is. One stair missing from a staircase, a stair that had always been there, and everything ends.

I don’t mean to compare our situation to theirs except to say that we were going much too fast for the actual situation, the tonnage and closeness of the trucks, the compression and vectoring of the road, the slick moisture on its surface. In fact, a deflected symbolic reality system seemed to grok that, as flashing overhanging signs kept warning us not to drive into water but turn around instead (as if that could be done facilely on a one-way superhighway). The phrase “Do not drown!” kept flashing. It should have said, “Do not stray from your lane and crash!” or “Slow down, everyone!” It didn’t. In modernity, all is propaganda and requirements of legal counsel, so the warnings are never appropriate, and we are rarely warned about what we should be. Bureaucracy, lawyering, and corporate-speak are everywhere, producing a deceitful hyperobject sprawling over every highway and airport.

So while the pooling never got bad enough to justify the message, the general mood of danger was fairly represented by signage, signs, and symbols at multiple levels.

This BTW was the first time on the trip that either of us did his or her full two-hour shift (as we had planned at the outset); we had been switching by Rest Stops instead, anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour twenty per. I think I persisted through my back and leg aches solely because what option was there? I was riveted in my seat (and yes, both hands on the wheel), finally in the zone, on a competitive race-track, as alert sensorily and kinesthetically as the younger people (I am figuring the odds) around me, compared to my timorousness and vague spaciness leaving California when I felt in over my head, 5000 miles staring at me like a black-hole bulls-eye. Going through Dallas, I was into it and dancing like the Indy 500 and it wasn’t a dream. I was sure it would be okay, and of course it was.

I can’t tell you how many trucks galloped alongside of us, but at certain times during the heaviest rain, there were more trucks than cars, some of them gargantuan. Each individual passing of one was a feat, an act of bravado, heart in throat, then all too brief relief until we saw the next one looming up ahead. Yet the incentive to pass continued to be amped by how much spray they were kicking up.

We changed drivers as soon as we found a gas station beyond Dallas (2 hours 20 minutes too for me). Then Lindy drove into Oklahoma, the sign welcoming us a high moment since neither of us had ever been in the state. Notch a new one, first since Hawai’i, first continental one since Idaho in 1981 (if you don’t count Nova Scotia 2008).

It was green and quite lovely—lots of lakes and ponds—nothing like one’s image of the dust bowl and panhandle, indistinguishable in fact from Maine or Vermont. Lindy’s high-school friend Julie (toward whose abode we were headed) told us that the Army Corps of Engineers went crazy with projects in the fifties and sixties and now Oklahoma has more interior lacustrine shoreline (in fractal sense) than the entire East and Gulf Coast Atlantic shoreline put together. Hard to believe, but I think she is stating a well-known local homily. We passed through the modern relocated relics of great Indian nations: Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek. It was thrilling and an honor, this late in the gringo occupation: there are something like thirty-nine ancient tribes relocated in Oklahoma, what is left of them anyway.

On the other hand, it meant passing giant casino after giant casino, lit up and shivering like pinball machines in Tourette’s-like contrast to the pastoral landscape.

By the time that we were fifteen miles into the state, Lindy announced that she was exhausted and emotionally drained and didn’t want to drive anymore; she was for stopping ASAP. But from my standpoint it was approaching a mere 5 PM, too much daylight left, and I didn’t want to spend the whole evening in a spooky Bates motel in the middle of nowhere. I was opting for Tulsa or thereabouts, some 3 hours north of us. Lindy said that if that was my goal, I could drive because she was going to sleep.

An adjunct problem was that the Google directions run for us at DelVecchio’s wanted to send us east toward Muskogee and then back west toward Tulsa, a seeming waste of miles and time. There was a perfectly good straight road to Tulsa on the map, a continuation of 75 called the “Indian Nations Turnpike.” Why exit at MacAlester and go on four different roads, doing the legs of the triangle rather than its hypotenuse?

We decided to clear up this matter as well as change drivers at a gas station in Atoka, the next largish town. I hailed a Burl-Ives lookalike trucker and showed him both the map and the Google printout. He hailed from Fort Smith to the east and knew the territory well. He said he himself would take the Turnpike. He surmised that Google was either trying to keep us off it as a toll road or overrating the Muskogee-Tulsa Turnpike. He was driving what they locally call a “see-my” (could sound like “sea mine”).

As we got back on the road with a clarified itinerary, I remained committed to Tulsa. The weather improved, the road improved and, after Lindy was awakened by a phone call from a friend hired to clean our Mount Desert house for the person eventually arriving from Toronto, we shot along the Indian Nations Turnpike straight as an arrow, listening to our book on tape, daylight holding and the miles melting away. After the rain and trucks in Dallas, this was second-wind paradise—and we could tell ourselves we were in Oklahoma, to boot. It just sounded good. And then the Indian Nations Turnpike—what an evening! It was a delight to pay the Native Americans the $2 toll. I didn’t think it was even enough.

We had started our trip with a stack of novels and short stories on CD and had listened to the first two of them thus far for spells. It took intermittent listening all the way from Berkeley to Austin to get through The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout—an okay novel if embarrassingly repetitive and sloppily written (with the same stock depictions used amateurishly for the same characters again and again), but satisfying because it was emotionally valid and based in Maine and New York City as well as centered around the Somalian Community in Maine with its disjunctions from the Yankee natives. Frankly Russell Banks’s fictional Liberia in The Darling stands in comparison to Elizabeth Strout’s fictional Somalia about as William Butler Yeats’s verses compare to those of Ogden Nash.

By Oklahoma we were listening to Nathan Englander’s collection of short stories What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank—brilliant, hilarious, politically astute, and as fully deconstructing and nuanced as its title suggests. It was not about Anne Frank (or Zionism or the holocaust) as such but about how people (Jews and Israelis in particular) use them to talk about other things, many many other things, and (for some people) most other things. In fact they never stop talking about Anne Frank. That becomes the sole compass and basis of their existence.

The iPod was our alternate diversion, and I was still working through vetting about 250 songs transferred (in a spontaneous download and trade) to my desktop by our Austin hosts, including many Scottish and reggae singers and groups I had never heard of. That was laborious (for each song, keep or trash—next). We kept approximately 70 of the 250, but most of those remain on trial and are dwindling at second listen. Music is trenchantly personal.

We had occasional spates of local songs that I dj-ed when we entered their territory. Slaid Cleaves’s “New Year’s Day” represented Austin, its lyrics ending at Barton Springs (for which we finally had a raod map and an image):

 

“We’ll be putting down the brisket and tequila
Down in Kerrville with the Seekers of the Shade
‘Cause a piece of you lives on
Not only in this song
But in all the lives you touched and every friendship
that you made.

We’re gonna go up to Maine and eat some clams and
lobsters
Bite the worm down in sunny Cancun bay
We’ll be home by Christmas Eve
Tellin’ tales you won’t believe
And we’ll swim in Barton Springs on New Year’s Day.”

 

For us, it was the opposite of a sauna and wake on New Year’s Day, more like a beach party in July.

For general Texas I played two different versions of Don Edwards’s “I’d Like to Be in Texas When They Roundup in the Spring”:

 

“I’d like to sleep my last long sleep with Mother Earth for bed
My saddle for a pillow, the bright stars overhead
Then I could hear the last stampede, the songs of rivers sing
Way back down in Texas for the roundup in the spring.”

 

Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” was my best offering for Houston (“…before I watch your seabirds flying in the sun….”). But how can you beat that?

All I had for Oklahoma was “Okie from Muskogee,” a pleasantly melodic anti-hippie tract (performed by arch-radical Phil Ochs of all people) and “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma.” In fact, that ballad is good enough to replace the renowned musical’s title song as the State national anthem. Take the first verse:

 

“There’s a full moon over Tulsa,
I hope that it’s shining on you.
The nights are getting cold,
In Cherokee County.
There’s a Blue Norther passing through.
I remember green eyes and a rancher’s daughter.
But remember is all that I do.
Losing you left a pretty good cowboy,
With nothing to hold on to.
Sundown came and I drove to town,
And drank a drink or two.
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma,
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma.
And I’m sure missing you,
I’m sure missing you.”

 

We finally gave up our trek at Okmulgee, about 15 miles short of Tulsa: 469 miles from Bill Blakeslee’s front door to the local Best Western.

When I got out of the car, something surreal happened. I found a tiny, perfectly-shaped vintage Maine lobster in the adjacent parking space, about the size of a cricket. I carefully placed it in the grass.

The young woman in charge of the front desk, standing outside the front door smoking, was none too fast to come in and register us, or agile on the credit-card machine. After she finally failed with every card we had and had to punch in the numbers, I asked her about the animal, and she said us was a “crawdad.”

Later, when I went back to the lot to fetch some items to make dinner, I saw her walking next to our Prius with a cigarette in her mouth, holding a pocket flashlight. “I’m lookin’ for the litta’ fella,” she explained.

Not quite understanding, I told her that we had moved our car to be closer to the room and I showed her where had parked originally and then where I released it. In fact, I outright found it for her. I thought she wanted to admire it. Foolish me.

Later that night when I came downstairs again, I asked her about it and she told me it was yummy—tiny for a full dinner but tasty: “Usually I eat a pile of them”: she said.

I felt as though I had betrayed a new friend. It was a “hardly knew ye” moment.

 

In the morning we set out for Skiatook, where Julie wanted to meet. I had the same sensation of mystery, the same intuition of distance and intimacy as we raced through Tulsa. Lindy was driving, so I did the photographing this time. Unfortunately I missed a great wall of graffiti visible from the road because, in my haste to get it, I slid my finger over the lens in the fraction of a second I had.

After turning west onto Highway 20 beyond Tulsa in about an hour, we crossed into Skiatook and then into the Osage Reservation. We met Julie where she recommended, by the fertilizer section at Wal-Mart, about as findable a downtown marker as there was. Then, at her suggestion, we followed her black SUV to Mac’s Barbecue for lunch.

I went along with this unlikely cuisine choice, in part for lack of any other options (except the unsociable one of our cooler). Also Julie had said that everything was pretty much natural in that part of Oklahoma, among the Osage, because they didn’t trust the chemical companies either. I’m not sure I believed that, for politics makes strange bedfellows, but it was at least a smoke screen for my would-be venturesomeness.

Once in the mix at the counter. I decided not to ask any further questions and to accept Julie’s new comment that the local meat had to be range-fed without hormones because there were no big feed-lots here and everyone raised their own small herd.

Mac’s contained a great, raucous, affable chaos in a relatively small room, as tasty roasting smells materialized at the level of visible smoke, chairs and tables akimbo, surfaces aesthetically uncleaned, aisles tight because of too many tables, burly men and women bumping into each other and apologizing graciously (or tipping hats) only if the collision was substantial, not if it was a mere graze. This was an informal contra dance and community supper. It was cinematically perfect, exactly what it should be.

Julie bought us all a $20 plate of assorted pulled meat. It was delivered out of a slot in about 45 seconds and, since I was unlikely to confront such a thing again for quite a while, I ate my full share rather than pretend it was even possible any longer to hedge bets. I think that it was pork, and it was delicious in exactly the crispy, greasy way you might think. Once a decade is probably okay for all concerned parties, medicinal and ethical.

Next we took scenic back roads to Julie’s land, a chunk of a farm in Avant she inherited from her Osage grandfather. All in all we logged 73.2 miles from the Best Western at Okmulgee to Avant, capped by following her SUV onto a sidestreet from a brief shopping stop at Wal-Mart after lunch, never returning to 75 or 20 and not hitting Google-recommended 11 until just before Julie’s spread. We saw how gentle, moist, and fertile the land was, once again easily Maine or Vermont if you woke up there and didn’t know. Well maybe the vistas were a little broader on the whole, but it could have been back roads around Hardwick or Blue Hill.

I will write about our visit in the next post but, since this is an edit of the original blog, I will say right off that it would be an understatement to say that it was a problematic encounter, leading to an even more problematic blog post as well. The consequences and ramifications that are still crossing Lindy’s and my bow six months later.

Age seventeen to seventy is a long enough spell that any person can change character almost totally, become unrecognizable; also a teenager can give rise to a very different adult. Once that transpires, nostalgia and good will are not always sufficient carry the day

We did not get along, in Oklahoma or afterwards, and Julie is the unforgiving, revengeful sort, not one to forgo casting an initial stone, plus many more thereafter. For that reason, I will not enhance descriptions of her beyond what I said the first time and, while correcting a few errors, will leave the account pretty much intact so that what follows will make sense.

The back story is that Julie had asked me not to write about her personally during the visit. She said had been “enjoying” the blog but did not want to be part of it. However, when I told her, of course, that I would leave her out and work around that, she—well here is her response:

“Thanks, it’s just that I’m a hermit and a very private person. Of course you want to chronicle your adventures and I want you to enjoy and remember your time here too. I can’t tell you what you can and cannot write about, and I hope you will record your impressions here, I just ask that you be sensitive.”

Then, during the visit and again after we left, I understood her to not only totally rescind that ban but actually encourage me to describe the visit, hoping (for instance) that I wouldn’t censor anything and would go for “an unexpurgated version” (her words). I took her at her word, or what I thought was her word, a permission she now claims she never gave.

Writing about living people is difficult anyway. I know that I wouldn’t want to perform as a character in someone else’s blog, so I empathize with Julie’s feeling of violation and embarrassment. Even in the best of novels, every character is still somewhat of a caricature. There is no way to capture an identity in the world, let alone an individual’s own self-reflection. Plus inner life aside, people don’t want idle, passing talk about their weight, their aging, their disabilities, their habits, their peccadillos, their facial expressions and gait. The experience made me gun-shy about future journals/blogs. It’s not worth the grief and discomfort that it brings. After all, writing is not the be-all and end-all. It’s just a very distant adjunct to “being” itself. Again, you can’t get inside another person’s subjective beingness, and a scrape off his or her apparent surface is only going to aggravate the object of the intended cameo.

The next day Julie had plenty of criticisms and corrections to this post, the most piqued one being my characterization of Mac’s. Some of the other errors I have corrected in this version, but the Mac’s issues were more generic to my provincial view.

For those who want more of Mac’s, there’s a page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MacsBarbeque. Note too the correct spelling.

I meant to give the impression that I liked and admired Mac’s, but I was obviously imprecise and inattentive in my prose. In fact, Julie called it “snooty disdain,” which I didn’t feel, so If I gave that impression, my bad. I was trying to portray myself as a fish out of water rather than Mac’s as anything less than a superb oasis for visitors as well as its own clientele. I was the bumpkin in that stop-over, Mac’s regulars certainly weren’t. Julie chides me for implying the place was dirty when it was simply hopping at lunchtime and that’s why tables were not yet cleaned—it was not that the employees or diners were slobs. I meant no disrespect; I thought it was great that food was flying faster than the staff could keep up with it and cheerfully laid-back no one was being too fastidious. That was a plus, not a minus. I don’t actually require anal cleanliness in a restaurant. This was an old-fashioned pig roast, a rodeo. Let there be mud on the boots and gravy on the formica.

Likewise the bumptious atmosphere. According to Julie, I should have reported that the place was filled with cowboys plus honest laborers on lunch break with their families. It was a celebratory community meal. She thought that I was satirizing it when I was actually enjoying it and the permission to be a part.

And I didn’t mean to imply that anyone was smoking—which (she reminded me) is illegal in Oklahoma—just that the air had a rich meat aroma and a visible cooking vapor, nothing chemical, synthetic, or piped in like at a McDonalds. It was a campfire on the old range or at the old corral, so of course there was smoke.

As to what we ate, I thought I saw Julie point to an item marked “assorted pulled meat” or something like that, but that claim was obviously insulting; she said she got us “ribs.” Another bad on my part.

Then I called the window the food came through a slot; she called it a counter. This is somewhat a matter of regional terminology and cultural perception. To me the plates were handed through a very large slot, kind of like a Ticketron window, and I think you might use even use such a word for it (“slot”) in NYC (kind of like at the old Automat, a vintage and beloved establishment). But my unexamined noun use could also be interpreted as an unconscious put-down. I didn’t intend that, only to say that it wasn’t delivered to our table or transferred to us by the person who took the order; the chefs handed it through a counter opening.

In any case I didn’t arrive at the establishment with an intent to trash the occasion or dis Mac’s, as Julie charges in her list of errata. I came in a spirit of adventure, ethnographic curiosity, and delight at breaking a longstanding taboo, also nostalgia for a child who wanted to eat with the cowboy, who, at summer camp, had only make-believe BBQs.

Another issue was that I called Julie’s homestead a farm; she says emphatically it is not a farm but a ranch, implying that my identifying it such as was my parochialness as well as an out-and-out insult. Another instance of regional use of English leading to misunderstanding and umbrage. In my background a “farm” is anything rural that is bigger than a lawn and smaller than a state. Yet a farm isn’t a ranch unless it has pigs and cattle and E-I-E-I-O going on; horses alone don’t do it.

(To a version of this explanation she wrote: “American regional English is one thing, American regional pride is another thing. This is rural Oklahoma. I live on a RANCH. The local County Extension and the local County Treasurer also make the distinction, as I believe they do in most locales.”)

I will say for now that Julie lives with about eight horses, five dogs, a cat, a tarantula, a bunch of chickens, assorted hens and guinea hens, and one peacock (without any hens of his species, so he goes around screeching and showing off the beautiful parasol he has to drag around all day to us, to the other birds, and to the dogs). There are wild rabbits everywhere and a few partial and mutilated rabbit corpses in the yard, probably from the dogs. There is a glorious, buxom osage orange (its correlate registered in my mind almost immediately as I recognized the species’s regional appropriateness: those unmistakable holographic inedible latexy fruits like pale yellow, grapefruit-size mulberries or pool balls made of jujubes and irregular drupes.

After dinner Lindy and I dug some holes for Julie at cooler twilight and together we planted two knockout rosebushes she had just bought (they are to the right of the general homestead photo, just inside the string fence). Good exercise after so much driving, and I think, whenever possible, it an ideal way to get acquainted with the land. You know a place by its soil. This dirt was rich and umber, easy to cut with a shovel beneath the tough Bermuda grass, except for many flat sedimentary rocks that I spent most of my digging time working around and then dislodging, each a with sensation of accomplishment, like an ounce of what Atlas must have felt lifting the whole planet. Julie said the Osage picked this kind of rocky ground on purpose because it wouldn’t be as attractive to the “little house on the prairie” contingent, that unending stream of gringos from all directions.

We were now in Osage country, within the Rite of Vigil, a long-time favorite ceremony of mine, at least in Bureau of American Ethnography genre texts; it was up to me to find it on the ground.

 

 

Osage Nation

Our visit in Avant was a chance for Lindy to reconnect after 53 years with a woman who, as a teenager, was arguably her best, and most influential, friend, maybe not through all of adolescence but by the end of high school at Kent, a Denver prep school that, back then, was attended solely by girls.

In junior year, when Julie appeared at Kent, Lindy received her as a fresh breeze and revelation and threw in with her and her group of friends. From that point on, these compatriots had a huge influence on her and how she was initiated into early adult life, guiding how she styled her adolescence, how she thought about the world outside of Denver, whom she dated, whom she thought to reclaim fifty years later.

Late high school was the time of Lindy’s junior-year trip to Cuernavaca to help build a church, her senior-year escapade throwing her clothes out the window to escape a curfew, her unauthorized drives with boys, and various raids on parents’ liquor cabinets and experimentation with marijuana). Julie was not the only regular colleague of those awakening and stormy years, but she was the central figure, “the star” in Lindy’s memory, nostalgia, and heart. She had seemed, for decades in fact, lost: unfindable, fallen off the planet. So Lindy considered it a near miracle to have located her, to have heard back, let alone now to be in her company at her remote roosting site.

In Lindy’s descriptions of the Kent years Julie comes off as brash, cynical, daring, boundary-crashing, charismatic—outright wild. Lindy’s mother “hated” her (in the kitsch parlance of the time) and did not approve of their association, yet the more she expressed that disapproval, the more Lindy bonded with Julie. Julie’s parents were much more permissive, saying (in effect) “do what you want,” and that added voltage to the taboo. That is, Lindy’s mother played a big part in the friendship, enhancing it, giving it extra value and charge and also making association with Julie a form of truancy. Then, a few years later, Lindy threw in with me instead of her mother’s version of a more appropriate partner, a Denver banker or lawyer.

After Kent, Julie initially married a mainstream Denver guy in their group, settled down, and had two kids. During Vietnam, she was an ordinary army wife, but she and her husband split up soon after. She eventually moved to Mexico with her daughter. She lived there with her for a while and then alone as a painter and jeweler, in all for thirteen years. Our life was quite tame by comparison with a single woman, an artist, reinventing herself again and again in Mexico.

Both before and after Mexico, Julie tried out life in Osage Nation, both on the family ranch and in Pawhuska, the “capital” city tribal headquarters north of Avant in. Then she and her brother bought kin out of 45 acres each of family land (a plot constituting 4000 acres originally, the rest of which sold off by different beneficiaries). Eventually she settled on her share and cast her lot with her Osage roots as well the Osage community, with all the attendant benefits and drawbacks (tribal politics at its “finest,” as she put).

Of how “Osage” she was, she pointed out during one testy exchange (of many) that her Osage-ness (or Indian-ness) was not measured by percentage of blood—who would want to try to measure blood anyway?—but by her direct lineage to Osage elders and chiefs, her life-long connection to the people and the land, and her personal investment in the territory and membership and participation in the ongoing Osage community. She needn’t have any Osage blood for all that. As it was, she was genetically Osage/Omaha at, I believe, her great-grandparents’ level: one-sixteenth. But for all intent and purposes, she was more Osage than Creole or Anglo or any of those other bits and pieces of her species migration to arrive, like the rest of us, at this miscegenated stated. To slaveholders and Nazis, one-sixteenth was plenty blood. And she was also a direct heir to one of the nation’s handful of founders.

I myself have effectively no cultural or familial connection to my genetic father’s blood (my mother having conceived me by an affair), yet very strong family ties, some of my deepest and most intimate ones, to people with whom I share no genes—that is, no lineally inherited ones (the same genes are floating around the genome in various combinations and can be co-inherited from a common ancestor as far back as the Neolithic).

In any case, Julie is as Osage as it gets, rooted in the land and the spirit, the people and the politics

Julie’s and Lindy’s reconnection, and our bumpy improvisation as three strong-minded, strong-willed people, took place on many levels. One of them I was an outsider to: two women reminiscing about shared people and past events, filling in the years since, guessing about other stuff. They drifted into many long conversations about old Denver like bugs in a rug. That talk went on for hours, outside of modernity.

I wrote down one memorable, typical exchange.

Lindy: “What does she do now?”

Julie: “What does she do now? Mutual torture society, that’s what.”

Likewise as two Denver women of a certain caste and era, familiar with each other’s friends and parents, they exchanged “women are from Venus (if men are from Mars)” genre banter about contemporary clothes, shops, styles, behaviors—they shared culture, folkways.

More challenging for them was trying to establish a stable relationship in the present as two older women who, if they had met by chance, would probably not seek out or even have much to each other. Both of them flared up regularly at moments, but then both have naturally fluid, forgiving natures, so indignations dissolved and blew away almost quickly. All this fluidity made for a complicated, Pina-Bausch-like dance of words and gestures, advances and rebuffs—improv of necessity. At a few treacherous moments I thought the visit was about to blow up and I was ready to try to intercede and restore peace, but it never got that far. Each in her own way—and the ways were quite different—got it back on course. Julie retreated, took stock, careened onto a different course, drew on her dry sense of humor to allay tension. Lindy took account of her attitude, dropped her peremptoriness, realigned, apologized profusely, reaffirmed, and regained congeniality and intimacy. They had to be skillful at a high level of psychospiritual and artistic maturity because gratuitous gestures or “patting on the head” apologies had no traction with either of them.

As a third party, I sometimes stepped in to give Julie a fresh foil, sometimes participating in a collective group, sometimes causing both women to lose tolerance and/or patience and turn on me and ask me to get out of their way. Mostly I disappeared to leave space.

My best bonding with Julie was around my inclination to let things fall where they may, try to use or synergize rather than fix mis-strokes. Lindy likes to clean up messes and potential messes, make order, dot all the “i’s,” cross all the “t’s,” etc.; she is an incorrigible perfectionist and fixer. Julie is an equally incorrigible nonfixer, more of “let’s toss some paint around, let it land where it may, and be amused by what it does.” The physical messiness of her immediate environment aggravated Lindy constantly, which contributed to the stress, especially because Julie’s response to her friend’s attempts to clean up or fix anything in the house, or in her life and psychological space, was a scathing aside or contemptuous snort.

I like stuff to stay where it lands so, when Lindy “cleaned up” and Julie reacted negatively, I enjoyed watching my partner confront the fact that everyone doesn’t like being picked up after. We both felt the same thing: you can never find stuff if someone else, especially an inveterate orderer and perfectionist, is always moving it to where he or she thinks it belongs or should go. And this refers to thoughtforms as well as to objects. I can’t tell you how many hours (over 48 years) I have spent in frustration, looking for things that Lindy ostensibly put away (and then couldn’t find herself) or that got thrown out by mistake—lkikewise, how many times I screamed, “You are not fixing anything, you are making it worse. Mostly that was when Lindy proceeded on the illusion that all she had to do was tell another person the correct behavior and they would (or at least should) enact it.

When Lindy asked Julie to take off her sunglasses for an eventual photo op, I knew that any chance she might actually do so on her own were dashed by the very request. Those sunglasses were staying on, damn it! They probably began that dance in high school when Lindy actually appreciated being blasted out of Denver primness. That was some of the attraction.

Over the years, Lindy had often referred to Julie’s “cynicism.” I think that that’s a reasonable designation—she could be played by the Ava Gardner of Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana. But like Williams’s (and Gardner’s) Maxine—another American woman once married and alone in Mexico—she is not actually cynical—more like a combination of practical, skeptical, ironic, non-indulgent, non-precious, ready to stomp on anyone’s knee-jerk ideology, unexamined sentimentality. or assumed free pass. In our visit, Julie continued to be as brash and, yes, vulgar, as Lindy remembered her, and Lindy continued to be just as engaged by it and tolerant of it, even at those moments when she was the victim or had to play straight gal. That is one reason why she could keep rebounding. And I think Julie appreciated Lindy’s natural optimism and belief in human good nature, but only because Lindy was deep-down just as cynical and pessimistic as her. Her optimism has always been her compassion and spirit, not a belief system or working faith in human decency.

Some of the roughest ground was the clash of Lindy’s automatic, unexamined liberalism, a tendency to give Obama (say) a free pass on most stuff, and Julie, as a gun-owning anti-red-tape firebrand in Oklahoma, ready to toss Barack into the same circus of as the rest of the bozos. This came up in lots of ways, as Lindy continued to play the well-meaning “straight man,” assuming the best of people and acting as though a “fixit” attitude was actually going to fix anything. That made Julie want to go around kicking proverbial Halloween pumpkins on porches, shooting up old automobiles, and intentionally embroidering as well as slyly parodying her own cynical style.

She wasn’t cynical; she was sad, and perhaps tired; cynicism was just one of the colors in her palette, grains in her art. I remember one indicative exchange in which Lindy chafed at Julie’s referring to people as yellow or red or black (in a conversation about the Chinese not the Mexicans being the real power taking over America, which itself sprang from a one-liner by Julie about “probably should have learned Chinese as well as Spanish”), then Julie saying, “I like colors. I’m an artist.” Her competitiveness told her that she won that point.

At moments like that, Lindy got irritated and nonplussed and felt implicitly “ganged up on,” as she liked to put it. I have often smiled at her notion that of being ganged up on, for instance, when only she and I were present.

On the other hand, Lindy is hardly a simple thinker or liberal ideologue; she dabbles in styles, flourishes, and her own paradoxical dances too: her first book of poems is not called Changing Woman for nothing; she does it better than anyone else I know.

It’s worth noting that Lindy is the victim of her own mother’s alcoholism during her pregnancy. An innate dyslexia from fetal alcohol syndrome has led her to effect creative responses to her brain such that she lurches quickly from one mood or view to another to avoid natural pratfalls and word reversals posing as mistaken logic and is rarely where you think she is. Her creative impulse embraces the disability. She tends not to say what she actually means (or thinks she is saying) and often literally speaks the precise opposite: yes dyslexia but visionary, inventive dyslexia. Subliminally she poses big, irresistible targets, almost tauntingly, and then disappears as you approach them. She is a subtle trickster, one who hates pranks and jokes as such and won’t participate in them, even on April Fool’s Day, yet is very light in her ongoing dance. In that sense, she is super-sensitive, non-Euclidean, reexamining and changing dimensions, trying out shapes and attitudes, dropping them as quickly. One minute she is a naïve Democratic Party hack; the next minute she is an anarchist; the next she is a hoyden; then she is back to the first position and denying she ever left it—but her crux is the pirouette itself of creative fluidity and compassion, not any of its intermediate positions. In any case, neither of them held on too tightly or got stuck inextricably in the tar baby.

The bigger challenge may have been that we were an upper-middle-class couple (yes, “upper middle class” and “couple” both in big red letters) who just sold their appreciated Berkeley house and were headed east in their Prius with California plates (“Berkeley” and “Prius” in red letters too), while Julie was an intentionally downwardly mobile Osage-roots artist, a native American silversmith, sacred crystal-arranger, and precious-stone artisan in a house needing repair with mucho animals, some of them in need of repair too. She loved her own SUV and was amused by our transport, especially its yuppie stealth. In fact, I didn’t see a single Prius in Osage Nation, whereas there can be four of the same shade of light blue as ours in a row at a red light on Shattuck in Berkeley. She was a woman fighting the bills and, like us, the advancing shadow of old age and infirmity; yet, as she said in sincere gratefulness after we planted the rose bushes, “You two are like teenagers.”

That was only a relative and transient assessment. In other circumstances, out on the range rather than planting flowers, or in the Zen of daily solitary life management, the roles would have been reversed.

“It’s a thin margin,” I said, “and sometimes I’m on the other side too.” It was more than politeness or reassurance, but I get it that Berkeley attitudes come with a price-tag. We were headed celebratorily to Maine with a pack of resources; she was cutting back on possessions and attachments, caring for her sick dogs, wishing she could provide her horny peacock with a suitable admirer of his lush tail-spread. Yet she received regular email jokes from her wealthy ex-husband in Carbondale, Colorado, and enjoyed prorated oil revenue from the various wells on the reservation as an Osage tribe member and lineage-holder in high standing. She longed to handle alchemical gold and make jewelry out of that. She was so innately radical in her daily living that she was neither left-wing Occupy Movement nor right-wing Tea Party but gave simultaneous expression to each form at its edgiest. Such distinctions break down anyway when one tries to an unnuanced reality out on the range without a luxury of positions or mere ritual acts and poses.

The clash of lifestyles was inevitable and grating. Unspoken judgments were unavoidable. Yet everyone tried to handle differences gracefully. You can’t make such stuff go away simply by niceties or extending grand generosities that turn underneath into condescensions. Mac’s Barbeque aside, we were eating very different foods, microwaving (or not) at odds with each other, letting things go (or not) at conflicting degrees of irritability and resistance, and maintaining surface esprit and countercultural extravagances at our own separate paces and means. We wouldn’t go near the cellophaned produce and meat from the supermarket chain, and she wouldn’t sanction the corporate theft of Whole Foods (AKA Whole Paycheck) in Tulsa.

I honestly wanted to buy one of her paintings to stow in the car for Maine, but she evaded that intention, even when the intent, in part, was to contribute for some hens (at $100 per) for the peacock. Because condescension is only, as the song goes, a heartbeat away. Pride too.

By the second day, Julie was telling me what to photograph and what to put in my blog, so I am now trying to maintain the contradiction at razor’s edge by writing about her while not writing about her. When Lindy initially wanted to take a photograph, forgetting my promise and reverting to her ritual normality and optimism, Ms. Julie said, “Absolutely not.” In fact, her willingness and capacity to say, “No” in the most unexpected ways at the most unlikely moments was impressive. The next moment, though, she set up the pose of which I took several shoits, she and Lindy beside a painting she was working on for an Osage commission, a spider-clan tattoo glyph not yet drawn on the face.

One thing Julie wanted me to be sure to include in my blog was that we had to park our Prius far enough inside the electrified wire (that was no longer electrified because of a malfunction not yet repaired…but the horses didn’t know that) and yet far enough from the house that the pack rats living under it did not chew our electrical wires (as they had hers). While horses might give it a few good kicks and butts and maybe remove the side-view mirrors for us, the pack rats did not feel like leaving the protection of the house very far. We had to pick the perfect in-between spot.

Night-time was especially difficult for me—for both Lindy and me— for mostly different reasons. For Lindy it was a general insomnia and the state of things around her, disorderly and unsettled, plus the headboard kept collapsing off the bed onto us.

For me it was a very ancient and deep-seated anxiety and paranoia (plus the city boy I generically am). Once darkness fell, I saw no reason why any of the characters I had viewed targeting houses on Forensic Files, or any of those nameless sociopaths and psychopaths of the Capote/ Koontz Americana landscape, couldn’t just march out of the night and conduct a home invasion or outright murder us. Those images haunted, and yes ganged up on me, even as I used meditation techniques, Buddhist logic, and a ring of psychic protection roses to fend them off.

I also had the more concrete experience also, while working on my blog and watching the inning-by-inning score of a late Met game at the dining-room table (after Lindy had gone to bed), of having four (4!) perfectly shaped (as in a cartoon in a warning poster about Lyme disease) tics land on me: two on my face, one on my arm, and one in my lap. I thought that they were dropping from the ceiling, but Julie said (in the morning), “No way. They were falling from your hair. You brought them in from outside.” Lindy wanted to pin this crime on the dogs, but Julie was having none of that (and was kind of laughing at our frantic concern about the tics anyway). I killed them each with a knife (since they didn’t squash), then felt all over my body, especially all through my scalp and hair, and took a shower. (Spiders and most other bugs I guide outside. Sorry, tics, you and I are at species war.)

Also Casper, the most irrepressible of Julie’s dogs, hence not permitted to be inside (he had just taken a good bite out of one of the smaller dogs who was now in serious pain, so that Julie had threatened to shoot him or have him put down—but she thought shooting was kinder) broke into agitated regular barking spells as if either Ted Bundy or her our host’s enemies on the Osage Council—she snarlingly described many who would like her to vanish—or the Cropsey Maniac of my childhood camp terrors (invented by our counselors) was truly approaching through the murk.

Meanwhile Julie’s sickest dog Lassie had an intermittent cough that sounded like a death rattle (in fact, Lindy told me in the morning that when she got up to pee, she thought she saw it no longer breathing on the living-room floor).

All in all, I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t even sure, after a while, I wanted to try. I was a coward, afraid of ghosts.

At 2:30 AM, I got out of bed, went out to the porch, and sat there. Everything changed almost instantly. The air cleared, my mind cleared, and I loved the universe again. The stars put my situation in context, and the sounds of the night were magical. The best was a chk-chk-chk-chk cackle (supplying a note that Julie might have picked up in unconscious, or even intentional, shamanic mimicry), a kind of weird, delightful laughter (under the circumstances). It seemed to answer the bullfrog’s deep clang and the various surges and wanes of cricket neuro-electricity. All of these joined in symphony, Philip Glass meets John Cage, but actually more like a dijeridoo performance. There were also other bird or amphibious sounds. Julie told me (when I asked the next day) that the cackle was a salamander—“Don’t you just love it!”

Beyond all this near music, on Route 11 at the boundary of the land, an occasional car or truck passed with its own drum snare, an innocent and lonely sentinel in its natural orbit, out of darkness into darkness, single wayfarers. No one was threatening this house. The world itself was at peace. It was calm, under transdimensional angelic guardianship, going about its serious, unaffected, non-paranoid regular business. My fugue reminded me of something my martial-arts teacher Ron Sieh said to me back in the early nineties, “Your body’s okay, it’s your mind that’s all fucked up.” I felt resonances of that old Marty Robins song (covered best by Don Edwards): “Man walks among us. / Be still. Be still. / Man walks among us. / Be still.”

After I assured myself that the maniacs, Cropsey and otherwise, were in my head, I came back to bed and fell asleep. If I had had the means, I might have preferred to camp out. That was my predilection: the sanctuary of the land and red moon.

Julie is probably laughing at all this, the city mouse on the country mouse’s property, happy to visit but longing to get back to the city ASAP. I mean, she had lived alone in Mexico; she had a gun. She wasn’t going to lose a wink of sleep on her great-great grandfather’s land in Osage Nation. Certainly not worrying about spooks, tics, or marauders. The barn door had been open far too long.

Our plan in the morning was to head north for the day, to the Osage Museum in Pawhuska and then the tall-grass prairie beyond. We presented Julie early with the decision that we would hang for the day but take off and spend the night in Tulsa so as to get an early start on the long drive toward Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. As expected, she was not happy at that, let us know that she was insulted, and continued to scoff openly at our timidity.

At the start of the trip, a motel for the night was a fallback that I thought I wanted to avoid like the plague—antiseptic atmosphere, chemicals, a waste of $100+, etc., plus the funereal vibration of the American commerce conveyor belt)—but actually I had come to crave a respite from constant contact, extraction from the complexities of the situations we got ourselves into. Julie initial response was: “Tulsa’s not even forty minutes. If you’re going to go to Tulsa, you might as well stay here and leave first thing in the morning.” Then when we were unpersuaded, she snapped, “Why don’t you just leave now if you’re so anxious to go.”

But we weren’t really anxious to go. We were up for our day in Osage Nation with her as our guide. After sulking in her room, she came out like the oracle and Delphi and gave her decision: let’s do a day-trip before you go.

The three of us got our ducks in congenial order and were out the door by 11. Yet misunderstandings accumulated like clockwork, right from the get-go. I thought we were going to go in her SUV, but she said, “No, we’re taking your Prius.”

It was about thirty miles of absolutely beautiful country to Pawhuska, not all Osage-populated. The oilfield barons lived here too, in mansions as per Townes Van Zandt’s “All Your Young Servants” that I couldn’t get out of my mind as we drove past:

“There once was a time when your money had meaning
You diamonds had glitter but now it’s all gone
It poisoned your laughter and muffled your singing
You can’t even see that it’s wrong.

Your castle is dingy and dirty and dismal
Your carpets are faded, your walls are all gray
There’s dust on your silver and cracks in your crystal
All your young servants have drifted away.”

The fractal Oklahoma shoreline flashed on both sides of the road through hill and dale. Again, it was Vermont, or a viable stand-in, but you don’t have Osage in Vermont, or anything like the town of Pawhuska. This time I took a couple of photographs (when we stopped in the old cowboy-and-Indian setting to look at a series of murals, one of them by Julie: of horses). Then we proceeded to the Osage museum, which was mostly civic and genealogical fare, not much ceremonial gear there. Julie jibed with the proprietesses, enjoying her role as mystery woman and rabble-rouser, which led to a long conversation in the car about her difficulties with all these folks as well as their bad will and attitudes toward each other. But when Lindy empathized too strongly, she said, “No, no, it’s tribalism; that’s all. Look at Mexico, look at the Middle East.” She affirmed how much she loved them and how committed to them she was being here, in the live mix.

The journey through the Tall Grass Prairie, preserved at maybe as much as 100,000 acres by the Nature Conservancy—I never got the exact number—hit at the heart of our collective vulnerability, discordant life-paths, variant patiences, and assorted personal differences. We had entirely different expectations and tolerances for the outing, and we wound ourselves in a total knot and had a hell of a time getting out of it.

I, for instance, from the title of our afternoon “going to the tall-grass prairie,” thought that we were driving for ten to twenty minutes and then hiking in the fresh air in the prairie itself. I mainly hoped we wouldn’t get lost. But actually we weren’t hiking, and there was no way to get lost because there were just one road; we were driving seventeen miles of, much of that on a dirt-gravel surface, through the vast landscape, all the way to the conservation-ranch headquarters. Twelve or so of those miles were at fifteen miles per hour on mostly washboard, making the trip from Pawhuska to the headquarters about forty-five minutes.

It was indisputably magnificent, even galactic, cosmic: the Earth in its orbit and rotation, the seeds in their genealogy, the prairie as it was before the Euros came and planted their trees and houses and farms and called it land and then said land was a commodity and negotiable too, as were the things hidden underneath it, and drew up their treaties to buy it from people who didn’t know it could be sold. It was wild free grasses, not a Hollywood “cowboys and Indians” set or “little house on the prairie.” It had a tinge or smidgen of the neutral, sweetgrass, morning-dust reality that existed before legends, nostalgic tropes, and post cards were placed atop it. If you could go back a hundred or two hundred years, or even to the place and time of your childhood, the mythology that has surged up since to surround and imbue would evaporate like a decorative mirage, and it would leave behind the raw bone-like concrete reality that gives rise to mythologies anyway but is more hardcore and basic and, finally and solely, livable than any myth based on it.

After the fact, after the faux exchanges and transformation of the original landscape, the Nature Conservancy had bought back a chunk of it with the same currency that had stolen it and restored it to tall grass with buffalo, and that’s what we saw, in all directions, on one of the last pieces left of the original prairie. It was spacious and stunning, but I would have rather been out walking a tiny aromatic patch of it, a fractal, than driving on this bumpy road as if propelled through a Disneyland concession.

This is the way it went: Lindy and I complained and kept asking how far and how long and saying things like, “You said five minutes more than fifteen minutes ago.” What Julie had actually said, “Who cares! Maybe five minutes.”

Plus it took me quite a while to grok that the 17-mile sign pertained to us; I had no idea how far we were going or how long it would take for most of the drive.

Then Lindy said, “We’re on a cross-country trip, and we don’t need this much more driving. Let’s turn around at the next chance.”

Then Julie said, “You guys, what a drag, what about ‘being in the now.’ I thought you practiced that.”

Lindy: “There are many ways of being in the now. You don’t get to decide that for me. It’s not that simple or everyone would be a Zen master.” Meaning: “You’re not a Zen master yourself, bigshot Osage wild-woman.”

Periodically Julie would say, “Just look at all that. It goes on forever. I could live out here.”

Periodically one of us would say, “If it’s not just around that next bend [meaning the headquarters], we should turn around.”

Or “this has really been long.”

And Julie: “I think this is now just about the longest trip I have ever taken. You guys sure have a way of making those minutes drag.”

Lindy: “Don’t you have any compassion or empathy?”

Julie (no doubt feeling that Lindy was quite privileged by comparison) cackled like a salamander.

Lindy: “This been a really long day and we still have to get to the East Coast.”

Julie: “Would you like me to get you some Valium?”

Ultimately we ended up at the Conservancy, a rather conventional shop with a small museum. We had driven all those miles through the grasses to a mere shop. I spent a little time inside, looking at stuffed owls, tortoise shells, and the like. Then I walked outside and down a short trail near the parking lot while Lindy and Julie looked and schmoozed with the employees.

Just a few steps into the grass was transformative—a rich hay-like smell that grew subtler and sweeter; the buzzing of insects, some of them visible yet unfamiliar, like little flying origami; patches of coneflower and other wild herbs, hawks overhead, a sense of pure open space. I yearned to pull my attention down and be mesmerized at the smallest thing. I wasn’t happy driving it, so much distance, to what, what end? Any foot-by-foot square of tall grass would have done. I was reminded of how last year in Maine I led our three-year-old grandson Joey to the nearby ocean inlet. It was only a few hundred yards, but he stopped every few feet, to look at a bug, to pick up a stick, to peer under a rock. We spent more time getting there than at the shore. That’s how my attention level felt then. I could zone out into it.

What Julie would have said (and in effect did) was: “Well, we can hike too. Just spend a few more hours, or days, or years. Don’t rush off. Don’t charge back into your life so fast.”

On our drive back, we stopped in the road to look at the buffalo that had come close to the traffic, but quickly got back in our car when they moved menacingly toward us (there plenty of signs telling us not to be fooled, that these were dangerous beats). It’s that old “grizzly man” [per Werner Herzog] syndrome, to think that they’re not quite real, or that they actually know that they’re harmless fluffy throwbacks and nearly extinct. Buffalo don’t think anything of the kind. They’ve got calves to protect, and they don’t know that they’re on a tame preserve or that their day has passed. They have ferocity and hoofs.

Back in the car I put on Don Edwards singing “Coyotes,” the forgotten Kalin Twins, and Dion and the Belmonts.

 

“Now the longhorns are gone
And the drovers are gone
And the Comanches are gone
And the outlaws have gone
And Geronimo is gone
And Sam Bass is gone
And the red wolf is gone
And the buffalo is gone.

Well, he cursed all the roads and the oil men
He even cursed the automobile
And he said, “This ain’t place for an hombre like I am
In this new world of asphalt and steel.”

 

Then, after “Teenager in Love” catalyzed Julie’s reminiscences and story-telling, both passengers asked me to turn it off so two hearing-compromised elders could make out each other’s words.

After our trek back to Avant, Lindy and I packed up the car and headed south on Highway 11, back through Skiatook to Oklahoma 75.

 

Tulsa

I can’t tell you why, but I was drawn to Tulsa irrationally. It wasn’t just the escape. It was like a dream city that I wanted to enter lucidly. Except it wasn’t a dream; it was “real,” so maybe it was a real city that I wanted to dream.

I wasn’t curious in this way when we grazed the outskirts of Tucson. I might have been drawn in more if the Gem and Mineral Show were happening, but Tucson seemed Phoenix lite and Phoenix was LA lite, different overtones of the same vibration. As for Dallas, I had lived there briefly as a child when my mother left my stepfather and moved in with her own mother who, by then, had left a sick husband for Tom Golden, an oil-industry salesman. Right out of Arthur Miller.

If I wanted to dream Dallas while awake, it would have been Dallas 1951, a different sort of a waking dream. I was seven years old and never fully understood, at the time, that we were not still in “New York” or, maybe more accurately, how either place stood in relationship to the other except adjacently in my life narrative. After all we got on a train downtown in New York City, went to sleep, and woke in Texas. A month later we got on a train there and emerged in Penn Station. Dallas fell somewhere between those acts, New York City stretching in all directions on either side of it.

But I had meager curiosity about modern Dallas. I would have loved to have seen the ancient city buried in Penn Station, our house where my brother Jon and I drank out of look-and-see straws, the rodeo we attended with Grandpa Tom. In Dallas The Wizard of Oz was read to me while the younger kids Jon’s age took naps on cots (I was the only older child at the preschool). Dallas was where I befriended and, to my chagrin, got bitten by Katey the stray kitten from my Little Golden Book. Those sites lay under the sidewalks of modern Dallas.

Tulsa had a fresh mystery ring to it. What is Tulsa? It’s not Denver, Salt Lake, Houston, Dallas, Albuquerque, Cheyenne, Las Vegas; it’s urban Oklahoma, with a reputation for being among the reddest of red cities—a gun and gun-show mecca, a Bible-church capital with preacher-dominated clear-channel radio, the dominion of oil barons and fellow mega-capitalists, an anti-immigrant Tea Party watering hole where two-thirds of the voters cast their ballots for Willard Mitt Romney, where the Koch Brothers and Ted Nugent are heroes, women seeking abortions are flummoxed, and Wal-Mart headquarters are nearer and dearer than purple mountain majesties or fruited plains.

But that’s not at all what Tulsa looked like driving past. It looked more like Oz, the Emerald City. And then there was the matter of those luminous, Basquiat-quality graffiti I had seen like a sequence from a comic book along an entire block in an unrequited blink from crisscrossing highways as we headed north, trying to keep on Highway 75.

We could have put in a few hours after Avant driving east into Missouri, making up time, instead of crashing in Tulsa or going on a wild goose chase for painted walls. Yet Tulsa fit our agenda, for we were exhausted and evening was approaching. What follows makes sense only if you think of dreamers entering a dream city, not Tulsa per se but perhaps its astral counterpart flickering in and out of brick-and-mortarville. If you already know the Tulsa as an American city or are attached to its redneck Bible Belt reputation, my account will seem exaggerated, even mildly hallucinogenic.

As we entered the outskirts of town on 75 South, Lindy driving, I made an impulsive decision to route us east on 244 since the University of Tulsa showed on the map in that vicinity and university areas are generally more cultural and have more promising restaurants. Also we would take 244 to 44 East the next morning.

That was a fruitless deviation. We ended up in a nondescript semi-commercial area with neither motels nor viable restaurants, only a bland mixture of residential and mercantile Anywhere: a letdown. So we got back on the highway and headed into the heart of Tulsa this time. Interstate 75 was inexplicably closed a mile or so before the city center—and I mean closed. The word “Closed” with makeshift tape were pasted informally over its southern direction on every highway sign (to our right, left, and above us), and there was no further elucidation or redirection. So we exited onto First Street, stuck to it for a while, then made an intuitive turn onto Elgin where we immediately encountered an adult superstore (of the sort that seems more endemic than even Wal-Marts in the Bible Belt, BTW earning not just major but gargantuan signage on all the highways we would cross the next day, and I am talking about east through Missouri into Indiana—a less acknowledged clear channel).

This particular X-rated effusion in Tulsa indicated that we were in the “wrong” neighborhood (as I was still looking for those elusive graffiti). We turned right on Sixth Street. Just as we did, sonorous ethereal church bells started ringing at such a volume and from so many directions that it seemed like my lucid dream. That is, they played a haunting, non-melodic canticle and made everything else seem otherworldly. In keeping with the symphony, large magnificent churches now dominated the changing urban landscape. It may have been the Bible Belt, but Tulsa’s Christian edifices stood in distinct contrast to the sorts of drive-by Baptist prayer-zones we had been encountering outside Houston and in rural Oklahoma: adapted barns, warehouses, big garages, with movie marquees of apocalyptic sound bites and drivel koans. Church on Fire near Pawhusket was the most creative name but had no connection to the Kitchen on Fire cooking school in Berkeley; it was more like hellfire at your butt. I wish I could remember some of the other names, but they added up to Jesus in fifty-point type. By contrast these Tulsa churches were full-blown European cathedrals, and their being in Oklahoma added to the eerie UFO ambiance.

Past the churches, we saw the characteristic markings of a Holiday Inn in the distance, a worthwhile target, but we had to circle a cluster of blocks three times before we found its entrance because there were only one-way streets mixed with construction and detours. We were assigned a room on the fourteenth floor with a panoramic view of the city.

Reading the local tourist magazine and looking at the map, we discovered both an Arts District and an arts-like “Blue Dome” District. The latter was named after the dome of the converted Gulf Gas Station that we had passed on Elgin driving in. Lindy found a listing for a restaurant with both healthy and haute-cuisine possibilities and coincidental ties to our afternoon’s adventure, for it named called Tall Grass Prairie Farm to Table. After reading about it and confirming the choice, she mapped out a route. We chose to walk rather than accept a ride from the Holiday Inn shuttle. After all, it was still daylight and exploration time.

The journey involved tacking five blocks from Seventh to Second and another six or so from Boulder to partway between Detroit and Elgin. It provided my long-awaited stroll through Lucid Dreamville and Nostalgia Town. The combination of churches and sleek narrow modern skyscrapers gave the town a surreal look with a signature design, Alpha Centaurian perhaps. Meanwhile the shops, signage, assorted public text had fifties and sixties flavors to them; they were vestiges and throwbacks of a gentler time. The Performing Arts Center was not much more than a stone’s throw from the Tulsa Drillers baseball stadium, ONEOK Field. What could be more congenial and culturally progressive? We saw plenty of amateur art on walls and storefronts as well as common graffiti, but we never found the particular panel that I spied from 75 North. No one at the Holiday Inn knew what or where it was, and they brought in plenty of proximal consultants. We likewise didn’t find it when I prevailed upon Lindy to drive Lansing Street along closed 75 on our way to Whole Foods after dinner.

We arrived Tall Grass Prairie around 6:30; it was not only full of diners but booked till 9:30. In lieu of full seating, we accepted a small cocktail table by the bar, its main drawback being chairs that had no backs and were more like fancy stools. After we ate some range-fed beef in deference to our locale, we took a different route back to the hotel, then got our car from the underground garage, and went out looking for Whole Foods.

In starting on this ostensibly tame several-mile outing, we had some concern that the route would include marginal neighborhoods, junky malls, or something else unexpected and unappealing—or that we would get lost. We did get lost, but only at the end and to a minor degree.

The route via Peoria to 41st was in keeping with the ethers of my enchantment. We passed beautifully landscaped parks with hills encompassing multiple layers of grass, shrubbery, and trees; sculpted stones and outcroppings, tunnels, ponds, and waterfalls. The setting sun made these vistas all the more numinous and Oz-like, crying out for a dusk stroll we didn’t take. When we made a right rather than a left turn on 41st Street, we came to a quick dead end: a river with boats and dusk strollers.

En route to 41st we encountered neighborhoods of tasteful architecture, a few mansions, etc., but nothing overly castle-like—a bit like upscale Hartford, Connecticut. Tulsa looked like a great place to live (and die). It had some of the same distinctive indigenous vibe that drew us to Portland, Maine, over Berkeley. Yet it was Tulsa—Tulsa of all places!

Remember, this is Koch Brothers territory, blood land, oil money, money made off the backs of exploited immigrants, legal and other; likewise many of the cheerful well-dressed diners of all ages who graced Tall Prairie, at probably one to three degrees of separation, if any, of being beneficiaries of oil and corporate tax breaks. These were probably not our kind of folks—we were in the heart of enemy territory. Yet I didn’t see or feel it that way. All the people we talked to (at the motel, the restaurant, Whole Foods) were friendly—too friendly in fact. It was as if they were trying to prove the inter-subjectivity of my dream. It had to be astral Tulsa. Or maybe they were all Moonies and related sorts of Bible cultists, instructed to smile and be polite for God; maybe the invasion of the body-snatchers had taken place, and I was totally fooled. But it seemed authentic. Dreams always do when they are happening.

From our window in the Holiday Inn, the city turned spectral at night.

What is Tulsa finally? It is Salt Lake without the Mormon crescendo and pile-up—part of the esoteric Rocky Mountain Theocracy. It is a mixture of Denver, Austin, Elko, Portland (either one), and 1950s New York City, but clearly none of them. It leaves its own unique signature, and I wouldn’t mind someday returning and getting to see more of the inner sanctum, even if it dissipates the dream. I’d like to do a reading or talk there and experience what came out of the woodwork and stone of hidden, occult America here.

Our stay wasn’t all perfect. Holiday Inn experienced a catastrophic infrastructure breakdown that night: toilets backed up, hot water ceased, and dripping water made puddles throughout the underground garage, much of which was already cordoned-off in construction zones. In fact, the garage was a full-blown nightmare for Lindy the next morning when she couldn’t find our car and suddenly felt exposed and unsafe in the dark sub-sub-sub-basement, navigating around water, grime, and orange strips of tape. During a brief anxiety attack, she called me on the cell and I came down and helped locate the blue Prius, one half-spin above where she was looking.

I had gotten up at 6 AM to work on this trip journal and, while sitting at a table in the lobby with my laptop, I was able to listen in on a cockcrow convocation of airline pilots from different fleets, comparing routes and weather, and then introducing each other to each other’s stewardesses as they appeared one by one, in full regalia.

Strange that they would soon go shooting off through the sky across so many grids of Euclidean space before the day was out. For me their approaching travels were transpiring under the omen of the recent Malaysia airline shootdown above rebel Ukraine; that is, ever so slightly ominous and macabre, though perfectly normal and affable (like everything else as long as it is, as long as there’s not a missing stair). I was also deducing, as I listened, that Tulsa was not a high-value destination, so these were probably not the top guns or max-seniority attendants.

This is a guy, me, who likes saying, “Any day you don’t have to fly is a good day.” So I adored driving it and listening to the air banter despite my own remaining long miles on concrete with much greater actually danger.

After finding our car, we set out at 10 AM toward Joplin. Progress was slow and incremental, but we didn’t pay too much attention to the miles because we had CDs worth of novels and short stories and the iPod and made regular Rest Area stops and driver changes. I did my t’ai chi set at least once or twice a day, having gotten over the embarrassment of my first such public attempt back on I5 in California. By New Mexico I was brazenly doing the whole form, and it brought incomparable spinal and visceral relief, giving a fresh start to the next stint.

It took till late afternoon to reach St. Louis. Getting past it involved a complicated series of maneuvers with many unpredictable, usually hair-raising lane changes around the perimeter of the city. Despite maps, it was obscure what we were actually doing. We saw road signs leading everywhere that we weren’t going: Chicago, Minneapolis, Memphis, Tulsa—plus Indianapolis, our temporary destination.

Exiting 44 onto 270, we passed through Kirkwood, where Lindy’s father’s family lived before they went to Red Lodge, Montana, and then Denver—ostensibly a Hough family library is still in operation there. We passed the airport. Then long after we assumed that we had completely circled St. Louis and left it behind, it appeared to our right. I was driving, so Lindy took a few photographs. We crossed the Mississippi on a peacock’s tail of a bridge; this was the great American river marking the division between east and west, between (I told myself then) Mark Twain’s irony and his actual profundity. The Mississippi carried both from the glaciers to the gulf, America in between, from cowboys and Indians to slave-owners and slaves, pimps and whores, industrialists and workers, toxins and fertilizer.

You might think that Tulsa is really far from Ann Arbor, and it is, almost a thousand miles. Yet after an hour or two, Oklahoma turns into Missouri. Then you cross Missouri, not all at once but gradually; you hit St. Louis, you cross the Mississippi, and you are in Illinois. 44 turns into 270 which becomes 70. Doesn’t that sound like progress? We went from St. Louis, the outer boundary of the old National League, into the vicinity of Chicago, its hub.

In Illinois, you pass Cahokia, outlier of Serpent Mounds and the rough-hewn Southeast Cult planetarium. You go through Effingham, Illinois, the largest town on Illinois 70 but a place that I had never heard of till then. If you are us, you end up in Terre Haute at 8:30 PM local time, having lost an hour crossing into EDT. I had thought at the beginning of the day that St. Louis was our minimum goal, Indianapolis our outermost target. Tulsa to Terre Haute sounded more alliteratively right, and it turned out to be so: 581.9 miles, the biggest leap of the entire trip.

The first motel we tried off the highway in Terre Haute was too grungy. That is, Lindy balked and, though I was willing to stay there, the female clerk read her and directed us to the Marriott a hair down the road and on its other side. For all of $2 more, we got a much better room plus a much more upscale business center and lobby. We had moved from the Bowery to midtown.

In the morning we got started at 10 again and soon encountered the navigational complexity around Indianapolis, messing it up because 70 didn’t lead directly into 69 north as we had assumed. You needed 465 to connect them. Since we were circling the city counterclockwise, we got two shots at 465, first at around seven o’clock, then again at around three on the same circle. As navigator, I blew both, thinking that 70 was the circle and we were on it. Instead we were working the diameter and ended going due East toward Dayton. I redressed my error by calling for an exit onto 9 North instead of doubling back. That way after about twenty miles we intercepted I69 beyond the city. At least, we got to mellow out through pastoral farmland planted with corn and leafy greens, plenty of cows and barns too.

We entered Michigan in the early afternoon, the first place where Lindy and I made a home in 1966 after graduating from college and getting married.

Taking Interstate 94, we ran up another 356.3 miles from Terre Haute to Ann Arbor, a lot of driving for just two days.

It was 1980 when we had last been in the town where our son was born (and from which we set out on our greater karmic journey, its then-indecipherable portal opening with fieldwork among lobsterfishermen in downeast Maine. Robin is now 45, a historical geographer and environmental biologist living in Berkeley. In the labyrinth within the greater labyrinth, we are on a loop back to Ann Arbor and the etheric residue of 1966!

The 938 miles between Tulsa and Ann Arbor also divides our journey into two very distinct halves, one southwestern, the other northeastern, not even so much in actual geography as in tone and spirit and culture. These are like two trips. The first was over. Then there were two days of car time, meditation, and slow metamorphosis. Now we came out of the cocoon and began the second odyssey from Berkeley to Portland.

 

Interlude

Okay, I did get carried away by my Tulsa tropes, Tulsa fugue, whatever you’d call it. Some of my readers’ responses (below) reminded me that an imaginal landscape can’t necessarily be transmitted. When I look at my account through others’ eyes, I am slightly embarrassed by it. Yet one does chase wisps of the unknown and unlived all the time. All cities contain many hidden and occult cities, and many alternate lives that surround the one that each of us lives. This is how Sethian “aspect reality” works. We can’t get at everything we are. Here are some comments on “Tulsa”:

 

“Not the most appealing skyline….”

 

“It doesn’t seem you’re doing any hard travelin’; you have no Blue Highways to traverse; you are travelling East rather than West. Somewhere along the way you’ve gotten lost.

The richness of the internal life of the dreamer will always drown out the reality of the sojourner. Each of us can be the hero of his own road novel. Howard Johnson replaced by Holiday Inn superseded by Motel 6. It all still comes down to having a place to piss when it’s required.

Somehow all of this seems like notes from the Underground rather than the topsoil of America.”

 

“i have toured the middle many times trying different ways from VT to and from CA often by way of Wisconsin. made it through tulsa once to visit a friend living there. it was surreal and not on my revisit list.”

 

“You’ve planted the sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in my ear — ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa.’” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCjbMdY8dZE]

 

Julie’s response to her characterization in the previous post was off the charts. Maybe I should have expected that. I have been considering evading the whole issue, but I do owe everyone a fair rendition and continued story-line, in bad times as in good.

I missed all the signals in Avant and proceeded as though the three of us were peers under the same tacit pact of understanding of who we were, what kinds of lives we were living, how other people regarded and accepted us, and what could be decently if candidly said about each other without transgression or remorse.

I have made this mistake before, though never with such unhappy consequences. I can be such a stubborn, persistent SOB, with an imaginary mission even if all the indications are bad and I am grasping for a make-believe thread. In Oklahoma, I was telling myself a story, pretending about something that wasn’t there, and then reality hit. I had the delusion that I was writing about a reunion of high-school friends as the husband of one. I thought that we shared enough empathy and fallback trust and good will to survive any dissonance.

Not so. Here’s how I would put it now: If you think that you are with a person struggling with the some basic life issues and on the same playing field in the same game as you, measurable by the same general yardstick, while that person (by contrast) fancies himself (or herself) as a secret shaman, magician, and warrior, participating in the real game (a la Castaneda and Don Juan Matus, for instances) while you (in their regard) are lame pretenders out of a mere skit, untested in war, untested in the desert, untested in the desert, untested in the real parameters of life and death, then at some point the cards are going to turn, the bubble in which you are riding is going to come to a screeching halt and dump you on your ass. If you think you are not adversaries, but your adversary knows you are an adversary and doesn’t want you getting away with anything, you are in trouble.

I don’t pretend to know what is the truth here. In truth, I struggle each day to keep the pieces together, my own sanity intact; that’s been the case since my earliest memories. Julie appeared to be in pain and struggling too, and aware of it, a wounded, prickly fellow traveler on the road of life and death, subject to the usual ups and downs, “the Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks / That Flesh is heir to.” I saw a disabled yet wry loner, living among the relics and chaos of her life, a hero for her high dudgeon and spirit in the face of adversity, for surviving day to day, for continuing to make art. I honored her reclaiming of Osage roots, her feistiness and embattlement with all authority, and I had empathy for her state of disarray, fragile pride, and poverty. I wasn’t comfortable with her quickness anger or the ticks or the dogs who trailed her like a wounded Cerberos or the guns and threats or general mess and infrastructure disrepair and stage of filth; yet we were the guests and she was the host. We had brought ourselves there and had no business judging or complaining and wanting a better lifestyle match. Most of all, I unintentionally satirized, even pitied, a person was much more fire, rage, and pride to allow that to pass.

Julie didn’t think of herself or the situation at all in the way I have described. She considered that she was a made woman in her element, a full adept, above the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” She saw us from the get-go as neurotic Berkeleyites, yuppies, to be humored and ourselves pitied. She thought of Texas as a wasteland of bad taste and privilege and that we had lessened our status by coming through there, rather than western Oklahoma, and finding much to like.

She was from a world where folks don’t talk the way I have been—where they don’t psychologize or frame one another in sliding scales of semi-optional, situationally dispensable personae and allowably shape-shifting self-reflections. Some people live literally and by the law and, when you cross them with your nuanced shit. I mean, you’ve got no fancy words left if you are like a Shiite plebe facing the ISIS hoards or a non-banger wearing the wrong colors while sauntering, or soldiering, naïvely through enemy territory. You are going to get smashed or slimed as sadistically and nastily as they can retch it up. She apparently saw me as a wuss, pardoning my own excesses with (additionally) the foolhardy gumption to invade her territory and make a pitiable stand in words and acts. Her grade was less than F.

For one’s own fragile self-confidence and standing in a world of deceptive layers and paradoxes, where no one gets to stay above water for long and certainly not all the time, you (meaning me, meaning any of us) should stay out, stay out of places you don’t belong, are asked not to be, but, for criminy’s sake, don’t then attempt to file a quasi-routine report on the occasion, to normalize what can’t be normalized. In retrospect, Julie warned us. She said that she wasn’t in a good frame of mind and didn’t hanker guests. We kidded ourselves that our cross-country drive was important enough to impose over that and that we got points for making it and reconnecting, even for leaving when we were getting on each other’s nerves and it was obviously time. To her mind we had trespassed on sacred ground as blasphemers as we dared to treat a mage and decorated soldier in battle as a mere civilian. We were blind boobs.

No, I was not attending or supporting a reunion of high-school friends. There was something much darker, much more serpentine going on, something closer to the blood crux, the black hole, the essential life drama, maybe the whirlwind force that makes a labyrinth a labyrinth. And I now walk the earth, the maze, subdued and knocked off any road-trip high or high horse. Like Lindy, I have difficulty putting one foot before the other. But it is improving by the hour, and I tell myself that that was an essential part of the labyrinth too, part of the necessary transubstantiation between years of nesting in the faux Berkeley utopia and the unknown future to which we had consigned ourselves by going into willing exile. As our neighbors had warned, we were leaving paradise. I know think, with this most recent lesson, that we got out just in time.

I am somewhat of bumbling oracle, always have been. That is, I don’t set out to tell or reflect people’s secrets, to disclose their untold demons, the things they don’t want revealed, so it is not a great quality at all that I repeatedly cross that line. Yet it has been a part of my repertoire since I was a young child in a household from which both my mother and brother would later commit suicide, thirty years apart in their mid-fifties. Neither of them liked my gaze. That’s an understatement. They hated me for it and tried to shut it off and shame or bash me out of. But it was largely innocent, and a gaze, and I couldn’t help it. Part of it was unintentional mimicry and couvade. If they felt terror, I felt more terror. If they had panics, I had super-panics. If they were crazy, I was even crazier. It was as though I was saying, “We’re going to freak out, are we? Well then, dig this!”

That undercurrent I give myself a pass on. I can’t help being a sort of soothsayer, a ruthless teller, a tale-bearer. It’s the snoop and gossip-monger who is not forgivable—the adult writerly persona. That part is inexcusable and indulgent; I flat-out like to tell stories out of school and analyze. I am a gossip and confidence-violator. I compulsively force myself to track and report. It is an addiction. I like to disclose because it deepens things. But at whose expense? Then when it runs into that oracle, I am in deep trouble, especially in the company of hardasses with tight-lipped macho standards. No journalists or poets permitted there.

In addition, something in me, even while trying to be equitable and esteeming, even while trying to suppress the oracular tendency, somehow tells the one story, presents the one image that, to the person I am characterizing, is unbearable, not just unbearable but impermissible to recognize, let alone speak; let alone speak aloud with gee-whiz innocence, let alone tell the so-called. What I did was a criminal act and impudence of the most heinous sort.

Afterwards I received two days worth (by now, make that six months) of continual emails from Osage Nation, accusing me of slander, betrayal, stupidity, self-servingness, effrontery, self-indulgence, insolence, and undue self-flattery. And I am substituting my own polite words. The diatribes not only used four-letter words in rap-like outrage but seemed to employ them in trying to strain ever stronger epithets to pin on me (and Lindy). For a small sample try, “fucker,” “asshole,” “rapist,” “miserable tiny people,” “two really fucked-up people who deserve each other,” “retard,” “carnival huckster,” etc.

In the initial blasts, Julie claimed never to have liked Lindy in high school, merely to have suffered her insipid, aristocratic presence out of mercy and now to consider her a “total neurotic on an emotional racecourse.” To prove her point about high school, she almost certainly fabricated a skein of bizarre incidents involving Lindy doing unconscionable things to other girls. They had to be fabricated because the things of which she accused my then-teenage partner were too perfectly satanic, too totally out of character, more like the wishful thinking of someone desperate to hurt someone else as badly as she can. After forty-eight years I know enough about Lindy to know that there isn’t a whole body of nasty adolescent work withheld from me. Even as a teenager, Lindy looked out for other people first, put others before herself, to a fault. She is quite transparent, and I know her resumé by now.

Our host was shamelessly anti-Semitic too—and anyone who knows me well knows that I never pull that card. Yet the emails to both Lindy and me castigate her choice of a husband by using classic Jewish caricatures and epithets to describe the guy (and then to add, again, “you f’ers deserve each other” as if Tennessee Williams scripting for Brando and maybe Vivien Leigh). If I quoted straight from her emails and told you that the lines were from a Nazi Party tract on the “Zionist Plague in Germany,” take my word for it, you’d have no trouble believing it. They are too repulsive to admit being associated with, even to the degree of putting them in this blog and then saying a hundred times: “I didn’t say this; it was said about me.” I couldn’t get such a page clean enough to want to shoot into anyone’s inbox.

And, again, I flatter—yes, flatter—myself that I am politically one of the most anti-Zionist jewboys and, while I can’t help my genes, I do not buy into Jewish vogues of cultural preciousness and certainly not endless modes of holocaust guilt-tripping and anti-Semitic gotchaism. I love the Zohar and the esoteric Torah and those brothers who are really brother, certainly not the swaggering Chosen People who are imitators of every other self-sanctifying, run-of-the mill macho fascist ethnic-cleansing regime.

Well, Julie turned me into a spectrum of every common Jewish caricature, something I didn’t think that she had in her, either the vitriol or the wit.

Her barrage is also where a long-time admirer of Osage culture and religion, reader of the Rite of Vigil and other Plains ceremonies, falls flat on his ass before the actual Osage Nation in present-time motion.

It reminds me of another thing: people who are liberal on many issues and even artists, even indigenous, radical artists, can still carry major anti-intellectual Tea-Party vibrations. And that’s a lot what this was about too: flat-out anti-intellectualism of the sort that you might find elsewhere in Oklahoma under very different sociopolitical circumstances. It is the notion that intellectuals are ruining everything: they are smug and think all too highly of themselves. They rob the people of their rightful fruits by their pseudo-cleverness. To this protagonist, any idea, any visionary flight, any (god forbid, psychological insight), certainly poetry, certainly cosmic and spiritual troping, was repugnant intellectualism. Bring on the Red Guards! Now!

Under these surfaces are more substantial issues. In truth, everything harsh said about oneself, no matter by whom, no matter how off the wall (and who gets to judge that finally?), no matter how motivated by anger and petty desire to get back and wound, has an element of truth because it reflects some of the energy you are sending their way—some of the energy naturally in the field between you. They can’t do it to you unless you are doing it to them at some level also. It’s axiomatic: she is giving me fair blowback. That’s physics—psychic shamanic physics. Voodoo. Every evil eye is being generated by the gaze upon it. Every recrimination is a self-recrimination of the person receiving it, and vice versa. That’s Freudian projection, reaction formation too. You exaggerate what you can’t bear while turning it into its opposite and putting it out there in full regalia, on public parade. Jung’s enantiodromia.

I deserved what I got, and I’d be a fool as well as a squanderer of opportunities if I didn’t take the lesson seriously and try to internalize and convert it, to honor it as intelligence from (Julie aside) a higher source. The angels and spirit guides have many ways of speaking, of getting your attention, of zen-tapping your stubborn ass, and, if you think they contact you only by being good guys and your friend, only by wonderful New Age affirmations, think again. It is exactly, precisely the opposite. They come only in ways that you wouldn’t recognize. They rarely blow their cover and, even when they do, it’s exceptions that prove the rule.

Some of the folks in my life whom I have least liked initially and who have been the most ruthlessly critical of me have turned into my greatest teachers. Take Ron Sieh, my early-nineties martial-arts teacher who also got me started on psychic work. I thought that he was a jerk and I avoided him at the dojo. Not only did he say (once he became my teacher), “Your mind is all fucked up,” but, “It’s your set, no one else’s. So do it.” And he also said, “I’m trying to get you to be the best that you can, but you obviously have some other agenda.” That’s the basic message of the enemy: we’re all try to bring each other up to snuff, up to code.

I was already worrying about this blog’s self-indulgence, invasions of privacy, and trampling over personal sovereignty and, particularly in this case, walking the fine line between fair artistic and ethnographic use and sheer character theft. Well, blow up that pipe dream.

So my Osage humiliation, followed by my Tulsa indulgence, stop me in my tracks in Ann Arbor. I am uncertain about whether even to continue writing this journal, whether it is good for me or anyone, and whether I have conjured myself into a knot as well as a sinkhole of presumptuous, prying mud. After all, this lady is not crying out because I’ve been a thoughtful good citizen and impeccable scribe.

On the other hand, I did (and do) try to be even-handed. I tried to correct the errors she pointed out in the previous installment. I tried to imagine her subjective position and hold its integrity, give her fair voice. In fact, I didn’t even intend to write about her (as per our original deal) until she told me how much she was looking forward to seeing my description of her scene. Even then, Lindy warned (on the drive to Tulsa), “Don’t write about her. I have a very bad feeling about it.” As usual, she was right, I was pig-headed and wrong. Instead I told myself that I was justified in responding after the next email, ragging me to be sure to give her my honest, unexpurgated, unabridged impression. Yeah, sure!

That was—you idiot—a trap—Coyote’s intentional misdirect and clever ruse.

So despite my confession here and my recognition that I crossed a line I shouldn’t have and played fast and loose with someone else’s dignity for my own hit-and-run literary goals, I feel equally that I was set up and that in fact nothing I wrote (or didn’t write) would have been right. I was condemned before I set foot on the Reservation. And this would have been true whether I reported anything or not.

After characterizing my partner as a simpering ninny not worth her friendship then, let alone now, our host said, “Initially I found you more interesting than Lindy. You seemed quiet and polite.” You know what comes next. She said that she burned cedar to clean her house of us, that we were never to come near her again.

The only thing I wrote back to her, other than to apologize as profusely, meticulously, and sincerely as I could, was that there are many kinds of cedar and we all burn our own when we need to: if she wanted to be treated like a shaman, she should act like one.

There are also many types of shamans, many types of lessons shamans give—there are trickster shamans and predator shamans, who am I to judge?

Another, more minimalist view of this incident is that Lindy’s old friend was competitive with her and wanted a deference from us we couldn’t muster. I don’t think she could stand Lindy having any sort of an edge on her now (as apparently Julie was the boss lady in high school), and the way she handled it was to impose a value system whereby we were yuppies, jerks, invaders, despoilers, deceivers (like all the other gringos and, ostensibly. 15/16ths of herself) and that she was the true Indian surviving on what was left of her stolen prairie, suffering the profanation of her ranch by crude, wimpy pseudo-artists from high falutin’ northern California her irrelevant past.

Yes, I know—“Osage” is cultural not biological, but so is everything else, including the ceremony, the one we are all in, the labyrinth and grail.

Finally her emails got too crazy for me to cede her a high position as shaman artist or even a marginally congenial host. I mean when disease-carrying ticks are jumping on your guests inside your home and in significant numbers and your old-friend guest (Lindy) picks up a gravid tick from the floor the size of a large marble and then you toss it to the chickens and accuse them later of insulting your house-keeping, I am sorry, but you do not get to claim the high moral ground or a position of unassailable grace or purity. And we were good-humored about the ticks, we took the hit, we didn’t blame the state of her house-keeping at all, allowed that she wanted to live in a wild state and that we had come to the wild-woman’s kiva willingly. (I now have five black pustules, bites from someone, on my legs, and I am trusting that they’re not ticks. They don’t look like them, and that’s a lot of tick bites to still be walking.)

Anyway her triumphantly achieved position was finally her toughness, her guns, her trenchant drop-out-ness from white culture, her capacity not to be rattled by anything, to slum it uncomplainingly with survivalist and monastic esprit. We failed that test miserably.

I feel as though I was under the Grand Inquisitor: you are wrong if stand up for your truth; you are wrong if you abandon your truth under the thumb and sentence of authority. You are wrong if you try to be brave. You are wrong if you confess your cowardice. Anything you do, you are going to be smashed because the other person needs to feel more powerful than you and not only that, s/he has the means.

I would deem the barrage finally sacred rage, dignify it, learn from it as that, and leave it there. It was a legitimate rage of betrayal, abandonment, grief, loss, and regret. We had no business being there anyway. We were warned not to come there. So I got what I deserved.

I will give Julie the final word(s) by including two of her less racist or ugly emails—ones that also reflect back a scintilla of truth:

 

“You are a deceiver, liar, twister of facts. You invaded my privacy in the most intimate and prurient ways, when I asked you to PLEASE not do that. You completely, and I dare say, deliberately misrepresented my whole home, lifestyle, personality, and my greater environment. You mash through people’s lives like a carnival huckster.

“I debated long and hard whether to let you and Lindy even come here, because I felt no desire to reconnect, and I could smell the possibility of this sort of treatment. but I finally said yes. I regret that more than anything now. You are a creeping poison, a contaminant. I now don’t believe a word in your books! I want to dispose of them the way I disposed of the stinking corpse of a dead rabbit this morning.”

 

“I just reread that insulting piece of garbage. What you said about my “Osageness” was so incredibly WRONG. You got all the facts SO WRONG. I’m beginning to think you are retarded. You, with an anthropology degree. Thank God you weren’t allowed to go into the field.

“I took you for a really passive aggressive guy right off the bat, but this piece is a masterpiece of aggression.”

 

In my edit of the original, I will say that this sort of stuff still gives me the chills; it is like an exusion of toxic bile, an evil eye. Yet I was more chastened then than I am now. Six months of rants self-cancel and reveal a prior pique having nothing to do with us or our visit, also an unbalance and cruelty. But we did make progress. She shared pictures of her artwork; she admitted that she valued keeping up the connection. She didn’t apologize, and she kept renewing the venom, but at increasingly reduced and more ironical levels, which was, finally, more authentic and heartfelt than a gratuitous mea culpa. I certainly didn’t want that, it would have sabotaged the lesson.

Consider the latest missive, after months of trying to make up, and briefly succeeding, “My beloved old dog Lassie, about whom Richard made derisive comments while poor, poor, Lindy had to suffer the sight of her, sleeping quietly on the floor, is now dead. I had to have her put to sleep yesterday at the age of 16, having had her from a puppy. Hope you all can sleep better now……… Happy New Year, you twits.”

Actually, I attend more closely to that one because I see progress: the hint of a tease and a smile, perhaps still being unable to let go of the self-righteous indignation but a slight fondness for those clueless bumpkins who trespassed into her lair.

Nothing can finally diminish her essential indignation and ire or trammel her sacred blaze. That was there when we came and it will find its own resolution and destiny in the cosmos.

I finally thank Julie for making the labyrinth both dangerous and real. A Rite of Vigil, for sure. The Vigil had just begun.

 

Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor is a very different turn on the wheel. Here we encounter where the crossroads of our childhoods and adult lives diverse, the undercurrent of college into adult years, the seamless self-mutating flow of life. We were forged a couple here; the birth of our son was here. I am amazed, in retrospect, at how we drove a car out of Northampton as mere single students to Colorado who had been dating to get married in Denver and then back to Michigan to live in a funky apartment that became a series of three differentially weird pads. Then Ann Arbor graduate-student life and the turmoil of the late sixties turned into studying lobsterfishermen on Mount Desert Island, as far from an academic or urban environment as seemed possible; I remember rolling in the lichen, making catches on the edge of the Maine woods, playing solitaire roofball, as the Mets ascended from the basement to the World Series and how child crawled in the grass. Mount Desert turned into Cape Elizabeth and a field and a barn and neighbor girls baby-sitting and teaching college at Portland-Gorham. Cape Elizabeth and a college reading tour in California turned into a near move to Santa Cruz and then actually moving to northern Vermont, spending five rich formative years in a rural, countercultural village. After five years in Plainfield teaching at Goddard and the birth of our daughter, we moved in phases to Berkeley. Then twenty-plus years later we bought a house on Mount Desert—and here we were now, unwinding the yarn back to Ann Arbor and the dawn of our shared grail. It is how one is hooded like a hawk and led through the mystery and dazzle of life as in a daze. So long and interminable, minute by palpable and urgent and exquisitely honed minute; yet so short—a single flash of brightness inside a dream, inside a dream of a dream.

Lindy and I came to Ann Arbor in June 1966 right after graduating from Amherst and Smith. Driving out of Northampton to Denver, we had the ceremony in Lindy’s backyard and then went on a so-called honeymoon for a week on the Hopi and Navaho reservations, staying in a motel in Shiprock. I say “so-called” because we were not thinking about what might be pleasurable or romantic; we were greenhorns seeking initiations, literary and psychospiritual, a habit that stuck for years if not decades—tough going, not fun. Certainly Maine and Vermont were initiatory at ever more profound levels of the yoga of life.

The non-honeymoon concluded with getting our car stuck in the sand while visiting the ostensibly off-limits, radical Third Mesa of Hopiland. We then had to accept the offer of a fourteen-year-old boy to free it because the adults were assiduously ignoring the situation. He seemed about to fly off the edge of the cliff before whipping around suddenly with a screech of tires and exited the vehicle with a triumphant whoop.

If that journey had little to do with honeymooning, it had plenty to do with the fact that I was about to become a graduate student in anthropology and had been engaged for a year, reading books about the Navaho and Hopi, their ceremonies and radically non-Indo-European languages. I wanted to do my required summer of fieldwork in Hopiland and, in fact, I did, a year after our June 1966 adventure at Shiprock. We based ourselves in Tuba City on our return. Yet, as I experienced more recently with in Osage territory, when your involvement is only textual, the reality on the ground is not commensurate. The Rite of Vigil was nowhere to be found, either time, either place.

It was rough going in indigenous Arizona—stark landscapes, unfriendly people, no amenities. I had read Frank Waters’s Book of the Hopi, Gladys Reichard’s Navaho Religion, and Benjamin Lee Whorf’s various exegeses on Hopi verbs; yet none of these elements were even remotely evident on local marquees, not explicitly, not through a glass darkly or metaphorically either. Those portals lay far, far beneath an impenetrable surface of indigenous integrity and Anglo-imposed poverty.

I had even begun to try to teach myself Hopi, out of a book of all things, an ambition that went absolutely nowhere, though I continued the greater gambit and fulfilled the conditions of my fellowship the following summer from that rented trailer in Tuba City, interviewing Hopis in an attempt to distinguish between the traditional native religion and millenarian versions of it instigated by colonialism, which meant politically radicalized Hopi-based mythologies as well as baseline Hopi beliefs contaminated subliminally by Christian, particularly Mormon, eschatologies.

On my second or third try I was successful at wrangling a few spare conversations with the renegade elders at Hotevilla, back on the Third Mesa where our car got stuck, but little else anywhere on the res. There was too much competition, for one, from other anthropologists, swarms of them, graduate students mostly, a daily invading army of fieldworkers, overall an embarrassing situation even to be associated with. Luckily few of them were willing to brave Hotevilla 1967. It was not only because of the more radical folks’ unfriendliness and desire not to have their doors darkened by practitioners of that delusionary Euro craft inflated as anthropology—that would not have stopped commodity-seeking, ambitious anthropologists hot to acquire “culture” for their academic resumés—it was because the ethnography crowd distrusted the “Hopi” purity of Third Mesa narratives. But I was actually looking for millenarian tales and culled some juicy tidbits from willing patriarchs in their dark adobe corners, guys like David Menenge who, in later years, charmed and enlightened many poets, politicos and countercultural outliers while continuing to shun academics. Soon enough, anthropology would decide that the adulterated stuff was just as good culture, and they would go seeking in from Newfoundland to Zululand and the Australian outback.

In any case, it was too big a project to do more than put an eensy scratch in the surface.

The fellowship was what succored me through Michigan. It was last-minute and in the nick of time. I needed rescuing back then, from my family, from their heels-dug-in resistance to Lindy’s and my plan to get married, her family’s equal roadblock too. We had decided to do such a thing because you couldn’t live together in those days. Even during our junior-year summer stay in Aspen we barely got away with renting a cabin without producing our marriage license. We had to keep pretending that we had misplaced it.

As college graduation approached, my main interest and concern were regarding this other I person I had thrown in with, body and soul, how we might continue having escapades and doing stuff together. The particular nature of the stuff was incidental to me. My fragile identity had been absorbed into the couple, Lindy-Rich (which we euphemized into “spindrift” out of a Hart Crane poem and named our car that). I saw little else on the horizon, no other agendas. The rest of the universe was like the night sky in daytime.

I was also only four years removed from the trauma and chaos of my two natal families, and those were spent in loco parentis at Amherst. I knew little about my own abilities or predilections. I didn’t have big ambitions. I was surviving, period.

The decision to get married created immediate financial pressure because neither of both our families thought they could block us by refusing to help economically and promising to pay for graduate school only if we went to different colleges. Of our legal parents, only Lindy’s father was supportive, but even he wanted to know how we intended to earn a living.

I had no real answer for him back then. I had taken lots Latin and Greek in high school and college and considered tutoring on the side. I had a fantasy about writing a science-fiction novel like those of C. S. Lewis and selling it to a publisher. More practically I thought I could get a PhD and teach college. A number of my father’s hotel rivals had even approached me about working for them, but that was a distant fallback option and mere talking point.

Lindy and I probably would have gone to Bloomington and looked for day jobs while doing graduate work at Indiana University, but then we decided on Michigan instead on an intuition and the fact that Ann Arbor simply felt better than Bloomington when we were there. Then the beneficent letter from the anthropology department arrived and blindsided us, ending the hopes of our parents of blocking our marriage. I not only got three years of graduate work covered but a living stipend to boot—a small salary—and later I was given a year of paid fieldwork (during which, when the time came, I was planning to do an ethnomedicine project but ended up with lobsterfishing in Maine, a story I will get to in a moment).

By then we were hippie writers (or something like that). We had started Io, our own literary and interdisciplinary journal, in college. I had grown a beard senior year, a style that lasted for seven years through graduate school, fieldwork, and teaching at the University of Maine. We were part of changing times. Amherst itself, however, was fairly retro and blamed a lot of the class of ’66’s malfeasances on an unruly bunch, unaware of what would soon follow us.

Even when we had no foreseeable source of income, before the Fellowship, we were confident we could get crappy jobs as we had during our summer in Aspen. The letter from Elman Service representing the department—and he was a fabled academic archon as well—was a godsend; he was offering me a three-year salary to study. No need to be a waitress or busboy again!

In truth, I had no idea what I wanted to do after Amherst, just as I had no idea what to study or prepare for while a student, or that I was even preparing for anything as opposed to occupying space, passing time while bullshitting, improvising daily life, and fulfilling assignments by rote the way I did in high school.

Unlike the majority of my classmates, I did not arrive at Amherst with a plan or an inkling of one (so I didn’t leave with one either). I only went there anyway because college was the next allotted situation and my New York City private school, Horace Mann, had slotted me into the institution of their choice. I wanted to go to Swarthmore because I preferred a mellower, co-ed place, having been to only all-boy’s schools and summer camps since seventh grade. I applied to Amherst mainly because the college-admissions director at HM recommended I do so. When I got in on early decision, he wouldn’t let me proceed with my application to Swarthmore because, as he put it, I had a high-level, Ivy League acceptance and that was the point, wasn’t it? If I turned it down and applied elsewhere, no one else from my Horace Mann class would be able to go to Amherst, while I would be depriving a classmate of his Swarthmore slot. So in a sense I was tricked, but everyone else seemed so excited on my behalf and delivered such over-the-moon kudos, I got with the program and swapped one hypothetical desire for another.

My initial worries about Amherst were prophetic. I struggled in an Ivy League environment heralded back then as “cowboy cool.” That was the aspired-to caliber of the Amherst boy-man and, if you weren’t that (and I wasn’t), you were expected to be in training or deferential obedience to become that. Otherwise, you were hazed mercilessly. I was locked in my dorm room and it was set on fire; for real, though not a “real” fire, just a squirt of lighter fluid under the door and a match—see New Moon for more of the story.

Also the curriculum had a particular early pre-deconstructive bent that didn’t mesh well with my natural leanings toward unruly topic synthesis. Amherst was not subtextually deconstructive; it was menially textual, whether world history, American Studies, expository writing, or physics—all required courses for incomers then. I was not inclined toward literalism or going under rather than out through a topic—except in writing where I did it naturally. And freshman English was a pure composition class.

I was also interested in a bunch of other things: history, psychology, classics, the sciences. I could have gone into any of them on Amherst’s terms if they had held my interest or distracted me sufficiently from my bouts of anxiety and disorientation. I didn’t explore much academically because I had a hard time adjusting socially and emotionally, which sopped up most of my energy and attention. Until I met Lindy sophomore year, I was filling out applications to transfer, to UCBerkeley or the University of Washington. As she and I started to go out together—a long courtship that began as a decidedly nonromantic friendship and consisted of excruciating break-ups and reconnections during the last two and a half years of college—I gradually began to pay heed to the pressing reality of my situation: an academic major and a career. By then it was too late to make decent use of the resources provided by Amherst or for any sort of a considered choice or career path. I picked anthropology almost out of a hat.

I was also waylaid by what initially seemed a stroke of unbelievable good fortune freshman year. My English teacher then, Leo Marx, thought that I was a precocious enough writer that he put me in touch with Catherine Carver, an editor at Viking Press, and she and I worked for more than a year trying to get my collective narrative and story-telling, the forerunner of what was, decades later, to become my book New Moon, into publishable shape. That led me to presume naïvely that I could earn a living by writing fiction, as complete a delusion in its way as teaching myself Hopi. At the same time, my father (a man in whose household I had not grown up) was trying both to persuade or bludgeon me into the hotel business by starting me at the bottom as the mail clerk, his own first job.

I had lived with my mother and stepfather (plus my half-brother and half-sister) under the name Richard Towers until age twelve. After that, I abruptly became Richard Grossinger and entered Horace Mann under my new name. Given that Grossinger’s was a famous resort at the time, I presumed for many years that that would be my job in some manner or fashion. That turned out to be another chimera, as much one as the Grossinger name, for I learned after my mother’s suicide (when I was thirty) that she had conceived me by an affair. And Grossinger’s itself went bankrupt soon after. But that is a whole other story (for it, see my book Out of Babylon). I had three fathers: a stepfather (Robert Towers, AKA Ruben Turetsky) who raised me, taught me to play baseball, and helped me with my homework; a legal father who paid my prep-school and college bills, took me under his wing, and wanted me to join him in his business (Paul Grossinger); and a genetic father I never met (Bernard “Bingo” Brandt).

Since I discovered very quickly that I hated the hotel business (and business in general) and did not want to work for a “Tony Soprano” tyrant of a father (after one summer of being his mail clerk and rejecting his enticements to party vulgarly with the “real men”)—and since, at the same time, Catherine Carver was offering a shortcut to a career that could be a glamorous alternative to the business world, I assumed that I would become a professional writer until that crashed too. As it turned out, I was unwilling and unable to generate the kind of commercial prose and plotting that CC wanted. Working with her only led me to start writing kitsch in place of my intrinsic narrative until the relationship itself blew up.

The way it did was delightfully paradoxical. My (legal) father’s friend Harold Robbins, a commercial writer at the pinnacle of the game, read my work alongside CC’s corrections and then lectured me over coffee in silk pajamas at his suite at the Plaza, where I went to meet him on his invitation after my father had sent him a thermofax copy (the technology at that time) of my novel in progress.

Robbins told me to write in my own voice and lose the idiot dame who wanted to be a school marm. That she was Saul Bellow’s editor impressed him not in the least.

By the way, Leo Marx never forgave me for that apostasy and was telling his students at Amherst (a decade later) and at MIT (decades later) his own version of the story in which you can imagine how I came off. Harold Robbins versus Saul Bellow was a punchline all by himself. But now with a lifetime’s hindsight, I’d go with Mr. Robbins and his candor any day of the week, certainly over the faux wisdom (artistry aside) of even Mr. Bellow (who turned out to be a closet neocon anyway).

After sophomore year I turned down my father’s next offer, to be a reservation clerk, and I worked for a newspaper on the New York/Pennsylvania border, The Sullivan County Democrat, which was a blow to him in two regards: I had turned down what he thought of as a plum position and wasn’t working for him at all (while he paid for Amherst, he never let me forget), and (adding insult to injury) I was in the employ of the enemy, the Democrats, the ones who wanted the hotels to pay more taxes. Before I found the job by driving to every newspaper office in Ulster and Sullivan Counties and got to the end of the line in Callicoon at the Pennsylvania border where I somehow charmed Big Fred Stabbart (and he was very big), Paul Grossinger had threatened to make me wash dishes in the kitchen in exchange for my college tuition. He didn’t think I could get employed otherwise and presumed he had me over a barrel (as with the wedding). I could see the disappointment on his face when I presented him with the news. But later he graciously invited Big Fred to play golf with him on the Grossinger course. The two men bonded over strokes and were still buddies twenty-five years later near the ends of their lives.

The following summer I flew the coop altogether and drove to Aspen to meet Lindy, drove a yellow Ford Mustang that my father had unexpectedly given me after the Sullivan County Democrat debacle, a tangled story in itself because he and I were at total odds again by then (see New Moon). Meanwhile Lindy’s parents in Denver had said she could work where she wanted but had to stay in state.

The summer after that I was getting the same vehicle driven out of the dunes by a Hopi kid.

I had taken a few anthropology courses senior year, the field of study itself having only just arrived at Amherst in the form of a single professor, Donald Pitkin. On the basis of rapport with Pitkin and delight in the offbeat material presented by him (not typical anthropology by any means, as I sadly found out), I impulsively applied to UCLA in folklore, the University of Indiana in linguistics, and the University of Michigan in anthropology. I got into all three and had to choose. I picked the broader and more familiar field and the more enticing town. Then the miracle fellowship came.

I went to Ann Arbor an English major starting anthropology at a graduate level. The “English” part was by befault: by the time I had to declare a major (junior year), I had figured out that English was the only subject that remained possible credit-wise in four terms, though it was decidedly what I really wanted to do anymore. Literary criticism, academic English’s heart and core, had nothing to do with my interests or my talents, while the creative-writing teachers I had had (Rolfe Humphries at Amherst and Stanley Elkin at Smith) provided zero in the way of clarity or support.

Lindy and I had gotten our real literary initiation from Robert Kelly, a poet at Bard. He was teaching there in 1964 and is still teaching there in 2014, having initiated many writers and students over a half-century. He introduced us to avant-garde and Black Mountain literature, the occult, and various esoteric systems like Sufism, astrology, alchemy, tarot, and qabala. He encouraged Lindy and me to start our own journal. So it was at Bard where we weren’t students, not Amherst and Smith, that we got our jump-start in a career, though it would take till we were in our thirties for it to finally play out.

Amherst wasn’t entirely retro. Campus culture was quite a bit more cutting-edge politically than psychospiritually. A bunch of us—twenty-three I think—in the class of ’66 wore white armbands at our graduation and then walked out when Robert McNamara rose to be presented with an honorary degree. My horrified father threatened to stage the same protest at our wedding; only he was going to wear a yarmulke instead of a white armband, in protest of my marrying a Christian. He didn’t follow through, though my brother said that he and my stepfather had them in their back pockets in case a minister showed up.

When we arrived in Ann Arbor back in 1966, we rented the ground floor of a house on Mary Street, very near campus. That didn’t last long. The landlord lived upstairs and, when his wife got out of the hospital and saw that he had rented their son’s one-time apartment to hippie students, including one with a beard, we got evicted faster than white on rice. We lived most of the time in Ann Arbor further out along Packard on Brooklyn Street in the ground floor of a duplex.

Years later I found myself wishing that I had not had so much of my own family garbage to contend with, so much of their madness invested in me. I might have figured out that it was relatively easy to earn a good living in 1966, by one scheme or another. Real estate, for instance. Our next-door neighbors at Brooklyn Street engaged in a version of economic speculation while otherwise being graduate students in political science. On completing their PhDs, they got more their academic degrees by selling the house they bought upon entering U of M for a staggering profit, enough to launch them in another entrepreneurial venture. I was so out of it that I didn’t even understand the concept when they explained it to us. They might have been talking about how to levitate. Yet, if such stuff had been anywhere on my radar, I could have done something like that instead of—or as well as—graduate anthropology while writing literary prose on the side. Benjamin Whorf and Wallace Stevens had day jobs in the insurance industry. Yet it never occurred to me, even remotely, to be pragmatic; it was all about the continuity of academic fields and ideas, even if I wasn’t much of an academic. I was nowhere near such an awakening.

Lindy and were involved in the counterculture, Io, and our life together. We had no interest in any aspect of money, equity, savings, livelihoods—the whole omnipresent shebang. I defined myself by avoiding those things and the people who did them. I never considered a “real” job, something not writing or teaching college, for even a fraction of a second. It didn’t enter my mind until twenty years later in Berkeley when I was trying to support a family with two young kids that I realized that the successor to Io, North Atlantic Books, was already a business, so I went ahead and consciously made it one. It became my de facto career late in the game—not writing novels, not managing hotels, not anthropology or teaching college. Though I had no training or education in business or finance, I had picked up a lot by unknown osmosis from the two fathers I knew (and maybe genetically from the more prosperous one I didn’t), plus my fieldwork study of the economics and ecology of lobsterfishing had been more effectively my training in how to invent a small business than writing a credible ethnography. The fishermen had been my mentors and, when I made North Atlantic into a business, I fell back on their common sense and simple economic logic for many of my concepts and strategies. Copublishing was like two people fishing together in one person’s boat.

I only received my fellowship at Michigan, as it turned out, because someone else turned one down, choosing to go to graduate school in anthropology elsewhere, and Roy Rappaport, a prominent member of the department at Michigan (called “Skip,” as I soon learned), had advanced me for the award without even knowing me. Years earlier, he and my father had become friends in the hotel business, Skip’s career before he went back to graduate school at Columbia.

The name “Grossinger,” because of the prominence and seeming wealth of the hotel as a legendary American institution, had apparently disqualified me as a needy applicant, in fact had made me seem a selfish wretch for applying for funds at all, but Skip explained to his colleagues that Grossinger’s was a dysfunctional, failing business with no real money behind it. In fact, his own father, Morey, was an accountant and efficiency expert at Harris, Kerr, Foster, the firm that had audited the hotel’s books, and he had predicted bankruptcy within five years. It took twenty, but he caught the general drift. With a second shot at qualifying me, Skip pushed my candidacy through by sound argument and insider knowledge, always a plus in an ethnographic context. That’s why the letter from Service arrived at my Amherst address when it was least expected and most needed.

Even my acceptance in the program was a borderline affair (fellowship aside). In 1966 Michigan anthro admitted three non-majors as an experiment (abandoned almost immediately). I was the only one of those three who finished the program, and barely. In fact, I failed my prelims on the first try because several faculty members had been working continually to have my fellowship revoked and then to kick me out of the program as well if I didn’t leave then of my own free will. Yet I was protected by others, including Skip. It was when he took a leave of absence during my third (and last) year to teach at the University of Hawaii that I was flunked on my prelims, in a weird fashion, to boot. I got near perfect scores from some readers and near-zeros from others, averaging out to around 50, hardly a passing grade. I was told to leave with my terminal M.A (Masters degree) and be grateful for receiving that. The thing was, though, I had applied for and received fieldwork money, so I couldn’t be kicked out entirely. I remained a student outside the doctoral program—an oxymoron. In any case, that’s why I changed my topic of inquiry from ethnomedicine to fishing. Since ethnomedicine was completely under the stewardship of my pugnacious adversaries, there was no way I could write a thesis on that subject, should I be readmitted, and evade them and their hostile designs on me. When Skip returned as I was setting out to Maine, he told me to switch to something ecological so that he could be the chair of my thesis committee. Then he arm-twisted folks in the department a second time, getting those not as academically rabid as my actual nemeses to permit me to write a paper in lieu of the failed prelims and put me officially back on the books and onto the PhD track.

I actually resisted Skip at first, willing to depart with my terminal M.A. I wanted out of academia. I had had enough. But he prevailed on me to see it through, saying that I would always regret it otherwise. For the rest of my life, he said, I’d be telling everyone the story of how I got screwed by the anthro department at Michigan. So I wrote the lobsterfishing thesis and got the degree five years later while teaching at Goddard. Meanwhile I learned enough from my subjects how to start a “fishing” business of my own—books instead of lobsters.

Yes, I got screwed, but I was also culpable because, as an unabashed admirer of shamanism, hermeneutics, and metaphysics, I was behaving openly in departmental confines as a poet, an esoteric novice, and as if a lay shaman not a neophyte anthropologist—right under their noses and on their ostensible dime. I got screwed in the sense that, as an ostensibly sentient human being, I was being asked solely to regurgitate other faculty members’ stale theories, and I didn’t do that sort of thing compliantly or well. I was too callow and fired up by my art to figure any of this out at the time. I just charged ahead, bleating unabashedly and publishing issues of our journal on alchemy and ethnoastronomy while my work was appearing in underground publications like the San Francisco Oracle. I perhaps even had some good academic ideas but no maturity and no guidance on them from within the department. I was reading Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault at a time when only the former’s work was considered allowable anthropology, and then only his work on elementary forms of kinship, while the latter was more or less unknown in the field and totally out of bounds. Foucault’s major work wasn’t even translated into English, but I read it because I was required to take an exam on an academic book in another language and I had chosen Les Mots et Les Choses. I did succeed at that somehow, though I can barely read a word of French today. I got a bye on the other language for having studied Medieval Latin in an undergraduate independent study and doing a translation for a professor of some of Plato’s Timaeus from Classical Greek.

Having gone to prep school and a liberal-arts college, I never grokked how trenchantly opposed to me those disaffected scholars at Michigan actually were. I had a deep-seated notion that school was generically about learning for its own sake, so I didn’t understand the gauntlet of professional academics. I drove Rappaport crazy, making it difficult for him to support and protect me because I continued to provoke faculty. I blatantly sabotaged myself by quoting Lévi-Strauss and Foucault on the prelims, assuring a failing grade. That shows how little I understood the operative terms or actual seriousness of my situation. To these folks, this was life, hard knocks, survival, real stuff. It was truly perverse to keep rattling the tigers’ cages, but I had this innocent notion that I could persuade all of them about the Robert-Kelly-like way of looking at the universe.

In truth, I could have written the tripe needed to pass the prelims without much effort or angst, as did every other graduate student in that department from time immemorial and for decades more after I moved on. I was the only one who failed a mere pro forma exam in which you were given both the questions and answers beforehand. But I was fighting for my identity and sanity; I wasn’t practically minded. Same reason I never took advantage of the opportunities to go into business or learn anything about money. I was trying to figure out who I was, and there wasn’t room or margin for anything else.

We got evicted from our Brooklyn Street place too, in fact when Lindy was six months pregnant with our son and I was studying for prelims. The full-time surgeon/part-time landlord decided to clear out his units and double the rent (no rent control then), so we didn’t so much get evicted as get offered a deal we couldn’t afford. We spent our last six months in town even further out Packard, beyond Stadium, in a more pastoral setting, again the ground floor but this time of a whole house. We were allowed a short lease and reduced rent in exchange for helping take care of the old woman upstairs who had either senile dementia or Alzheimer’s (not a term in common use for almost another decade). The whole time we were there she kept trying to throw us out, telling us that we weren’t wanted, plus she would scream and moan horrifically down the laundry chute at night in German. She also went about the street in her bedclothes, shooing neighbors off her property, because it was once all her property, original farmland with only one house, hers. It was our job to corral her back in the front door and up the stairs. Her son Adolph, an affable guy who made the deal with us, would shout, “Yes, mother, the whole world’s crazy and you’re the only sane one!”

The coming childbirth and Lamaze classes (plus the threat of the military draft) took up far more of my attention span than the exams themselves. Plus the journal that Lindy and I had started at Amherst and Smith was becoming popular in the emerging counterculture, and we had done annual issues on not only alchemy and ethnoastronomy but doctrine of signatures (from Foucault). We had just hung out with the beat poet Gary Snyder, a lay anthropologist and one-time anthropology student himself at Reed College, and he was the one who had gotten my work published in The San Francisco Oracle. Meanwhile John Martin at Black Sparrow Press in Los Angeles had offered to publish a book of experimental prose I had been generating out of my anthropology work. My early prose appeared as Solar Journal: Oecological Sections.

You can see why I fooled myself into believing I could get away with my art and kept playing the role of countercultural swain rather than serious anthropology student—and the Castenada/Don Juan Matus books were beginning to appear too. With all that going on and in my head and heart, I couldn’t see professional anthropology for what it was: a state-funded profession. The whole domain of literature and ideas far superseded academic anthropology in my pantheon. Add in the combination of barely avoiding the draft and Vietnam War, anti-war politics and SDS (in Ann Arbor, which became ground zero of the national revolt), the Mets suddenly contending (and, as noted, winning the World Series in October after we got to Maine), and men walking on the Moon just as Robin was being born and I was taking the prelims—and I was deep in the baffling mazes of samsara, far from anything except the bottomlessly profound and totally engaging realm of domestic life, a baby, a pennant race, shooting 8 mm. experimental films, and composing a new book I called The Continents, a text that brought together Robin’s birth with the Moon landing and Native American and Viking explorations of the New World (all of the latter of which would come together again in a course I taught years later at Goddard, called The Badlands). Basically I was as happy and enchanted and enthralled by life as I had ever been—from spring forsythia to walks along the Huron River to children in costumes at Halloween to falling horse chestnuts and colors of vegetables at the Saturday’s farmers’ markets, plus this daily life-dance with the woman, the once stranger who had become my family. Images from all that were edited into strings of triple-exposed loops and projected from a rickety projector onto the white wall. I pretty much missed the entire University of Michigan anthropology experience—socially, intellectually, academically—even as I had missed Amherst College.

 

Central Ann Arbor was a strange mixture, for so much was vaguely familiar but seemed out of place or turned into something unknown. The files were corrupted both in my brain and on the ground. Over the decades, a partial new city had been built atop the prior one. Meanwhile my memories themselves had gotten scrambled, and actual Ann Arbor had become a cluster of unconnected image tags that occasionally matched what was actually there but in startling or haunted ways.

During our three days in Ann Arbor on the road trip, we visited Brooklyn Street and Crestland Street but not Mary. In 1980, the last time we were there, we saw that the house from which the enormous, crone-like Madame Pendorf, on her return from hospitalization, reclined on a rocking bench on the front porch and tossed cigarette butts into the yard, had been demolished (along with several other houses) to form a small apartment complex.

We ran into Brooklyn unexpectedly when we got lost en route back from dinner at Zola’s, a place not in existence in our day. I suddenly saw the name approaching on the GPS and changed course. We entered from the Packard side, which flipped the block around mirror image from my firmest memory and also back to front as if from some unknown vantage in a different frame so that it looked like an altered universe. It was the wrong universe anyway because the street had been so gentrified and enhanced since our time there that it had an entirely different ambiance, a more toney, densely populated vibe. I remembered the number, 1106, and as we counted our way there, the Prius with its rolling dashboard map issuing proximate house numbers at the push of a button, became a time machine from which we gazed at our past selves to whom we were invisible.

The duplex was pretty much unchanged, lights turned on in “our” apartment. Memories surged through my being—the upstairs neighbors’ lonely dog Eero that we took care on walks by the Huron, the next-door Hamburger family for whom we baby-sat three years before we had a child of our own, the corner house of the speculating poly-sci students, the graduate family, Elkan and Judy and child, who lived on the cross street and came trick-or-treating, on whose porch I shot part of my 8 mm. experimental movie of Ann Arbor, pumpkins and kids in costumes over enlarged grubs in a horse chestnut. In a different film I imposed night traffic with car headlights illuminating heavily falling snow at the corner of Brooklyn and Packard onto hockey players warming up for a Rangers-Red Wings game in Detroit. My shooting site for that image was actually where we wheeled onto Brooklyn from Packard that 2014 evening. A few minutes earlier while driving on State Street, we had passed where I once imposed a out-of-focus close-up of a pink rose onto night-time State Street in counter-motion from a car, the flower coming into luscious crispness over the theater marquee, my most successful montage ever in my brief film-making “career.”

The thing about spying on the past and on yourself is the secret telepathy whereby your former self also spies on you. I have written about that impossible feat in my book 2013: Raising the Earth to the Next Vibration. There, it was in relation to returning to look at our Vermont house in Plainfield. Similar feelings and thoughtforms arose this time. Energy flowed back and forth between my past and future selves. I can’t say what Lindy and me then thought of Lindy and me now, since our link was unconscious and etheric, but I do know that almost five decades later I understood that boy and girl so well they could not help but notice and feel the lolling ghost-breeze of our presence, probably as something else, an alchemical sort of image that arose spontaneously or fluttered behind a phrase or montage. I knew intimately what they were struggling with, what they didn’t know, what they would have to go through to stay together, top almost not stay together, and how they would raise a family and raise kids now twice the age they were then on the weird conveyor belt of generations turning with the wheel of life and death, the mistakes they would make with those children despite the best and most transparent intentions, mistakes that could never be fixed (except by leaving California and living on).

I gave those two young ‘uns what blessing I could from the future and explained that I would be waiting for them here someday, that there would a place to go. I am not saying that I thought all that just then while stopping the car alongside the duplex, but it flowed energetically from my state of being, passing in a few seconds. I think I saw them, I think they saw us, but I hardly begin to understand something I feel so poignantly that it hurts. A few years after we lived on Brooklyn, while looking at and listening to a beer bottle being blown across ice in subzero temperature in the parking lot of a motel in Belleville, Ontario—Lindy and I staying with our infant son—I thought and wrote: “I will get to the bottom of this someday.” I meant the mystery, the weird and powerful sensation, the invisible threads that hold one dimension, one whole universe of being and presence to another. I will never get to the bottom of it, but I do understand those kids at 1106, who they were and what they yearned for. I believe that I reached them and helped the present become—that’s what real time travel is.

Lindy and I also went out of our way to look at the last apartment too, though not until our route out of town toward I94 and Canada two days later. 1701 Crestland was quite a bit farther out of central Ann Arbor than I had remembered, and my recalled ruralness of the property was actually limited to a little glen behind the house, no more than a sloping backyard with trees, but it felt like wilderness and ancient farm country to us then. To this modest house we brought our newborn baby; it was where we had five collected cats wandering in the yard (one of which, Quis, was induced to defect by a female professor of German whose yard abutted ours, She renamed her Fifi, and sent Christmas cards from her for about ten years afterward to us in Maine and Vermont.

Crestland was idyllic: quince blossoms, nursing infant, Mets on a roll through night-time radio static, the ghostly Moon landing on TV: The Continents, the Ethnoastronomy Issue of Io—who needed a PhD? And Mrs. Steinke kept saying, “A new baby and no one knows who the father is. How terrible!” I think she thought Lindy lived there alone, for she looked right past me. A bearded male was so taboo and forbidden he did not to exist at all.

Once again, I stared back at a long-lost self though, in another sense, I had never really lost him. It is the strangeness of this world where quince blossoms and blown bottles entanglements of time and space and meaning itself, as well as the desires that attach us to any root, that we keep leaving behind our past selves, beings to whom we were once so close, whose bidding we did absolutely, who are somewhere else entirely, so that we can only talk to them in the way that we talk to the universe itself, or to beings in other dimensions, who both exist and don’t in the same, and at that level what could it matter because we are going to be seeking forever and talking about this bizarre occasion either way, or during what passes for forever in this state? The actual set-up is incomprehensible, yet so meaningful as to create worlds like this. My own earlier self was now a creature on another planet, faraway, beyond NASA technology that had struggled to attain even a proximal moon—a time and place reachable only by an engineer’s version time travel. But I didn’t have a time machine and didn’t want that kind of one either. I wanted the universe to play out the way it was set up and supposed to play out, as what it was, including the yearnings to go back and embrace and envelop moments once again.

In Ann Arbor we stayed with Fran Wright. She is the wife of a former professor of mine at the University of Michigan, Henry Wright, an archaeologist who studies, and excavates, the transition of cultures from Stone Age to state status. He was presently on a dig in Madagascar where, we learned from Fran, a Polynesian matrilineal culture exists because strong ocean currents kept nearer Africans from reaching it from reaching with their Muslim influences.

Though my former professor, Henry, is basically my age (a year or two older), he was a teacher while I was a graduate student. We were more friends and colleagues than teacher and student. Henry got where I was coming from and was upset at his colleagues for setting gratuitous obstacles in my path. Because he was in the archaeology section of the department, he couldn’t directly influence the prelims, but he worked with Skip to get me back into the program and later was on my PhD committee.

I hadn’t seen him since my thesis defense in 1975. Over the years it was Fran, not he, who stayed in touch. She sent us newsy letters, Christmas cards, and occasionally visited us in the different places we lived, while Henry was in the field most of the time. Fran has a quirky, idiosyncratic style, a mixture of old-fashioned formality and rebellious informality. She measure her words carefully and rarely wastes a phrase, the master of the unexpected but dead-on phrase and observation. She left for Nova Scotia after our visit and her comments from there have her playful, wry imprint:

“I am in Outer Nowhere in Nova Scotia. There’s a lake in front of the cottage and it is raining. Tranquil would be the word.”

After the Osage debacle, I am wanting to be circumspect in my descriptions of people. It’s hard to explain, but writing is a bit like t’ai-chi push-hands in being conscienceless. You follow the energy, that’s the game. If you don’t follow the energy, the results sound exactly like you didn’t follow the energy. There’s almost never a second-best choice, middle ground, or work-around. You catch the lightning or you don’t. So I don’t mean to disrespect or insult people, but words are slippery allies that have minds of their own and easily get away, especially when they are subject to later nuance and endless subjective resonance. They are only approximations of elusive thoughts and ideas anyway. It is hard enough serving one master—meaning—without another, propriety.

Robert Phoenix, one of my favorite people in the world, followed up my “Osage Nation” post by saying he too was insulted by what I wrote about him. It was hardly what I wanted to hear at that moment and almost got me to stop writing this blog. In fact, for about two hours, I was done with it for good. If I was pissing off my best friends, well, forget it. Yet here I am, back for another round.

From the car en route to Toronto. I wrote him that I was sorry for the disrespect plus what I will add here: I was not dissing him but teasing him intentionally, and I thought he would pick that up. Guess not. He heard that I was saying he was now uncool and a sellout because he lived in Texas now and did things the Texan way, ate at Jack Allens, sat around the swimming pool, etc. No way! I think that Robert is way cooler in Texas than he was California (and he was pretty cool there), for he has developed a whole fresh edge or twist on his former persona by adding the Texas view with its own humongous layering. Texas becomes Robert because he’s a big dude with big concepts and a large life. My characterization of Jack Allen’s, its menu and waitpersons, was a bit of slapstick hyperbole to lighten up the narrative. I took artistic license in setting a stage and putting some characters on it , like a riff of Shakesperean clowns before the main scene. But Robert found it offensive and a denigration of his joint; he either did not hear or buy the irony, but then that is my fault because he is a master of irony, both in generating and reading it. That’s how he navigates through circuitous cosmic paradoxes and conspiracy theories.

At the end of his email he was concerned that being frank would hurt our relationship, but on my end our relationship is unshakable. For the record, when I called his building complex’s swimming pool a miniature-golf-course-like scene, I meant it in a complimentary sense, not as putdown. To me, miniature golf represents intriguing complications, a cartoon of a sacred labyrinth, not tinsel or shrek. I meant that the sectors of the pool were related in such an interesting way that the bather was the equivalent of a golf ball could go in one spot and come out another, so it was fun to look at. He wrote: “I will remind you that the mini-golf pool afforded you a nice chaise-lounge and enough shade for a nap.” Yeah, fine, but that was exactly what I was praising, not damning or mocking. The same for Texas, in general. But my point here is: it is really hard to do this in a way that feeds the conscienceless beast and yet doesn’t turn even my best friends against me. I have concluded that describing living people is pure dynamite. No one is going to like their thumbnail sketch, as they become caricatures like those horrid drawings that for some reason proudly accompany articles in The New York Review of Books. In that sense this blog has become a burden and a pain in the ass.

So I am quite willing to hear complaints about disrespect, invasion of privacy, and insults, but cut me some slack and (sometimes) read more closely. I wouldn’t write a journal to satirize or demean people; it would be beneath dignity and not worth the substantial time and energy it is taking.

We were at Zola’s that first night to meet John Friedlander which, in itself, was an amazing event. I had been training psychic practices with John for five-plus years during which I had listened and re-listened to hundreds of hours of his teaching plus I had had many long phone discussions with him. I had also written about his system in five different books (2013, The Night Sky, and all three volumes of Dark Pool of Light), participated in publishing his own book (with Gloria Hemsher), Psychic Psychology, and two of his seminar CDs, yet I had not met him in person. His voice had become so familiar to me that he was a living presence of whom I had a full, three-dimensional image, but I had never been in his company or seen a video or even a good photograph of him.

As a disembodied presence, John’s was a voice for the ages, not quite biblical but yes a bit biblical, more like Peter Coyote reading Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginners Minds or Chogyam Trungpa lecturing on “the meaning at life” at Goddard in 1973. He had a voice of authority, but it’s not exactly that either because he is quite casual and stand-up comedic in presenting the most profound and cosmic topics. He’s almost as funny as Ram Dass in Be Here Now because nothing’s really quite as amusing as our situation in the universe or status among other sentient beings when you look at it with any perspective.

John has, at least within my range of experience, developed the most sophisticated unified model of the universe and human experience available now, a multidimensional configuration that includes consciousness, karma, and both dual and nondual beingness. That’s saying a lot, but I mean it. In addition, he is a superb teacher, works brilliantly with people on framing and handling “difficult situations” and “difficult conversations.” He also does spot-on psychic readings for a living. How you reach into the universe and then nail it for a person, usually in absentia, is a total wonder and mystery but also a rare gift that not every spiritual teacher has. It means that consciousness and being are not what modernity thinks they are.

For those various reasons when Lindy and I arrived at Zola’s a bit late, we did not think that the ordinary-looking single male sitting alone in a booth and waiting for guests (according to the hostess) was our guy. As Lindy went to find out, I assumed John was late too and reached for my cell. Before I could dial or she could reach the table, the guy was going for his cell too.

For his esoteric education John studied the unique curriculum developed by the late Lewis Bostwick at the original Berkeley Psychic Institute in the 1970s. Bostwick brought together a blend of Hindu, Buddhist, theosophical, and shamanic wisdom and training methods with the unadulterated essence of early human-potential-movement gambits like EST (Werner Earhardt’s boot camp) and dianectics/scientology (L. Ron Hubbard’s combo hoax/wisdom-treasure). John learned basic methods there: grounding cord, moving energy, accessing the chakras and aura.

Then, after attending Harvard Law School and getting his degree, he trained with mega-being Seth via the channeling of Jane Roberts, after which he continued to channel some of same high-intelligence transdimensional teachings on his own from Seth in other forms and with different names as well as other spirit-guide vibrations.

He subsequently received teachings from various lamas and eclectic practitioners, has taken Dzogchen and other Buddhist workshops, and has experienced Mata Amritanandamayi, the Indian hugging saint, many times directly.

He has integrated the theosophical principles and practices of Madame Blavatsky and C. W. Ledbetter too, operating from the premise that they and their associates achieved a breakthrough synthesis but, because they were literalists, didn’t appreciate the true value of what they had accomplished or know how to apply it fully. Because the founders of theosophy were Victorian, they put a Victorian spin on everything, including ancient maps to the cosmos that were anything but Victorian. In particular, they applied a decoratively deferential Victorian etiquette to the ranges of cosmic penetration permissible for humans, an artifact of cultural provinciality.

John found ways to release the full import of the their system and honor their work while dispensing with the duteousness and taboos. He proceeded on the premise that the old theosophists were blind geniuses at nailing the metaphysical core of an original divine liturgy, a core that eluded even very sophisticated later Hindu and Buddhist practitioners, but they hadn’t a clue as to the scope of the monster they had landed and its real galactic and meta-dimensional potential. If you want a parallel, think string theory as first proposed by mathematicians, but not even string theory as much as the reality that string theory adumbrates.

Since Lewis Bostwick had already integrated Hindu and theosophical practices into his methodology, while drawing on the more authentic elements of Werner Erhard’s EST and L. Ron Hubbard’s scientology, John’s system incorporates and integrates many Hindu, Buddhist, and shamanic practices at more than one level, but then that is what the universe does too, and far more quantum-entangledly. John’s system is well worth studying from either an abstract scientific or psychospiritual standpoint. In fact, if you put it together with what Stephen Hawking, David Bohm, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein wrote, to my taste you pretty much have the universe as far as Homo sapiens gets it at this point.

In any case, I am loyal to the process by which John is training folks. Studying it while doing the exercises has changed me fundamentally, relocating me in time and space and in my own mortality. But then I am integrating it at multiple levels of my own system with other modalities I have trained over the years: Freudian analysis, Jungian archetypes, t’ai chi ch’uan, energetic aspects of somatics, Zen meditation, chi gung, yoga, etc. Thus, I am not entirely an acolyte of John’s as much as sometimes a novice pupil and sometimes a peer at parallel play. Yes, I am his student and need the range and authority of his teaching to get over the humps, but I don’t regard him as guru-like. As John himself puts it—it’s one reason why he sends me downloads of his classes—he enjoys seeing what I do with his stuff because I use it in unexpected ways as I make it part of my own system.

Finally the universe is big enough to swallow all of these and then look up as if it had barely gulped a goldfish because its capacity and scope are immeasurable and fathomless—and it is fundamentally incomprehensible anyway to mere human wiring.

In person, John became instantly three-dimensional. Of course, he was not a sudden personification of his voice. A few years younger than Lindy and me, he shares with us various typical post-countercultural styles and attitudes, a mixture of regular mainstream life in America, fitting in with the fare offered, plus radical breaks well disguised from the people among whom he moves, including in this restaurant. Thus, as a patron of Zola’s, he was not a psychic or teacher but a regular customer with known preferences and favorites, and he was treated that way and returned the favor with good humor. He has kept his braids long but otherwise grooms and dresses to contemporary fashion. He is discerning about food and cars and money. He continues to do his Harvard Law School class proud in terms of appearance as well as stature and professional success. At the same time, he likes small talk and to shoot the breeze with the best of them, just like us. In other words, he’s a guy, a guy of our generation, general background, and time on this planet. He is certainly not the bible, hardly an inflated, self-declared godhead like Adi Da—and I think that Franklin Jones, Bubba Free John, Da Free John, Adi Da, etc. was brilliant and fathomlessly profound in his own right.

Occasionally, though, John lets slop a cosmic insight that changes everything, forever in fact. That evening he proposed—and I’m sure that I have this slightly wrong but days later it is still working in me, altering sky and space and time and my ego self—that the issue with contemporary Buddhists (but also Buddhists going back quite a long ways) is that the Buddha tracked the personality in a particular bardo only for a certain period after death; then ostensibly the self we know and identify with flies apart into pieces and leaves metaphysical consideration. But it’s not that it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s that formal spiritual tracking stops there and, with it, much available practice stops there too.

Maybe more to the point, a belief system (like Seth’s) addressing the survival of the personality and the soul, as well as the karmic particles and potentialities that make them up, arises separate of the core of the orthodox Buddhist paradigm. John took the position, that night at Zola’s over our meals, that what is needed is take a much wider than Buddhist view and track those pieces because that’s where our actual destiny lies, that’s what makes us who we are at this very moment (engaged in chatter at a restaurant on Earth) because that’s what’s setting the terms for how we came into being and why any of this is here too.

It’s these sorts of propositions that John’s Buddhist friends and colleagues challenge him most on. To them it’s as though he’s dreamed up a better, happier cosmos to get us out of our pickle and off the road to oblivion, which they think he can’t get away with because it’s too easy and user-friendly and doesn’t exact enough monastic commitment and suffering, whereas, from John’s standpoint, he’s only gauging our actual situation with all its sources, outgrowths, and implications, and figuring what would make a system like this with cars rolling by on Washtenaw and diners and waitpersons in their respective trances, no one terribly unhappy, in fact pretty happy campers all, though all in some degree of true existential pain. Plus he has Bostwick, Seth, and other avatars assisting and supporting him in his vantage. It is not like him versus the Buddha in mixed martial arts.

I picked up this conversation with John the next day at lunch, the two of at Whole Foods, mixed in with other bits of conversation. When I asked if his point is that the personality breaking up into pieces is not a problem, he said, “It’s not just that it’s not a problem. It’s the whole point. It’s why anything works. It’s who we are. The soul survives, and the personality survives. The broader your perspective, the more you see how the universe works, and why we’re presently in this dual phase such that we can’t see it.” In other words, it’s quite paradoxical and complex—the very fact that we can’t see it is the very way in which we are seeing it, in fact the only what it can be seen as what it is, not only by beings such as we are but such that beings like us must exist at all. I am roughly reproducing a version of his words and meaning here.

John is not trying to trump Buddhism, far from it; he gets that it’s a powerful and precise system for dealing with human reality with a long, eminent lineage behind it (and his Harvard law degree, time with Lewis Bostwick, and hooking up with Seth via Jane Roberts are not a match for something of that duration and vintage). At the same time, he doesn’t think that Buddhist seniority should give Buddhists the right to set the rules and limits for everyone else and every other meaning in the universe.

At lunch at Whole Foods, John was also doing other stuff as we talked, untangling knots in my aura at the third and fourth subplanes of the etheric plane, working on a black spot he saw behind my heart, and awakening me to my web of neurological imprinting. All of this was very subtle, and you can make the case that nothing was happening at all—many folks would. But I would say that something was definitely happening. That is, he was doing something, moving energy, and from there it is a matter of language and mapping. I certainly felt shifts, however they arose.

BTW it’s not everyone who does this at lunch. It’s not everyone who even raises these possibilities at lunch or between meals. But on another planet or another Earth, this could be normal behavior, everyday mutual aid.

We were also talking about the crisis of personal pain caused by recent events in Oklahoma in the sense of another being currently directing a vortex of negative energy my way. He felt that it was matching stuff already in my aura and he wanted me to get under it, under as it were, its effect. His basic lesson was to transfer my view of Julie and where she was coming from to my tan t’ien, my hara, my second chakra, and feel with compassion the grief and pain from which that energy of hers was emanating. He wanted me to give her back her energy but in a loving way because she needed it, because her pain was the only way she could find her own identity and foundation.

A great system and a great and compassionate promise, for sure; a new way for humans to relate to each other with energy as well as to respond to each other’s energetic presence. I think that humans on a survival level know this implicitly and cultivate it unnamed. They might not use exactly the same system or language or participate at the same level, for instance, in gangs or during warfare, but men and women are working intuitively and pragmatically with foe as well as friend at an energetic level, making sure that they have their guards up and feelers out.

Human energy, emotional energy, psychic energy are real; otherwise, it would just be words and notions. But either way, really real or something else, John uses words and their underlying vectors and fields precisely (perhaps as a Harvard-trained lawyer but also as a Bostwick- and Seth-trained psychic). When he uses words precisely, he also uses the thoughtforms and spirit guides behind them precisely. The result—well, it’s a toss-up. Put it out there and let the universe work it out, which is all that can happen anyway. Remember, the actual system, how things connect and unfold, is fundamentally incomprehensible.

Later in the meal John worked with me on not identifying Julie’s assault with old trauma in my life.

What he told me in that regard both surprised and reassured me. “When we talked on the phone the last few years,” he explained, “I didn’t understand that you are carrying around a terror, a black spot behind your heart all the time.

“That’s right,” I said exuberantly. “I track it at every moment. It never goes away.”

“My misreading,” he added, “was to think that it was astral or etheric and could be addressed on a purely astral level. But it’s neurologically wired in you, so it can’t be gotten at or resolved astrally. I appreciate that now. You work with it. You have learned how to work with it. But there are still things I can do.”

It was from that insight that he went into his process of untangling. As I said, things changed, not radically but in such a fine and subtle way that they might actually be things changing and not a delusion or a hoax because I couldn’t actually invent or fake a level that subtle.

 

Earlier that day I went to see North Atlantic author Phoebe Gloeckner, a medical illustrator, graphic novelist, and the author of A Child’s Life and Diary of a Teenage Girl, books that we published in the late nineties and early aughts. That was the last time that I had seen Phoebe in person, and I read her then as a brash, edgy young female artist with indomitable spirit but an indeterminate depth and heart. In effect, she was too sassy, fierce, and fledgling to read.

I have come to understand that there are numerous unspoken measures which people apply to other folks, e.g. how they evolve—that is too big a topic to go into here, but I will touch on one parameter: people can be seriously smart and creative, and Phoebe was, but how much heart and soul they have and manifest in their work and life is up for grabs. If it’s a blues musician, manifestation of heart and soul is naked; it can be heard in the sourcing and vibration of the voice, the humanity and breath behind languaging and notes. It comes from rhythm, pacing, line of commitment, and what is given, what is withheld. That’s true of any sort of artist, a graphic one too. Any given artist can be clever, imaginative, and politically astute—and Phoebe was all that in spades in 2002—but are they compassionate, do they work from love and soul as well as talent, compulsion, and ambition? All this was up for grabs in mind as we arrived in Ann Arbor.

Phoebe’s books depict, in part, sexual abuse of her as a child; in particular, her affair with her mother’s boyfriend while she was still very young, a “consensual” affairs that she believes she was tricked into before she was old enough to understand what was happening or evaluate the flattery and seduction that was coming at her from a charismatic and socially mature male. The Little Lulu look of her imagery in A Child’s Life is deceptive and packs an extra wallop for an unsuspecting viewer. The Little Lulu-like view of the oversized male anatomy of the “child’s” mother’s boyfriend—and Phoebe is a medical illustrator professionally too—from a child’s perspective, led a number of printers to refuse the accept the book. Ultimately a special work force had to be called in for an evening run at Data Reproductions in Detroit. Most press workers didn’t get that A Child’s Life was a scathing critique of pedophilia as opposed fodder for pedophiles. Year later, after she moved to Ann Arbor, Phoebe phoned me from a party at Malloy Brothers and wondered if this was one of the printers who balked at printing her book. Actually Malloy was our main printer back then, and they were the first ones who declined and removed it from an actual assembly line.

After A Child’s Life was published, it remained controversial but mostly in a positive way. Phoebe was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, had a full article written about her in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and then got hired at U of M, not an easy job to land—all on the basis of her books. By then she had left Oakland for Stony Brook to be with a new partner who was hired to teach there. Then to take the Michigan job, she left Stony Brook for Ann Arbor and by the time of our visit she had been on the faculty there for many years, I’d guess about eight.

In the meantime, a near terminal gap had developed between her and North Atlantic Books. Phoebe had had her ups and downs with staff over the years, mostly downs. There was no resolution or restitution for any of it by now, no certainty that it was even a reclaimable situation. We had agreed in advance not even to mention it—Phoebe had given up on improving the relationship and wanted just to visit, no more frustration and grief. Yet we discussed it anyway, after a while. As she talked irresistibly about the failed relationship, I felt even more terrible because she was sincere and modest in her report, and everything rang true.

She had gotten no back-up or recognition from us once the books were out and had generated all the publicity on her own. Even then we didn’t back her up, even minimally by sending out review copies. Many people no longer working there had treated her disrespectfully or blown her off entirely. Spectacular outreach opportunities were squandered.

The worst was an employee who actually came to work at NAB as marketing manager because he knew Phoebe’s work and, after he was fired and sued us for wrongful termination (see “The Employee from Hell” chapter in the history of our press on my website for details). This same dude abused staff and authors and scammed more than $150,000 out of the organization during his brief tenure, about eighteen months. He turned down NPR for a review copy of A Child’s Life, so it didn’t get touted or even mentioned on the show.

I heard through the grapevine that, after we had finally settled with this guy and totally ended the affiliation, he had presented his own artwork in Ann Arbor under Phoebe’s auspices. I took that as her approval of him and his vendetta against NAB. But this turned out to be a totally incorrect rumor, for her own view was that, after treating her badly at the press, he then, with astonishing chutzpah, wanted to her to help him advance his own work (apart from his day job he was an illustrator too). He tried, in effect, to use her grievances against North Atlantic to bond with him against us and at the same time support his career

He may have harmed us even worse than her, at least in actual dollars but, when he penny-anted her while living high off the hog himself on our dime, he did so as a representative of the press, and that’s how she still saw it. Because it’s not as though his successors behaved all that much better.

Soon after I found my way to her place, we refreshed basics, and then Phoebe asked me if I wanted to see her current work. Of course I did. So she led me upstairs to an astonishing diorama/installation. In the attic (and, after that tour, we visited more of it in her garage) she had assembled and recreated a village outside Juarez, Mexico, complete with family life, street traffic, kids at play, drug lords, assassins with machine guns, murder victims covered with blood, meaning doll bodies of murdered mothers and children. The dirt and assorted litter on the floor of her attic and garage were authentic imports, so in a sense we were literally walking in the desert beyond Juarez in Ann Arbor.

Some parts of the assemblage and staging were still in process, so she put the small statues in place and stood them up for me to get the full effect. One of these involved a man being killed by Zeta-like enforcers and, as she placed the dolls with their semi-automatics and clips of bullets over their shoulders, she explained that this particular victim was shot dead an hour before she was supposed to interview him.

The greater project included photographs, a novel in progress, and a video. For instance, one of the giant prints she showed me was a murdered family on the floor of their house. The image was so soft and artistically shot that it looked like one of her paintings. It was hard to believe that this was a real mortuary.

She explained that she had lived in Juarez and vicinity for five years, as things got so dangerous that all the other gringos had fled. Finally she did too. “I didn’t leave because I was scared,” she explained. “I left because I stood out so much that I couldn’t work there anymore.”

In a period about twelve years, this woman had come into her own, as a human being and an artist. Phoebe was no mere clever, talented, wise-ass, edgy cartoonist. She ran deep and true; she was heart-felt and courageous and working with so much love and soul that, even unfinished, sectors of her mixed-media tour de force were transformative. I could not help but internalize its projection of the mystery, passion, and urgency with which it was constructed.

Juarez astonishingly became part of my life again but in a totally different sense. I didn’t have to have just visited the actual Juarez to feel the impact and meaning of its multidimensional representation.

Phoebe was at a crossroads in her own life—in fact many crossroads at once. This was a heavy time for her, with a number of crises coming to heads simultaneously. She was about to head on a spiritual road trip to El Paso, Juarez, and the general Southwest desert with a woman friend also in crisis, to clear both of their heads and gather some raw spaciousness. In fact, she was leaving the next day, which is why I went to see her first thing in the morning.

Somehow it came up in our conversation that before she left, she was going to have the tarot read, to see where things stood. I have done that sort of reading since I was sixteen but rarely in recent years. She wondered allowed how to squeeze it in, so I offered. Of course, I didn’t have cards with me. She had numerous sets, but I liked to do fortunes with the Waite deck. It turned out that she had it, albeit in a miniature version of the cards. It didn’t matter. Her preferred Mexican deck was far more soulful and beautiful but would have been impossible for me to read.

Sometimes in fortunes the shuffled and then drawn cards come up gibberish, sometimes they equivocate, but on this occasion they were hot, on fire; the tiny icons worked, it was a real visitation. Actually that’s my facile apology for the way symbols mesh with the universe: the cards never come up pure gibberish, but often the mosaics of their layout are hard to tie together and decipher. In Dark Pool of Light, Volume 3, I have written extensively about tarot and synchronicity and explain (more or less) why there is no such thing as a bad schema or reading. Suffice it to say that if anything has meaning, everything has meaning, and the universe’s bias is always toward increased human understanding and complexity; in Terence McKenna’s words, we are “the apple of the universe’s eye.” Here is part of what I wrote:

“When a fortune is uncannily accurate, it may be that angelic or magical forces are conspiring behind the scenes, pulling invisible strings to select and align the cards in a meaningful pattern, but that is both excessive and spooky. It may be that the tellee’s innate telepathic and telekinetic capacity transfers energies (i.e., invisible psychic filaments) to the cards in such a fashion as to rig the draw, though that begins to look like a psi experiment from mid-twentieth-century Duke University.

“It may also be that spirit-guides and muses of the tarot accomplish the same effect from a higher-dimensional, hyperspatial perspective (which doesn’t need strings): they spontaneously set the units of the draw by creating and destroying atoms (the atoms of the cards themselves) instantaneously, quantum-mechanically. Unlikely but still possible. It may be that the space-time continuum itself runs like a film going backward too and, after an eerily appropriate layout is displayed, the cards unravel into the deck during the prior shuffle in such a fashion as to yield that layout, specifying the energy needed in the hands of the shuffler to achieve it. For time-travel warrants of this order, consult the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or visit his Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

“It is also possible that the particular layout is random, and a teller is psychically reading the tellee’s aura while using the cards as a prop. It may be too that the draw is both random and ordinary (nontelepathic), and any reading will have some relevance to the situation because meaning itself is promiscuous, contagious, and overdetermined. Synchronicity is inevitable because meaning is already invisibly holding all of this action together.

“It may be a combination of these. But here is where you get to make your leap: Whatever the past and present state of being of the person being ‘read’ and the person doing the reading (if another), and whatever their relation to each other and to the significator and the layout of the matrix, the cards have only a future, which is their present. Energy is being created right here and now. The trumps maintain a series of dynamic tensions among one another and their own emerging correspondences and semi-correspondences, leading to relevancies, anomalies, harmonies, oppositions, and, most of all, gateways—portals between the pictures evoked by their shared and interlocking “meaning” states that open sudden possibilities for both the reader and the reading. It goes without saying that this occurs simultaneously within the participants’ consciousnesses and the energy field created by anyone else’s observation of the draw.”

The layout came from Phoebe’s shuffle of the deck. If she transferred energy to the cards, it was simultaneously unconscious and superconscious because there is no other way to transfer information so instantaneously, discretely, and fathomlessly. You could not have set down the cards more perfectly if you had picked them out to correspond to her situation, so some version of telekinesis may have at work. The card that landed in the crucial final position was The Hierophant, and its enigmatic position there led me to offer Phoebe a psychic exercise involving the creation of both protective and grounding roses while using them to transform the dangerous, secular space she was about to enter (not Juarez but an assignation in Ann Arbor before her road trip, one that was not dangerous physically but psychically) into a sacred space. In that regard I told her something that John Friedlander said in a recent class that made total sense: “The universe can’t be changed. You do the exercise to change yourself. Then sometimes—and I know it’s inexplicable, and it doesn’t compute in any logical sense—the universe changes too.”

I left her house aware of who Phoebe was and in great admiration for her courage and heart. Matters with NAB would have to find their own way. After all, it’s one giant matrix of shifting cards, and who knows how each draw affects each next draw.

 

After lunch with John, I drove to the U of M campus to meet Tom Fricke, current chairman of the anthropology department. What we arranged was that, coming from the direction of Whole Foods on Eisenhower, I would swing by a street near his office and pick him up—he identified himself for recognition as a tall sandy-haired dude with a backpack. We would park the car in the University garage (using his staff card) and then go to Starbucks and bring some coffee or tea back to his office where we would sit and talk. A complicated but tactical plan.

After I left Ann Arbor in 1969 in disgrace, the first flunker of prelims in department history, I gained some ex post facto stature among the remaining and new faculty. For instance, when I returned to defend my thesis, Aram Yengoyan stopped me in the hall and declared, “You were a prophet. After you left, all the students started talking like you. They all wanted to read Foucault and Lévi-Strauss.” But he was one of the ones who failed me, so I wasn’t entirely gracious; I should have been. We’re all human and subject to the herd. Let bygones be bygones. I’d take that one back if I could.

After my thesis defense in 1975 I pretty much dropped out of touch with the anthropology department at Michigan except for Skip with whom I remained in close contact. He had become a friend and life mentor. Under North Atlantic, we published his second book, Ecology, Meaning, and Religion in the early 1980s. He became a life-long member of the press’s nonprofit board until his death in 1997.

Even so, attempts to get anyone else in the department interested in my work, for instance the book on embryology that began conceptually in my physical-anthro courses there, got zero response despite their obvious connection to the field. Without support from my homeboys (or some equivalent), no one in the academic field even knew they existed.

That is, in part, why I was astonished to learn that Tom had read my early Black Sparrow books and issues of Io while a teenager in North Dakota. When he saw I had been a student at the University of Michigan and got my degree there, he assumed it must be a really cool department, for instance, to support something as far-out as Book of the Cranberry Islands, my Harper book composed parallel to my year of fieldwork. He had no idea of the actual situation until he arrived later as a faculty member.

Like me, Tom had started his intellectual life in a literary direction and, like me too, had gotten into anthropology only because an older writer suggested it as a possible field: Thomas McGrath in his case, Robert Kelly in mine. So we had plenty to talk about, from Gary Snyder to hyperobjects, from his fieldwork in Nepal to John Friedlander’s matrices. We ended the meeting only because it was obviously dinner-time and both of us were late. Then he rode with me in my car part-way to make sure that I got on the right course back to Fran’s. He said he always walked home anyway, as he assured me that the traffic light at which he left me (popping out with his backpack) was no further from his house than his office.

The next afternoon I brought Lindy back to his office to visit. As we arrived at his door, he said to her, “I recognize you. You haven’t changed. I saw your picture years ago, so I feel as though I know you. I have followed you two since your Ann Arbor years. It’s great finally to meet people so alive in my imagination.” Our conversation continued at that clip, for hours this time. After our afternoon together Tom wrote:

“And really, what a treat to meet you and Lindy after nearly 40 years!  Both of you were a godsend to a 19 yr old kid from the Great Plains, encouraging him to believe his own yearnings and dispositions were shared.  I’ve noticed that here in my 60th year, aged 59 and tumbling toward my birthday, that I seem to circle back to my 20th, aged 19 and tumbling then, too—I’ve been re-reading much that fed my own internal fire back then, scratching through old notes and scribbles and following up on the saints or exemplars from that time.  Meeting you two is of a piece with that.  So all bows to you!”

This was not the anthropology department I left in 1969 or entered in 1966.

 

The next day, Lindy and I set out to meet my Amherst classmate Paul Dimond at his office for lunch. I had never been all that close to Paul, but we were familiar to each other from casual contact during our college years and then we got to know each other better during reunions. Paul was the one who enlisted me to edit our 25th-year reunion book as he was now enlisting me to edit our 50th. It was that initial project that brought me back into the class, for my relationship to Amherst had been virtually nil since graduation.

As happens with classmates and people met in school or youth, I had only a vague sense of Paul’s stature and accomplishments and no inkling of their full scope. Seeing him in his home town and habitat, I realized what a full and distinguished career he had had, perhaps best exemplified by a souvenir in his office: “The only Michigan nerf ball signed by Bill Clinton,” he declared proudly. It was personally autographed to Paul because they had worked together in Washington.

Now Paul was pretty much an emeritus figure in a suite of a large law firm’s offices, committing his time to writing novels, in particular a historical work of fiction set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a female character modeled on Emily Dickinson. He was also working on a thriller based on his inside knowledge of Washington DC. His quick precis of that one opened something like this:

Succession at the White House: In the Line of Fire between Duty and Treason is a political intrigue, suspense thriller about an attempted assassination to decide a presidential election as completely as any coup. It opens ten days before the 2000 election. While President Bill Caldwell meets in the Situation Room to decide whether to strike Al Qaeda’s leaders, Vice President Hal Fisher meets in his Ceremonial Office to finalize an Energy Security Treaty with the world’s major Defense Ministers.”

During our time together throughout that afternoon and in the early evening, Paul was a gracious and generous host, thinking ahead and taking care of things for us, far more than was called for. It was an instance in which a classmate suddenly becomes a surrogate brother, and you realize that that’s how the whole alumni thing works and your unrecognized connection was always deeper than your rote affiliation in a particular group. Our hanging out left me with a feeling of warmth and an appreciation for the depth of other relationships that have floated for years, their potential unrealized.

Over lunch and during a walk, Paul, Lindy, and I had touched on diverse issues arising from literature, academics, Amherst, politics, and our family lives, and we had space and leisure to explore beneath the surfaces. Most of it was improvised chatting and small talk about common territory but, at certain moments, we hit upon veins in which shared experiences and values suddenly sharpened into focus. When people converge on the Great Road under shared urgencies, they often find a basis on which to bond. But it helps if there is a symbolic bond already (like Amherst Class of ’66). A fiftieth reunion then becomes the fifth decimal cycle of something larger than self (really the fifty-fourth if you count our college days), and it doesn’t matter if it’s mostly unrealized potential because it’s all based on trust and potentiation anyway. When some of that is activated, as it was on this day with Paul, it validates the whole construct. It’s may not be a crossroads on an official Mayan calendar, but we all live inside the springs of smaller sequential zodiacs that fly open to occasional breathtaking visitas as our destinies unfold.

A cute incidental dialogue took as we were walking to lunch. Paul and our host Fran independently realized (through me) that they were natives of Ann Arbor of roughly the age and must have been at Pioneer High together. But I had forgotten to ask Fran her maiden name, so I phoned her as we walked to the restaurant. Then I told Paul what her name was at Pioneer while she was still on the line. He didn’t recognize it. He mused about it and then said, “Tell her I remember her; she must have been that gorgeous girl.”

I said, “Paul said you must have been that gorgeous girl he remembers.”

“He clearly does not remember me.”

Paul not only took care of us, but he made a contact with the University of Michigan Special Collections librarian for our individual literary archives and the North Atlantic Books one, something that had almost come together at Amherst but finally hadn’t. He had offered this possibility several times over the previous few years, but I had never realized that it was a serious proposition not just a passing, dime-a-dozen suggestion. Without understanding the range of his career and imbedding in public Michigan life, I did not appreciate the full moxie of his connections.

When we were done with lunch, Paul accompanied across the campus with us to Tom Fricke’s office and joined briefly in our conversation. Having heard my report of the previous day’s exchange, he made clear to Tom, like any good lawyer representing his client (or any big brother), that it was night and day between the status in which I left Ann Arbor in 1969, under interdict as it were, and the way in which Tom received me back in 2014 (I had told him at lunch); hence, anthropology-department support for the library purchasing the archive should be a non-brainer. By doing this, Paul wound my Amherst years into my University of Michigan loop and made the cycle complete. For all my various senses of exclusion and even betrayal at both institutions, in the end—well sometimes the universe changes too.

 

That night John Friedlander, Lindy, and I watched Random Harvest together on my laptop—a surprisingly crisp if small image. Random Harvest is a 1942 movie starring Ronald Coleman and Grier Garson, based on a 1941 novel by James Hilton. In the story, an unlikely situation arises whereby a man and a woman who are married to each other can’t really love their partner or commit his or her heart because each is in love with another person who happens to be each other. It sounds like the Sphinx’s riddle, but here’s the way it works: Ronald Coleman’s character, Smithy, is taken from the World War I battlefield in a shell-shocked state and finds himself in a psychiatric hospital near rural Melbridge, England, with total amnesia as to his identity or prior life. Reduced to a speechless, almost catatonic state, he nonetheless bumbles into an escape past a drunken guard the night of the armistice and runs into Grier Garson’s character, Paula, in town, a performer in a traveling troupe. She takes an immediate interest in him and soon decides to rescue him and restore him to sanity and health. She brings him to a cottage in Devon, and they fall in love and marry. They have a child.

The man without a memory begins writing freelance articles, sells some of them, and is offered a full-time job at a newspaper in Liverpool. His trip there for the interview is the couple’s first night apart since his escape from the mental ward more than two years earlier. While en route to the interview, Smithy slips in the rain, is hit by a taxi, and comes back to consciousness remembering only his pre-Smith identity. Missing three years, he goes home to his inheritance as a wealthy land-owner and industrialist and takes up his role as head of the family and its chief entrepreneur, the manager of its diverse and far-flung holdings and investments. He almost marries his step-niece, a beautiful young woman to whom he is engaged. But days before the wedding he can’t commit to her to her satisfaction because he loves someone else, and she knows it. All he has of his forgotten identity is a key to an unknown lock (that he carries around with him on a string) and a profound sense of loss. The key was all he had when he came to after the brief accident coma.

Eventually we see that his executive assistant is his other self’s former wife. She has tracked down her missing husband and taken the job in hopes of jogging his memory and, in any case, to seize an opportunity to be close to the man she loves. She doesn’t want to tell him the truth because she doesn’t want to obligate him and wants him to be in love with her too. “Very English,” John remarked as this unfolded.

But her beloved, gentle Smithy is not the same man as the powerful industrialist Charlies Rainier and, while he relies on Margaret’s quiet efficiency and expertise for running all the domains of his business (Margaret is her non-show-business name), he does not view her romantically. He is pining for another woman (her), while she is pining for another man (him). When he runs for Parliament and wins a seat, he convinces her to marry him for convenience, for he needs a social hostess. They acknowledge that they are two lost souls in love with someone else.

Enough said. I am not going to tell you how it gets resolved, but it moves me to tears every time. The film unwinds back through memories and time and delivers them to their former and full identities in an unexpected way.

Here is an online summary:

“A veteran of World War I marries and settles happily into a tidy, humble life until an accident brings back memories of a former life of wealth and privilege while blocking all recollection of his existence since the war. Thus one man disappears, and another man long missing turns up and claims his vast inheritance. What does his devoted wife, whom he no longer recognizes, do?”

I had long wanted John to see it as a parable for some of what he is teaching about group souls and multipersonhood, but it wasn’t happening from a distance because he doesn’t engage in pop culture much. He intentionally has no DVD player and doesn’t regularly watch movies. When setting out on this road trip, I specifically put my copy of the DVD (a gift from our daughter a few years ago) into my backpack in the hope that just such an opportunity might arise.

Members of group souls and multipersonhoods are always in significant relationship, but they are not always aware of it or even friends and lovey-dovey with each other. In some instances they may be bitter or mortal foes. The underlying connection is what connects them, even across dimensions and galaxies. Through reincarnational forces of karma, they are brought together again and again in various arrangements, not all of them even human or on this planet or in this plane, through all of which they are dimly aware of the greater stage on which they are players. They are like pieces of souls that have flown apart. Some of them in fact are the same soul in different simultaneous bodies.

The film, of course, is not based on this metaphysical conceit, but that is its beauty: it has discovered multipersonhood in ordinary life through a literary device based on amnesia. After all, amnesia is the only thing, in a reincarnational belief system, that separates people from other lifetimes and versions of themselves. Paula/Margaret is indispensible to Smithy/Charles Rainier, no matter how they fall into particular relation. In his Smithy guise she rescues him from wasting away in a mental hospital, and he loves that rescuing angel with all his whole heart and soul—she engulfs his entire world. But in his Charles Rainier guise, he is well-established and robust and she can’t imbue his world in the same global and all-consuming fashion. She can’t be like a visitation from beyond; she is his executive secretary, equally indispensable. He is just as unable to operate without her in his new guise. And so he instinctively marries her again.

But he is longing for his own lost depth in Smithy, an unconscious self released only by battle-shock and amnesia, as she is longing for the vulnerable, loving Smithy too. Only Smithy can see Margaret as Paula; Charles Rainier certainly can’t—he is too busy managing his empire—though that is what he wants most of all, to find her when she is already right beside him, as that is the only thing that will make him whole.

It’s a parable for our situation: the answer is there all the time, if only we would look, if only we would see the full breadth and dimensional scope of our acting persona. But we don’t, without a jolt,

John made a quick exit after the film because it had gotten late, but he let us know in an email that he enjoyed not only hanging out together but the heart energy the three of us generated together in a short time. We knew, going in, we had a lot in common, a lot to talk about, but we didn’t know that we would connect humanly. John the person was different from John the teacher—and that has come to be my Ann Arbor theme: karmic friendships that lurk beneath surface friendships, hearts and souls that peek through social personae and discourse. That is what pulls us through the manifold interactions and episodes with each other, which make up a life and a cycle of lives, either in one linear dimension of time and space or a nonlinear field of individual relationships.

In a sense, that too is what happened with Lindy and Julie. After Lindy thought out the attack and read through the barrage of emails (“I hated you even then, with your upper-class imperiousness and buck teeth,” was one of the invectives), she wrote her a thoughtful email and got as good of a response in kind as could be expected. Because Lindy ignored the tone and anger behind the emails and spoke simply as one human being to another, with a hope invested in, if not renewing the friendship, at least not blowing it up in an ugly fashion, she brought it back to a normal range of human interaction. For instance, she said to Julie:

“We have made different choices; we’re influenced by different sets of ideas. We have different tools and resources that we meet the world with. I’m not living on easy street, and neither are you…none of God’s creatures are.  The biggest difference between us might be that I live among people who think in very many different ways, so I am continually forced to critique my own ideas, adjust, take in, rephrase; whereas it appears that you live in a world where different ideas are a huge threat. Or so it seems. Hard to say this quickly, it’s complex.

“Let us back away gracefully, without any reactivity, without disrespecting one another.”

Julie accepted the offer. Both women agreed that it was best that they communicate directly with each other. It’s unclear why, in the days leading up to our meeting, Julie even focused on me and emailed and phoned me rather than Lindy. Perhaps it was wanting to neutralize the unknown.

In any case, as our daughter said on the phone when she heard this aftermath (after having just read “Osage Nation”), “So you were of use, after all.” She was both reassuring me and chiding me, for my tendencies and excesses are well-known to our kids.

I threw back at her one of her own favorite lines: “Oh well.”

The trouble was, that reconciliation didn’t last and, by the time we reached Toronto, Julie had exploded all over again, as if I had never apologized or she and Lindy had never exchange conciliatory emails. This was to be the pattern for the next six months.

The way in which distance and resistance are overcome is not predictable and not always (or usually) pleasant. In fact, if the resistance is strong enough, it requires a full-on visitation of the shadow and then a Shiva-like enantiodromia to wrench out what pieces are worth salvaging. You can’t talk or pick your way to rapprochement. Emotions and astral energies must get their full due, for they contain the vigor needed for real connection. You can certainly, however, vent at each other, unload sacred rage (from wherever, whatever), and then feel cleansed and aligned enough to continue. It is a paradox: by ending the relationship, you begin a relationship.

Julie held to her apocryphal stories about Lindy’s behavior in high school and insisted on the truth of her narratives for those things that happened among the three of us in Avant, Skiatook, Pawhuska, and the Tall Prairie, accounts that are nowhere near neutral or impartial—but that hardly matters in the shifting context of the whole. As has been shown in countless experiments in neuroscience, as well as in other epistemological contexts, reality and truth are created by people not events; they are not hard and fast sui generis facts and do not arise in full, recordable illumination on the spot. Everyone experiences his or her own reality and then creates memories and fixes them in chemicals (and ethers too). In ingenious tests, subjects have melded various stray incidents, dreams, cryptonesias, and partial memories into trenchantly committed false memories. From a biological standpoint, these are identical to true memories in their brains.

Julie did make her point on a number of things worth correcting insofar as it matters in an ephemeral text like this. She does not receive anything like a dribble of income from Osage oil but $36,000 a year, and she does not think of herself as poor or downwardly mobile but as living within her means by choice. She also wanted to establish her full Osage legitimacy: “I’m a grandaughter of one of the original Allotees (the 2,229 Osages that were left after depredations from smallpox and two relocations, down from an original population of around 20-30,000!) I can trace my Osage and Omaha ancestry back to the late 18th century.”

 

Finally a few readers’ comments:

 

“The Osage saga was a predictable train wreck. I knew the sh*t was going to hit the fan when I read your account of the visit.  I just read your post-mortem analysis quickly, and I think you got it right on all fronts—your weaknesses, her weaknesses. Ultimately I am left with the feeling that she is a woman with a problem personality, and no matter what her bruja powers or pretensions may be, no matter what shimmering desert landscapes or flying monkeys she can command she is best left to her own self-righteous devices. Shamans are not necessarily enlightened beings.”

 

“carry on you impudent violator, you self-loathing intellectual, unrepentant jew (or is it unrepentant intellectual?) what’s interesting here is not the dimensional properties of Tulsa (i mean Tulsa, really?), but the geography of one Richard Grossinger, stranger in a strange land, Rod Serling in LL Bean drag. it’s all in the gaze, man. the gaze is disarming. whether from a Motel 6 or on camera in front of a bookcase, opposite a fellow unrepentant getting a bit unnerved because what has been flattened in them, they hammered flat themselves in order to slide under a door somewhere and your gaze falls upon it like a child once asked me how i got such a big belly.

“the Lotus Sutra tells a tale of the Magic City, thus there is a Magic City in us all. and it is a dreamscape because we are habituated in thought to the mind-ground of dreaming and the Buddha borrows that language to awaken us to original mind. our mutual friend Ellias Lonsdale is a pioneer into the scapes beyond the Magic City where there are not even any footprints. everyone’s Magic City looks different and reversed because it can only be seen in the rear-view. there! see the buffalo still roaming?

“yes, carry on across bombed-out America where everyone thinks the only cities in rubble are on the news. gaze upon the neatly shelved chatchkies in the burning house infested by self-righteous vermin who live a decent life. don’t bother apologizing when you ask why their belly is so fat.”

 

“I applaud your honesty, candor and self-examination-these entries are the literary highlight of my week so I sure hope you continue. Happy Trails!”

 

“This was really quite helpful to read—as well as those weirdly circular yet imperious responses you discreetly quoted. I went back to read about Osage Nation and ‘Julie,’ and frankly, I think brave little Hansel and surely dear Gretel are holding up quite well after their escape from the wicked cannibal-wild witch and from captivity in her house of filthy marzipan, cookies and canes. Naturally the path through the forest of reality they’d sought to mark with offerings of bread and implicitly blood would get gobbled and converted to trash by croaking ravens walking on sore claws. Keep going. Don’t quit your blog. I find it, and your torturous example, extremely helpful, and I don’t begin to understand how or why. Please don’t quit.”

 

“I’m writing because, whereas there are always brilliances (your insomnia in Avant is one example of many), the manuscript errors have multiplied by a factor of five (or ten) as we moved through Texas and Oklahoma. There are missing words, misspellings, incorrect or missing punctuation–pretty much the entire gamut.

“Now, none of us write perfectly, nor is that a reasonable expectation. I’m simply using relative metrics here–comparing the text to the California / New Mexico text. And there can be only one explanation for that: fatigue.

 

“My concerns are two:

“1) You’re in a metal machine speeding alongside other machines (as you described so beautifully in ‘Houston’) at a high rate of speed. My point of reference is that I moonlighted as an umpire in my younger years, and in the transition from baseball fan to baseball official I learned how bad calls happen. It isn’t any of the things I thought. It’s from a half second of missed concentration, which can happen to anybody in any circumstance at any time. In a car, it’s a way you can die—and of course it doesn’t have to be your missed concentration—it can be somebody else’s, and your failure to react to it.

“Accordingly, I’m suggesting a day of R&R for you and Lindy. There seems to be an assumption that such things happen only at horrible plastic motels. Not so. Especially in the summer, cabins and lodges of all kinds exist, especially on blue highways. If your schedule is so tight that a rest day means one missed rendezvous, I’m still suggesting it. The rendezvous can be rescheduled; your well-being cannot.

“2) You and I are the same age. And I don’t think I could keep up your pace—whether driving, visiting, ruminating or journaling. I need occasional daytime naps now that I didn’t need five years ago. There’s no shame in it; it is what it is. Think Gustav Holst’s ‘Saturn—the Bringer of Old Age.’

“DO NOT, under any circumstances, take any of this as a criticism. It’s concern for a friend, whose contribution to the rest of us is immense. We need you.”

 

I must be leaving a train of errors in my wake because I am working too fast and in too short spates. But we have been driving carefully. Obviously I don’t control everything on the road, but our skills have improved during the trip. I would not have thought it possible, but we have become accomplished long-haul drivers. The worst, though, has been post-Indiana (in terms of other drivers). The madmen (and women I guess too) in Ann Arbor outdo anything in Texas or Oklahoma for speed and road rage, but then the Canadians are the worst of all for absurdly dangerous speeds and lane-changing at close quarters. On 401, they get up almost bumper-to-bumper at 120 kilometers an hour, then honk and give the finger when you finally can get over to let them pass. I say “they” because each one who passes is then replaced by his or her doppelgänger.

Finally from Amherst classmate Don Benson, a comment about the photograph of me leaving Houston wearing a t-shirt with a faded but recognizable Obama rainbow insignia on it:

“The scariest part for me was seeing you approach a high plains crossing with a bulls-eye on your chest. Glad you made it to Ann Arbor alive.”

 

Toronto and the Laurentians

We left Ann Arbor on I94 and headed for Canada, which wasn’t all that far away, maybe 35 miles. As we drove toward and past Detroit Metro, we discussed the procession of planes in and out through the sky. During the sixties we would see bikers lined up along the edge of 94, getting as close as they could get to the roar of the rising planes, howling and trying to merge with machine power. They were probably on drugs too. It was both kind of inspiring and kind of scary to us when we were twenty-two.

The sequence of airports we had passed so far—Tucson, El Paso, Austin, Houston, Tulsa, St. Louis, Indianapolis (plus countless little ones in between) accentuated that we were not flying east. We were underneath most of the comparable travelers, like a beetle on the ground or the tortoise to the hare. The advantage was that we were in control of our timing, trajectory, pauses, and pokes off-itinerary. There is a liberating feeling to not being ID-ed, packaged, sealed in a container—the faux cocktail lounge with no exit—and shot through air to our destination as quickly as the combined current technological and economic apparatus would allow. We were free: literally under the radar, and by a lot, out of the system, incognito, able to improvise. We could do what we wanted, poke where we wanted, linger as we chose. We were covering the same geography as the planes, sidling along their flight paths without processing, identification, and the industry’s implicit institutionalization and condescension. We weren’t subject to celestial incarceration and expedient telemetry, but we were logging the requisite miles at perhaps one to eight or nine (and that’s not nothing), and the fact that we were losing time was balanced by the fact that we were filling it with meaningful events and relationships. We were taking in the country at human scale, both as reality and range. It would have cost a fortune and involved many separate flights to have replicated our route airport to airport. And, frankly, it would have gotten us to Maine before we were ready, without walking the labyrinth, without any body-mind assimilation of what we had done.

There is too much expedient magic in modernity, such that avoiding experience, replacing it with machine realities, has come to seem the greatest wonder and human benefit, to many folks the main reason to be alive now. Think of it: to get to use machines and roboticize one’s natural incarnate actions has trumped our sheer clumsy sensual, mammalian, existence.

It may be convenient to jet from meeting to meeting, zone to zone, but it is not always enriching or pertinent (in the big picture) to get to a destination so quickly. It is hard for body, mind, and aura to catch up and become fully integrated at the new locale; it usually takes me about a week to really get there, and by then it is often time to leave (or I have already left).

As noted, the reason we did it this way was to set a significant buffer, a heterogeneous interzone, between our 38 years in Berkeley and our new life on the East Coast, to put some real guts and texture rather than a swift tube shot into the gap, to actually assimilate the distance, the change, to handle some what is the middle. Passing so many diverse airports with their ascending and descending vehicles felt triumphant in a renunciate way. It formalized our transition, route choice, and mode of transport.

The number of dreams I have had about airplanes while driving the labyrinth down under speaks to a profound psychic reality. Last night our “pilot” decided to stop at an unlisted airport and swap airlines, but the company that he switched to turned our plane on the unplanned runway into a horse-drawn buggy, and then we were expected to camp out in the snow and build a fort there. I was one of the first passengers to suggest rebelling against the pilot’s authority. I felt that this whole detour was his grandiose plot and had nothing to do with us.

In another dream—and I have had this one often—we could not get enough lift fast enough to avoid flying among buildings, and it was astonishing that we could shoot through the openings between skyscrapers and not crash. The sense conveyed was that all plane flights were like this, but we didn’t recognize it.

Each dream has so many introversions, sublimations, metonymies, and symbolic transformations. Here the grounding of the plane became the act of becoming a hostage (rather than the usual being taken into the sky), but the overall situation of losing power and control remained the basis for a rebellion. I think that what these dream mean, if dreams “mean” rather than just “are,” is that our journey is not about our mode of transporation through space-time as such but through the psyche.

As we passed Detroit Metro, I had a phenomenological epiphany about how the difference between those jets I was watching and the car in which I was being propelled by Lindy’s foot on the accelerator, other than their disparate speeds, a mere quantitative matter anyway, was the wings: air under metal driving the vehicle up and holding it there. 30,000 feet is no big deal if the physics behind the engineering and execution on the assembly line is right-on. Then it is just a matter of running engines: wings added or wings no add. Once the human race got that, the application of it changed everything about the planet, and very quickly, from commerce and social order to weaponry and war. Those sixties motorcyclists at Detroit Metro may have been grooving on the roar of giant metal birds, but they were worshipping ecstatically at the shrine of Athena and Hermes (Mercury) too.

 

The challenge of entering Canada (via Windsor, Ontario) came up more quickly than we were prepared for. I had to scramble to find our passports, as Lindy followed signs that combined the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario, with Toledo, Ohio, in faith that the Toledo traffic would eventually go off in another direction. It did.

The surprise was how many trucks suddenly there were relative to cars, like a hundred in a row. They formed a half-mile snail’s-pace convoy that seemed to face a minimum back-up of three hours. It was reminiscent of a back-up we saw outside Venice, Italy, of far more exotic, often funky rigs and semis with Eastern European license plates, many of them looking marginally road-worthy with wooden contrivances and flapping tarps or burlap. Here in Michigan noncommercial traffic scooted by the convoy, so we had to find and follow the elusive “car” signs that were placed in hide-and-seek, erratic fashion, difficult to snag among the hovering trucks. It was like darting through eyes of needles and eventually into the narrow passageway formed by trucks going in both directions, the ones coming from Canada moving, the ones entering barely sputtering before stopping again. Our dwarf-like rush between them was surreal and hair-raising, especially as they regularly strayed over the line, probably distractedly, making our slot tighter. Later, while writing in her journal, Lindy called it a canyon between the trucks and asked me if had a better phrase since it wasn’t wide like the Grand Canyon. All I could think of was “fractal groove,” which wasn’t accurate for other reasons but had a satisfying ring to it. The bridge itself was majestic and dramatic, as the groove opened up, though we were still in the minority among semis.

Of course, we had to show our passports and say what we were doing in Canada, but that took thirty seconds, though Lindy hesitated perilously when asked where we lived. Where did we live? We were still using the Yale Avenue address of a house that someone else had bought was moving into. It was what was on our passports and driver’s licenses and, when needed at gas pumps, our credit-card zip code. The vacillation went unnoticed.

The ramp deposited us in a welter of traffic stampeding through Windsor, most it headed for 401, the major highway across Canada. A lot of things happened at once. The miles-to-kilometers change was instantaneous, on both speed-limit and city-distance signs. Hence, the numbers became brobdingnagian as if we had changed size or entered Jonathan Swift’s land of the giants. Plus for the first time since we owned the car, the button on the Prius dashboard allowing one to change to KPH came into play for something other than a prank. It was harder to adjust mentally to the inappropriate figures, so Lindy kept hitting the button to see how fast she was actually going, i.e., would be going in the US.

Crossing the Ambassador Bridge meant another change: our cell phones, including use of the Internet, immediately became void, as they changed to “roaming,” which meant that they went from being effectively free to being very pricey, so were shut off at once. A major source of diversion and contact with the world vanished just like that. We were driving in a relative silence at a different calibration. Ready or not, we were in another polity.

Canada’s investment in wind power was instantly on display as windmills lined the highway mile after mile with their stately physics (one form of energy flowing seamlessly into another). I know that they’re controversial, especially given the spinning turbines’ risk to birds, but the idea of machines generating electricity without hydrocarbon excavation or nuclear reactions, simply pulling it out of the planet’s passage through gravity and mass reminds me of sci-fi’s imaginal other planets that did not bumble into our particular petroleum addiction or the corporate manipulation of energy. After all, energy is simply there, free, in the lay of the land, the thermodynamics of the dimensions, but it takes a different mindset from the ground up to apply that axiom.

The distance from 1701 Crestland, our 1969 abode in Ann Arbor, to our home exchange on Braemar Avenue between Eglinton and Avenue Road in North Toronto was 275.2 miles (442.9 kilometers), a hefty jaunt but hardly as imposing as some of our other one-day allotments. We passed the next major airport (Toronto’s Pearson International). Descending planes came in right over the highway as large as the moon illusion and thrilled the part of me that blended with those motorcyclists of yore. We hit heavy traffic at Etobicoke, even heavier by North York, Toronto suburbs to the west, and crept along for more than an hour.

Another Canadian thing: in the vicinity of cities, there are two highways: one for long-distance travel and another for access to local exits. If you are on the express rather than the collection lanes, you might go sailing right by your exit with no passage to it (however major an exit it might be) but, if you are in the collection lanes (which bracket about three exits at a time), you have to move more slowly and accommodate entering and departing traffic.

Our Mapquest instructions lined up happily with a major exit, so we had time to maneuver off. After a brief run on Eglington, we pulled up like magic at a parking spot just past the front door of the dwelling.

It was magical because we just walked to the house and, as instructed, rang the buzzer of the upstairs neighbor. A woman in perhaps her early fifties, name of Laura (as per the emailed notes), appeared at my ring.

Our arrival led me to imagine the Huygens lander descending onto the surface of the Saturnian moon Titan after being launched by the Cassini probe in early 2005. After traveling the 750 million miles from Earth to Saturn, it parked on a specific landscape on a specific day, and the images it sent to humans from there are still our only ground-level pictures from among all the outer moons in the Solar System as well as our single ground-level view of the outer Solar System itself. Nothing so dramatic or needle-in-haystack had taken place here, but we did (overall) drive from Kensington, California to a specific block in Toronto, to a specific house, and were met by a woman, randomly determined by the response of her downstairs neighbor to our listing on homeexchange.com. In that sense, that was like an assignation with a view on the Xanadu plains of Titan—the one we got.

Laura, Lindy, and I unexpectedly plummeted into an hour-long conversation as though we were meeting at a party or sitting on a plane with her in the seat between us. Her account of her life in Toronto mixed with various insights drew us in, and they remain my most intimate and internalized image of what living there is like. She teaches sixth grade at a private school. She has either two daughters or a daughter and a son (I forget), both of high-school age, but she herself would not send either of them to private school. In that context, she discussed the development and maturation of children, her own and her students’, with the sensitivity and objectivity of a short seminar on the emergence of identity, gender, and belief systems. She performed this thoughtfully in a slight Canadian accent. A tall, serious woman, she had a lightness, or what registered as a gentle forgivingness, that balanced her air of pedagogical authority.

Lindy’s and my other adventure on that day was finding a restaurant for dinner, to which we proceeded on foot in order to see the neighborhood and get some exercise after the long drive. The hand-drawn map left on the kitchen table by our attorney exchange-partner Michael—who was about then finding the key, unlocking the front door, and becoming the first occupant of our house in Southwest Harbor since December 7th of the previous year (and who was soon to need helping finding the kayaks in the basement)—was indispensable, but because it did not scale distances or show intervening streets between major avenues, the walk to the zone of restaurants and shops was maybe three to four times what we presumed from the sketch, for there were two or three cross-streets between Avenue Road and Oriole Parkway, and another bunch between Oriole and Yonge. We got a very carefully rendered and polite exegesis about this matter from an couple we stopped, just to make sure.

I like the name Yonge (pronounced Young locally) in part because somewhere along that street, clearly not in this part of town, Lindy and I read together at an art gallery under the auspices of Coach House Press in 1972. Hosted by Victor Coleman then, we met Coach House authors b p Nichol and Michael Ondaatje. The reading was part of a midwestern tour we took for a couple of months during my winter off-term at Goddard. In my five years on the faculty I chose to teach in the summer rather than the winter (especially since I was part of the Social Ecology program which convened only in June, July, and August) and take January through May off. In a trimester system, faculty got to choose their two teaching terms and, despite what you might guess, most preferred to teach in the Vermont winters rather than have any class responsibilities at all in the summers. In the early seventies they preferred to garden, travel, or play.

That particular winter I taught a month-long course on Hesiod’s Theogony at Kent State, a gig sponsored jointly by the anthropology and English departments. We hung out there for six weeks with writers Robert Bertholf, Alex Gildzen, and Ed and Jennie Dorn. Before and after that gig, Lindy and I read from our work publicly at various places: in Ann Arbor at Shaman Drum bookstore, in an auditorium at West Virginia University in Morgantown, and at nearby Keyser State, now I think Potomac State, in a large classroom.

At WVU, a student named Jayne Anne Phillips attended our readings and afterwards gave some of her manuscripts to Lindy such that we became her first publisher (Io/19). She is now a fine, internationally recognized novelist. At Keyser State we were hosted by Irene McKinney, and the meeting was fruitful beyond the night’s event, as we later published two books of her poems: The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap and Quick and Slow Fire. Sadly the long-time official poet laureate of West Virginia recently passed.

It was on that trip that we also decided to have a second child. Such choices are tiny seeds that have momentous outcomes: a whole human life matching and challenging our own from within our relationship, an emergent aspect of our overall existence and family structure. Miranda once said, somewhat accusingly but also gratefully, “I had to grow up in your and Lindy’s love affair.” Or something like that. The statement was filled with ironies and things that were not ironies but became ironical too upon consideration.
Around our reading back then at the Yonge Street gallery, we got more fully involved in Toronto and for about five years thereafter stayed with poets on Toronto Island and in communal houses in town through the seventies until the venue ended after we moved to California. On Toronto Island people owned their own houses but not the lots on which they were constructed (the city, I think, did), making it a perfect set-up for artist colonies.

When I was preparing my thesis at Michigan, I drove by myself from Plainfield, Vermont, to Ann Arbor by way of overnights in Toronto a couple of times and made many friends—Penny Kemp and Mary McConnell among them, all of whom I have since lost contact with. I have even forgotten most of their names and what they looked like. My last prior time in Toronto was in the spring of 1975 when I drove to Ann Arbor for my thesis defense, completing the elusive PhD. I remember driving back through Ohio and Pennsylvania instead of Canada in order to experience April flowers and the beginnings of summer as well as celebrate the end of formal school in my life. Despite many later dreams that put me back at Michigan still struggling to finish that thesis or to convince the department to readmit me, I was done with the education system after twenty-five years of schooling. There weren’t any higher rungs, thank goodness. Though this was my first time in Toronto since 1975, in the early 1990s Lindy had flown to a technical-writing conference at the University of Toronto during the decade-long span in which she taught technical writing and ethics in the school of engineering at UCBerkeley.

This was my train of thought during our long walk from our new temporary home to the realm of restaurants.

On Yonge we picked out a Middle Eastern place called Tabouli and were glad that there was a table for us to be seated outdoors, European-style, out of the din and with a view. A few notable things about our evening meal at Taouli:

  1. Entertainment by fellow outdoor diners. Two older middle-aged gentlemen at the next table (meaning younger than us but not by that much) had a vibrant, at time ferocious but good-humored exchange in non-stop French. I could not understand a thing they were saying, though I could translate single words and phrases. The overall effect was pleasant if loud, as if we were listening to a new Philip Glass piece from the first row (of course it wasn’t that musical, but it had a melodic flow vaguely similar to Einstein on the Beach). After they paid and departed, they were replaced by a matching pair: two young men, probably around twenty, one of whom arrived first and sat there bouncing his right leg till the other joined him. Then they engaged in their own animated conversation, in a softer key, less non-stop, more laid-back. It was all in English and concerned two main things: the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the original (and more reticent) guy’s upcoming trip to Turkey. They were handsome, charismatic, radiant youths. While first was quieter, the second was bursting with energy and a full repertoire of magnetic smiles. It soon became clear that their perspective on the Middle East was diametrically opposite ours; they were Jewish and wanted the Palestinians wiped out, the tunnels and missiles and Hamas destroyed, etc., the sooner the better. The idiosyncratic way in which they went about expressing that—and the livelier one did it more often—generated its own captivating music, more John Adams than Philip Glass, with perhaps a touch of the “Night Chorus” from Death of Klinghoffer. Their repartée was to list some new indecency of the Palestinians in Gaza or committed by Hamas (of which there seemed a limitless number) and then say “Crazy.” Syllabically and tone-wise, “crazy” wasn’t even an independent word; it was more like “Rodger, out” in how it ended every new stanza (and ostensible depredation). They acted as judge and jury, of course, and the way in which they spoke made it seem as though any idiot, including us if we were spying, would have to agree. It was also clear, from the context of the quieter one’s impending Turkey trip and his friend’s recalled past trips abroad, that these chaps had wealthy fathers, and those sires had wealthy colleagues abroad who opened doors to situations not usually available to tourists.

It is interesting that, given the usual testosterone level and romanticism of men that age that they only discussed “the ladies” once and early on, when they had promise of being more charming than they were, and it was about a particular girl and whether this or that about her, followed by lots of short laughs and the sense that she was great but neither wanted any part of it, and then a question about what the animated one’s older brother thought about her. He was apparently happy to see her but—more laughs—and then subject dropped.

  1. Cigarettes. Pedestrians thought nothing about passing close to our table with fully outgassing nicotene despite the apparent regulation against smoking within a certain number of feet of diners. However, most of the tobacco smoke came from males who rushed out from the inside Tabouli, took a quick intense bunch of drags while looking warily around (to one degree or another), then ground out the butt on the sidewalk and went back in—no attempt at all to put any distance between them and the dining patio.
  2. Food. The pistachio pine-nut lemonade was a nice variation, and the falafel sounded better on the menu and less blah by ingredients than executed in the kitchen.
  3. Paying. In Canada these days you are expected to run your credit card yourself through a small machine brought to your table. The machine also automatically calculates and adds the tip after you punch in the percentage you want to give. The waitress explained that this was a great innovation in some ways but, when you had a table of eight people, each paying separately, you had to stand around waiting, handing the card to each diner in turn, and it slowed things down in a dramatic way. We found that out in person soon enough, as she had a twelve-party table, and we ended up waiting twenty-five extra minutes after the end of our meal for her to come and apologize for the delay. It wasn’t a problem. We were in Toronto to look around and get a feeling of the place, and the patio wasn’t a bad platform in which to experience sunset and traffic, auto and pedestrian.

Coming back in the dark on foot, we overshot Chaplin Crescent, the locus on which we intersected Yonge when coming, and we found ourselves alongside a large outdoor subway station filled with commuters that we hadn’t seen during our trek there. It turned into a very long but satisfying walk in the quiet night.

 

The next day our plan was to visit Victor Coleman in the later afternoon (his single opening for us). We were to meet him at Coach House, which was still in existence, though Victor himself had become an emeritus figure there, no longer the published or involved in press activity in a significant way. That left us the morning in which to wander around the neighborhood and walk the jogging trail (our choice of activity).

By being leisurely in that, we put ourselves into “no man’s land,” having not left enough time for lunch at home before meeting Victor. Rather than eat on Yonge and rush, we decided to find Coach House Press first and then look for a place in its vicinity. This involved getting on Bloor Street, a major thoroughfare, and from there the startlingly named b p Nichol Lane, obviously after the delightfully zany concrete poet of the seventies whose readings we attended. On the phone I had asked Victor if this meant that b p had passed. He said, “Twenty years ago.”

We found Bloor okay, but it turned out that b p Nichol Lane wrapped around streets effectively within the University of Toronto as well as behind shops facing Bloor. That meant winding through a maze of alleys while looking for the branch to Coach House. It took stopping and asking at the rear door of a bookstore followed by being shooed from others’ unmarked private spaces. In fact, nothing back there was clearly marked or accessible. We finally left our car behind Coach House, hoping that it would be okay. It was a very tucked-away spot, quite rural-looking, not like something in the center of a metropolis, but all cities were once countryside.

On the stone in front of Coach House were engraved these lines, echoing and hallowing the mood of a time so long ago:

 

A

Lake

A

Lane

A

Line

A

Lone

bpNichol

 

You can check out http://www.blogto.com/arts/2008/11/concrete_poetry_in_bpnichol_lane/

 

Initially Bloor turned out to be unfulfilling vis a vis eateries, not rising above the level of fast-food until we found a tiny Japanese sushi joint that was barely above. We sat down to order with only a half hour to spare but, while Lindy waited to get someone’s attention, I slipped next door to see what the health-food store was about and discovered that they offered a lunch buffet in the back. That could serve two agendas: time and quality of food. I hurried back, and we made one of those embarrassing exits, leaving behind menus and water glasses, in this case without explanation because the waitress wasn’t visible. What would we have said?

We were late for the buffet, which meant cold “hot” vegetables and sweet potatoes, but it was okay and emotionally reasuring, and the store itself was worth a quick shopping hit for the road.

We were only five minutes late because we happened upon a short cut to the part of b p Nichol Lane where Coach House was located, a full block and a half from where we had exited the bramble on foot.

Victor is quite exactly our age, born October 1944. Lindy was born July 1944, me November of the same year. He was the first person to write a positive review of my maiden book, Solar Journal (not counting Robert Duncan’s essay for Black Sparrow, inserted in the actual book). Victor’s appeared in the Canadian Whole Earth Almanack. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were both flattering and selfless. A rough rendition more than forty years later is: “This book is a flower. I don’t have anything of my own to put beside it.” What a great thing to be inspired as well as willing to say!

The topic came up again in discussion, as he recalled the book and the moment and added that it was the favorite title of the editor of the Almanack. It seems now that my public career only went downhill from there. These days I look at Solar Journal rarely and only shyly. It was written by another person within one of John Friedlander’s multipersonhoods, someone close to but not me. It strikes me how young he was, how amateur his prose, how derivative of Robert Kelly. Yet the pieces in Solar Journal also resonated in melody and lyrics as hauntingly for me as fifties rock ’n’ roll, emblazoned yet on a lobe of my subliminal memory: moons and winds and rivers and native American myths and dreams and baseball games and tall tales and totems and children playing. They are rough, uncertain lines, sometimes forced, but unquestionably ardent and so profoundly felt that they are dripping with a yearning both to exist (at last) and to excavate the mystery of that existence. They are like songs and tunes that can’t get at what they really want to say but do so with a desperation and candor that gets the attention of others struggling with the same dilemma, the same crisis of identity, in their ways—what Bob Dylan accomplished so consummately, saying what everyone else wanted to and could almost say. They were the source too of that beer bottle blown across the ice of Belleville.

Victor was waiting for us, reading a book at a bench behind Coach House, unaware that we had parked there already, so started that we suddenly appeared without a crush of tires. Initially we sat down on the spot and began talking, but someone was sanding a piece of furniture on the balcony of an adjacent building, sending dust and sand our way. Once the former Coach House publisher unlocked the door, he showed us around the modern version of the press. It had most of the huge old-fashioned, aromatic pieces of industrial equipment of a printing plant of the 1920s as well as modern digital machines situated in and among them like bugs among dinosaurs, for Coach House not only publishes its own books but does a brisk business printing and binding for other presses. After the tour we continued our conversation upstairs for another hour or so.

Our points of connection were far more diffuse and intermittent than in the seventies, as our lives had followed different courses. Lindy and I had drifted out of the literary world into the publishing business, while Victor had traveled more deeply into the literary world and as far away from the publishing business as he could get. He said that he had little to do with his adult children these days because they were so involved with money and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t. “They think that if I’m going to write,” he added, “ at least I should write commercial novels.” His expression screamed, ‘Can you imagine that?’

Not only had he settled more deeply in the literary world, his major involvement these days was running a writing group for younger people at something like $100 per pop for three months. This information arose from my question about our daughter’s friend in Toronto, novelist Sheila Heti. Victor said, “She’s in that middle group I have little contact with. All of my friends now are old or dead or in their twenties. But I do know her and, as Canadian writers goes, she’s a nice person—friendly, funny, good, doesn’t take herself too seriously, which is rare for that group.” The literary scene is not terribly “b p” tongue-in-cheek anymore I guess.

It took quite a while to get clear on Victor’s social life since we had last seen him. He was no longer with the wife (after the other wife) and had left Toronto for Vancouver in the mid-nineties because, he said, he took up with a younger woman and felt that the social climate in Toronto was too stodgy for their public display so they went to more liberal British Columbia. He came back to Toronto six years later. I asked why. “We broke up,” he replied dryly without further comment. Later in the conversation he was explaining why he had to cut our visit short: because his eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law was coming into town. I was confused as to which wife or partner she was related to. He said, “My present one,” about which we had heard nothing to that point. “I am the Zsa-Zsa Gabor of Canadian poets,” he sighed.

I had originally misheard him to say that he went to Vancouver with a woman twenty-six years his senior, and it’s worth noting how dramatically my perception of him changed when it got cleared up to “my junior.”

You realize too that there are all different ways in which you can arrive at the decade of your seventies. Victor had quite cheerfully cut down on property and dropped out of the rat-race: no car, no cell, no significant income. Canada is different that way: a more socially responsible society than the States. In the US I know major writers and artists my age who didn’t plan for their later years and are now perilously just beyond absolute homelessness. That is pretty much unheard of here. Also in the years during which Victor gradually withdrew from Coach House, a viable profession, he explained that he was amply supported by the Canada Counsel. While running a performance venue called “A Space,” he got so much revenue to pay writers and artists that there were virtually no limits on how many he could invite and how much he could pay them. That eventually got whittled down to what, in the US, would still be extravagant.

After we exchanged books while departing Coach House, Victor got in our car in order to direct us toward a zone he thought we should see: Kensington Market. He himself got off at a street corner en route, pointing us in the right direction with a barrage of instructions that only someone not currently owning a car would consider rememberable let alone executable. I don’t know if we landed in Kensington Market, a broad district more than a concise mercado, but we did find ourselves in a busy melée of Asian shops and decorated psychedelic establishments plus multicolored buildings running a gamut from commercial import stores and upscale clothing to funky head shops. There were hemp shops, shops selling herbs and essences, and 14th-Street-Manhattan-style vendors of everything imaginable, electronic, metal, or leather. It was a bustling, entertaining neighborhood with loud music, lots of reggae, plenty of tattooes and long-hairs, plus dogs, pigeons, squirrels in legion, and general urban alchemy operating at a magical level in a tight hermetically sealed density (in many senses of the word hermetic).

I found myself re-interrogating my rooting interests wherein I am generally opposed to Toronto: the Maple Leafs as an Ottawa Senators fan and, in the recent NBA playoffs, the Raptors as a Brooklyn Nets fan. Toronto was the enemy team-wise but, in truth, I identified with and admired this city’s energy more that that of either Brooklyn or Ottawa, though I wasn’t going to change teams. Fandom’s more inalterable even than religion.

In TV sporting crowds, one tends to see the “football hooligan” aspect of Toronto, which was well beneath the surface during our visit except for the extreme competitiveness of certain drivers who were obviously long-time practitioners of the art of trying to confound whatever you were attempting to do by speeding up to block you in a spirit of open combat. You get that in the States, but less blatantly and celebratorily.

In any case, it was exhilarating to walk the Kensington Market (or its proxy) for a half hour, like a sculpture garden writ large or a living performance piece, but we got exhausted and were quite happy to find where we had parked on Augusta Street, perhaps beyond the legal range of the meter for which we still printed out a paid coupon for an hour, hence happy to find no parking ticket and then the right combination of streets and avenues to get us back to our temporary abode. We have been told that Toronto is a large city made up of smaller cities, a collection of neighborhoods, and we passed through countless such small cities on our way home.

That night we took the car to a stretch of Yonge beyond walking range and found a different sort of restaurant, upscale farm-to-table. We knew that we had a long drive the next day, and road exhaustion had become a state of mind. We found few topics worth the energy to engage on, so were irritable and silent. However, Lindy tried to be upbeat by acknowledging that my reputation with cats, at least between two of us, got a boost in Toronto. It was pretty much in the dumps beforehand because our Berkeley cat of nine years, Queequeg, ran from me every time; he and I had very little to say to each other. It was pretty much because of me that we hand to find another home for him rather than bring him east. Lindy still mourned him.

Roxie, the shy tabby in our Toronto place, spent almost the whole time under the bed or otherwise hidden or in range of a quick hiding place. Yet she allowed me alone to pet her and spent the night on my computer and then jumped up on the arm of the chair on which I was writing this blog in the morning. I have no explanation except luck of the draw (in either case). Cats have idiosyncratic responses to just about everything, and I was glad for my rehabilitation, since the tension between Lindy and me over Quee, resulting in years of domestic conflict over vet bills, etc., being awakened in the middle of the night by meowing to go out (or come in), and the animal’s general obsession with being fed at every possible moment (these are, of course, my piques), had come to a head over whether to try to bring him east (really back east, since he was a feral cat brought on the plane from Mount Desert). “Bring him?” I joked (but not entirely). “I’m leaving Berkeley in part to get away from him.”

The fact that he returned four times from his new home twelve blocks away only added to the angst and turmoil of the situation. But in the end he got better staff than us (re John Friedlander’s one-liner that dogs have owners, cats have staff). Quee got a whole adoring family with young and teenage children (though unfortunately, as well, an Andalusian shepherd, if more scared of him than he was of it).

Attachment to animals is challenging, as they have psychic powers we don’t and, in my opinion, are capable of putting hexes on us to serve their ends

BTW I felt that Lindy’s problems with Roxie began when she tried to interest him in a toy mouse by jiggling it along the floor. The cat looked at her as if to say, “If you think that thing’s alive and I am going to go for it, then you’re worse than the people who were here before you. I’m out of here.” Scram, under the bed.

Auto note: there are few if any Priuses in Canada. I don’t think I have seen a single one, and I have no explanation. When we drove back from dinner, a pedestrian shouted at us, “Is that a hybrid?” (as if the year were 2000). When I said it was, he remarked admiringly, “It’s a stealth car, a ghost car.”

 

I can’t “leave” Toronto without mentioning the person I had hoped to meet and now couldn’t, my Facebook friend Michelle Bellerose, an avant-garde artist and avid and generous reader of my work. I know her only from our Facebook conversations, but she seemed always to find the right thing to say about my writing and life itself. Her engagement with her metastasizing breast cancer was profoundly spiritual and a performance piece itself, performed on Facebook till the end. Here are a few of her posts; her story needs to be told, absolutely has to be heard:

Michelle’s words (her separate entries, going forward chronologically, inside quotation marks):

 

“I learned to give form to my fears, illnesses, and attachments and feed them to their complete satisfaction.”

 

“This is what a poor prognosis of ‘weeks to live’ looks like. Aho!

“I’m taking my best orders from a different drum as everyone knows…. as a result of tenacity and successful efforts to create a radical new personal reality, the larger world around me continues to shower me with angels, special purpose resources, trial situations where I have to put into play this new and hard won self ownership, all alongside unexpected opportunities for more and more authenticity and personal growth… the caveat here there everywhere was that I had to prove first that I could most positively do without, more than that, make glorious due… not just passively accept things as they are but bring ingenious engagement to the what is, thereby transforming even it’s potential beyond status quo expectation, proving that indeed you CAN get something from nothing all the time… only once I’d passed that litmus test (which I didn’t even know I was running or being tested with) did the impossible start showing up with its additive, case-in-point generosity… as in the unlikely form of a palliative care physician assigned to my case by pure chance, who, recognizing western medicine has nothing more to offer, has been at the ready with energy treatments that target viscera and acupuncture meridians… he also recognizes to my delight that stagnant energy prevents healing and so has proven wildly effective at restoring flow, even modifying for good the pretty impressive local oedema in L arm and both feet; because of his being in charge  of my case, I’ve been placed in a bubble of a kind here in the ward where I can do as I please, uninterrfered with; and finally, having found novel ways to make glorious best w the situation as I found it, a completely unexpected opportunity to return to the alternative protocols of my hearts desire but this time of an even more refined and specialized nature, literally walked thru the door and asked if it would be welcome. all of these angels and resources would never manifest if I sat back and conjectured as to what I needed to move forward… they appeared because I’d already rolled up my sleeves and got to the work of how to be at active peace with where I find myself. I formed my intention but didn’t waste time or energy on the details… how the heck should I know best anyway. I simply formed intention, dropped the ball with grace…

 

and then got back to work

with the where of my was.

 

Stand by for miracles.”

 

“we are still in the observational period following this first pass at using radiation palliatively… some estimates say secondary effects should come to light and resolve in the first two weeks, others up to six weeks. my body’s response has been atypical according to the MDs involved who say they’ve never seen such a thing. the ‘thing’ to which they refer is the lymphangitic carcinomatosis (LC) which so far has restricted its sphere of action to the skin’s surface. it has spread like wildfire and completely overtaken my remaining breast and runs diagonally across my body, wrapping itself like a banner around the heart.

PRACTICAL ENERGY WORK
when i partook of the radiation, i established a sphere of influence prior to each treatment. i put forward a clear intention… ‘this radiation is a product of human ingenuity and is being offered to me in the hopes of helping me move forward with my healing… it will be passing through the bioshield of my aura, the unique fingerprint of my manifestation in time and space… and this too, my aura, is a product of human ingenuity and its intention is clear… it seeks in this current crisis the healing and restoration of complete body-mind functionality while holding space for a journey of proactive letting go… letting go of wounds and neurotic adaptations from the past which no longer serve the needs of the present… thusly nothing about these radiation treatments that might prove harmful or destructive will be allowed to pass through my auric shield without modulation and conformity to my healing intention. therefore as the radiation passes through the conditioning powers of my body, only the highest and best possibilities will be allowed to manifest. no matter how things look to the linear mind, what i conceive of and put forward as intention, so it will be… of this i have no doubt, of this i have no doubt…

i retained this ‘headspace’ from beginning to end of each and every treatment. i visualized the radiation entering my aura… i saw within that auric field a vibrant moving plexus that filtered and excluded anything of potential harm while welcoming and bringing centre stage anything that corresponded with my healing goals. within this net of intention i included the caveat that even in the event of breakthru secondary effects, these also could and would be redirected into arenas that are ultimately working for me rather than against me.”
“Bruce Lipton: ‘the biggest problem is that we believe that the conscious mind and the subconscious mind are aligned – meaning that if consciousness becomes aware of something, the subconscious also becomes aware—this is NOT true. consciousness is its own database. subconsciousness is its own programming.’

the imprint of early adverse experience is so profound, it makes sense to me that it’s now demanding heroic staging in a life or death impasse where i must at last come face to face with all that is not of me, but became part of me due to circumstance and conditioning, in short, the programming I my subconscious that keeps me locked in repetitions I want release from.

as i have written about in the past, healing requires mirroring. we see this at work in homeopathy where the curative mechanism in the similimum is in fact the provision of perfect mirroring, nothing more… thru a matching with the most similar remedy, symptoms depicting the core inner conflict are introduced via an attenuated picture, its exact mirror image in the material realm… the act of introducing a mirror image at the level of material resonance, bypassing the mind entirely, permits the entelechy of the body/mind unity to express as a return to balance in the resolution of symptoms, the ultimate aha moment.

 

in my own case, the LC is clearly presenting as the sin qua non depiction through which the particulars of this self-protective psychic armouring around the heart can convert into clear indisputable symptoms to be acted upon… without this conversion and its concrete symptoms, i remain stuck at the level of monkey mind trying to constantly chase its own tail… intellectual awareness of the neurotic adaptation begging for resolution is inadequate to the task since the function being used to attempt healing is the function that created the maladaption…

 

the body, in its ingenuity, knows well enough to shift playing field in order to get one’s hand on the thing, as it were. unfortunately current attitudes towards symptoms causes the majority to miss out on this opportunity and to mistake this shift in playing field as a disorder that must be suppressed and opposed, rather than honoured, supported, and neutralized for highest and best.

using the latter approach as i am wont to do, here’s the math… this LC presents as a forcefield exteriorizing in this way (self-limiting to the integumentary system because it seeks symbolic release not destruction of vehicle… it represents a factor that wants to come out of the body… to symbolically and literally express its contents in unison with my ongoing efforts to release old holding patterns and ideas. the idea of using radiation to suppress this possibility of release is not congruent with my intention.”

 

“the biggest spider I’ve ever seen arrived two nights ago and has taken up station in the bathroom … I thank Mother Earth for sending an emissary to me with not only such rich symbolic associations to consider, but fear to overcome, aho!”
“its funny, there’s all this talk about dying, but its not something we ever do.

we’re alive until we’re not.

nothing complicated about it except mind that makes it so.

 

by that metric, i’m not dead yet

and whether i die this summer or phoenix forward

there’s no success or failure here as my applied arts of the moment of course remain the same

i can only be more and more deeply michelle michelle michelle

the question is how completely i surrender to a timing and sense that’s not mine to dictate let alone own.

i embrace this like crazy

its the loveliest of things that binds the single to all.”
my body’s playing tricks with me. when i got the prognosis today it felt like that. silly me being misled by a prankster body playing around with shadow puppets on the wall. as if its creating this theatre of experience so i can act out certain things that need be performed to break a spell and its the breaking of a spell that’s been a long time coming. a spell i performed on myself that’s got to go.

whether its accomplished in a grand recycling or a petit mort, i truly can’t say. what i can say is that slowly slowly i’m getting a feel for not having a back story or agenda informing my moves. i’m even getting closer to having a real emotional response of considered finality and closure to that history instead of chasing its monkey mind forms around endlessly.

i’m ready for no mind all heart… and i’m ready for it however she chooses to come.”

And the last post by Michelle Bellerose:

 

“LOOK FOR ME

look for me
in the critical mass of a high easterly rain
the minute it gives way
to the lockjaw steam and bite of
sunshine talons

in closed-for-the-season terraces and their edgy lampshade leaf skins
waifish cigarette butts and other cornerstore detritus
harkening an absent pink wine melody of details

in the funnel shadows of brackish waters
busy in the stillness of blooming pond scum and whizzing insect arrays
in the red form of uncertain springtime syzygies
and the techno stress of an evolution that doesn’t yet know its own
nature

in pyramids of forest sap resisting the downward trend
of cowering fern bodies that cling gymnastically
to earthen inferiorities like some changeling

in the colourless swell of the oceans at daybreak
when there’s no one around to witness a thing

look for me

in the beat of the long-haul trucks battering
viscera parkways like zombies in shopping malls
their roadkill corpses weeping in the polar sun

in the big commercial wharves, yellow drag nets barren of catch
for this soft underlay of a cinematic afternoon that finds
civilization’s teacup gone cold

in the bark of starlight over the arctic melting
out of control like the chuffed bonfire of human savagery

in the purple demonstration of every political sigh
and argument avoided for the sake of cereal-cartel conciliation
in the timbre of a voice that fails to deliver
yet manages to slip you everything

look for me
in the crosshatch of a limpid twilight that
makes the candles in the grotto seem extra rosy
in the docility of a kitchen when the last of the dishes are done
and the smell of cooking can no longer be traced to its formative
ingredients

look for me
look for love

Michelle Bellerose
1 May 2014”

 

 

 

We left Toronto a day or two earlier than we had planned because our friend Merrily was leaving for a two-week camping trip in the far north from her country house itself north of Montreal on Monday and we wanted to see her. Our drive from Toronto to her place in the Laurentians was 386.4 miles door to door, but that includes getting on the road north of Montreal and having to retrace our steps, so it probably should have been twenty-five fewer miles. At a certain point our directions from our hosts conflicted with those on Google maps, and both conflicted with our car GPS as well as the highway signs. Faced with having to make a quick choice, we made the wrong one this time: 640 East instead of 15 North. We knew that we had to get to 15 North eventually, but it was not well labeled at the juncture and we shot quite a bit past it on 640 before finally using some of the Canadian minutes we finally purchased for our cell in Toronto to call our hosts for help.

Most of the drive was in Ontario, and the exit from Toronto was painstakingly slow; we had difficulty getting out of the collector lane into express. Then the trip was just plain long, the entire day in the car. We were beginning to feel the aches and pains of too much driving for an extended period, so we stopped often to change drivers. Canada doesn’t offer the sorts of rest areas that many US highways do. What they have instead (commercial food courts) are better in one regard (wi fi) but worse in being commercial and mobbed. They are like restaurant courts in airports, but they do allot a chance to get a table, indoors or out, and catch up on the computer, especially with the Internet no longer available on the cell.

At a food-court stop en route to Toronto, I spilled most of a bag of organic sprouted sunflower seeds, not the zone’s usual fare and, when I went to the Starbucks concession to borrow a broom, the young man there graciously offered to sweep it up and then, when I mentioned somewhat wistfully that the seeds would be ideal for the birds, he took me seriously and summoned a young woman who made an arrangement for them to be dropped in the garden rather than the garbage.

In a food court en route to Montreal in eastern Ontario, the battle of the gulls for scraps was epic and intimate. I have never seen so many birds close-up screaming and pecking at each other. They surrounded and covered tables, going to war without shame. Their behavior, while ostensibly hard-wired, was rude in the extreme, to one another and to everyone else.

In our first food court in Province Quebec, gulls were replaced by a central-casting motorcycle gang, very rotund, in fact wrestler-like-massive tattooed men and women not much younger than us, in leather jackets and dwarfing a tiny table, talking and laughing very loud in French. In fact, the change to French was abrupt and absolute, for instance from bilingual to all-French road signs, French language mainly in the food court. We couldn’t understand a word of what the bikers were saying, but its being in French gave it a particular cinematic flair. Most of the jackets announced them as “Lifetime Members,” the writing on their backs in English. They had come to the court not by cycle but by car, for nearby were two vehicles covered with illustrations of skulls and, when we peeked in surreptitiously while passing, the interiors had skulls and skeletons imprinted on the seats and seat backs too.

Once we hit the outskirts of Montreal we switched to our hosts’ emailed directions and moved from road to road smoothly and happily, with entertaining scenery and the iPod shuffle on, a transportation high until it all came to a screeching halt with getting lost. Merrily later mentioned that a couple earlier this summer made a different navigation error and, by the time they finally got near, they called to see if a marriage counselor was available. We almost needed one too. Our tendencies vary. When we get lost, Lindy wants to stop and seek an expert, and my take is that that doesn’t always lead to correct directions and also that her engagements with strangers on directions, while mostly productive, sometimes approach a Professor Irwin Corey routine and end us up in worse shape (as in Austin). I generally want us to figure it out on our own, especially with the GPS, so the only expert I sought outside Montreal was our hosts on the phone. Also I tend to go for the large, general picture of how to get out of a tangle and then seek specifics, while Lindy starts to question every turn and feeder road, wanting to catch our next mistake before we make it. Before we found a way to turn around (many miles later) and then the exit on 640 to 15, we were yelling at each other.

Exiting 15, we followed a series of winding roads into the deep country and arrived to find a large dead partridge sitting on a wooden platform by Merrily’s driveway. Arnie, our friend’s husband, was startled by it too, but it turned out that Merrily had collected it from the road and left it there to show to her grandchildren.

We were now in wet, coolish Quebec, north of New England. Just a week or so ago we had been in 100-degree temperatures in the southwest. It was stunning this transformation by driving a mere car. The key was the two-day drive from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, the flip of climate with the map: we crossed a border between landscapes, climates, and cultures.

I know Merrily from the early seventies when she came to Vermont to interview John Todd, who was the star of Goddard’s Social Ecology program at Goddard, for CBC. That led to her interviewing me. We had a light romantic encounter a few years later. Ultimately she became friends of both of ours, and we kept up communication over the years. Merrily visited us in Berkeley in the early nineties, and we saw her on our last trip to Quebec four years earlier.

Merrily is a writer, journalist, and former TV news reporter living in Montreal. North Atlantic ultimately published the US edition of her Canadian bestseller about aging, Our Future Selves. Sadly it did not catch on in the States. Her partner Arnie is a film producer and director with far-ranging international credits.

I dropped out of the social scene after dinner, too tired to go to the community reggae party, which Lindy attended. She also stayed up visiting with Merrily till 1:30.

The next morning we went hiking with a young couple staying in the barn, adult children of one of Merrily’s friends. Our group took a trail over a small mountain to a pond, which meant skinny-dipping for those who chose to swim, but not Lindy, Arnie, or me.

It had rained overnight, and the trail involved very slippery rocks as well as a round log bridge over a small brook. There were two poles meant to be carried, one in each hand, in getting over the log by grounding in the stream-bed. But it is hard to walk on round wood, especially when it is rained on, and I opted for hopping on rocks across the stream, which was at most a foot deep. I made it across, in the process getting almost as wet as I would have if I had fallen in. Lindy did fall in. I could see it coming. It was maybe four strides to cross the log and she accomplished three of them, though by then her sequential overcompensations had too much tilt. She hastily reassured everyone that she was okay with continuing, that “wet” was no big deal.

The mountain was small even by low-end Mount Desert standards, probably 200 feet, and the climb resembled many MDI ones. It may not have been huge, but the continuous uphill required deep breaths. I fell back to visit with Arnie, and we ultimately walked it alone together behind the group. That gave me a chance to hear about his films, including one concerning the exploration of Mars and involving not only a scientific documentary about the issues involved in surviving on the planet but a full simulation of an expedition. He did lots of what he called “booga booga stuff, popular on American cable,” what we at North Atlantic call more honoraably Mind/Body/Spirit. So we ranged over near-death experiences, ghosts, UFOs, and Amelia Earhart, all of which he had his own skeptical slant on from his research for documentaries. He had either done or researched a film on Amelia Earhart, and its story-line was that she was captured by the Japanese, lived in a prison camp, and was ultimately executed. Supposedly her crashed and hangared plane had been glimpsed by many people, both Japanese and American. Presently Arnie was trying to launch a documentary on the missing Malaysian plane, but the usual suspects were turning him down because it was a story without a resolution. I think that that may well remain true for our lifetimes.

When we two finally got to the pond, Lindy was sitting on the rocks, but the other three were in the water. I am usually challenged to give cold water a try, but the air was nippy and the water was Quebec-latitude glacial. Just a week ago we had been in the heat of Houston and Austin, and I wasn’t yet ready for the north.

After lunch Merrily and Arnie prepared for their camping trip, and Lindy and I headed for Montreal with a key and the use of their apartment for effectively as long as we wanted (since they were going to be gone well past when we had to get ourselves to Maine). The instructions via 15 and St. Denis Street flowed perfectly, though the jaunt along St. Denis went on much longer than we expected, and what they called Pine Street turned out to be Avenue des Pins, something that might have easily been missed. At our turn onto St. Denis a cab driver followed us and honked. When Lindy rolled down her window, he let us know that a right turn on a red light isn’t allowed in Montreal. Satisfied that we got it, he zoomed on ahead.

 

 

Montreal

Montreal was our last gyre on the labyrinth from Berkeley, California, to Portland, Maine. Since we were under no immediate pressure to complete the trip and had the use of a friend’s apartment for a week or longer (by ourselves after sharing it the first night), we decided to stay in Montreal for five days. When we arrived there on Sunday evening, our agenda other than wandering around the city was to visit various friends: Mary Stark and her husband Jia-lin, Andrew Lugg, Jesse Ning and his son Angus, and Wayne Turiansky.

Mary is my archivist and literary executor, so we communicate by email on an ongoing basis. I “met” her initially in the mid-eighties after she read Planet Medicine and The Night Sky and sent me an old-fashioned letter. After a lapse of a couple of decades we reconnected in the era of the Internet and, after I heard about authors (Maxine Hong Kingston, I believe, was one) losing whole manuscripts and their back-ups in the Oakland firestorm, and given the threat of a long-overdue earthquake on the Hayward fault rendering our house irreclaimable, I took to emailing her updated files of my work as I produced them and she archived them. Then she accepted becoming my official literary executor.

I met her and Jia-lin in person for the first time in 2006 in Montpelier, Vermont, roughly halfway between our positions at that time. They drove down from Quebec and I came up from Connecticut while Lindy was attending her fortieth reunion at Smith. Then in 2010 before flying back to SFO, Lindy and I took a long route from Maine to Logan Airport in Boston, via Quebec City, Montreal, and Vermont, and stayed in a cottage that Mary’s family owned near their house in suburban Beaconsfield. That gave us a chance to visit her and Jia-lin for a few days while we explored Montreal.

That was not our first (or even second) visit to the city. We drove to Montreal numerous times between 1972 and 1977 when it was the closest metropolis to us in Plainfield, Vermont; in fact, it was close enough for day trips. We even attended a Montreal Expos/New York Mets game at Parc Jarry sometime around 1973.

Andrew Lugg was a more recent migrant to Montreal. He and Lynne Cohen were among our closest friends in Ann Arbor during the late sixties. He is an academic philosopher, originally from England; she a museum-quality photographer. In fact, she was working in Quebec City on commission when we passed through there in 2010, so we got to reconnect with her and Andrew for the first time in decades, a visit I wrote about in my book The Bardo of Waking Life. They lived in Ottawa for most of their professional lives, both of them teaching at the University there; they moved to Montreal after Andrew’s retirement.

Lynne passed in May of this year after three-plus years of battling lung cancer, an ailment diagnosed not long after we saw them in Quebec. I was not sure that Andrew would even feel like visiting, having old memories stirred up by another couple with whom he and Lynne shared a far past but not much since, especially so soon after his ordeal, but he responded in the positive when I sent a feeler from Toronto.

Jesse Ning was my most recent Montreal friend. I met Jesse the previous summer, along with his wife Lucy and son Angus, at the trailhead for Parkman Mountain in Acadia National Park. That day I had driven there with a plan only to hike the Parkman-Bald-Mountain loop, not much more than an hour’s climb and return. They planned a three-mountain loop that included Sargent, the second highest peak on the island at almost 1400 feet, an overall hike of more like five hours. At the trailhead Jesse approached me, a stranger, for advice on their hiking itinerary, and, after we fell into easy conversation, I elected to walk the full loop of trails with them.

Believe it or not, I never got clear during that hike, or even later that day when they came to our house to meet Lindy and for tea and dessert, exactly where they were born and raised or presently lived. Since they were Chinese and lived in Beijing, I assumed that they were Chinese nationals who had bought a second home in Montreal. While Angus was between junior and senior years at Brown then, majoring in philosophy and applied mathematics, I assumed that he was a Chinese rather than a Canadian student in the US. Lucy was an MD in Beijing, but she got her degree at UCSF in the Bay Area where the family lived for a while—Angus was born there. In truth, I learned in Montreal they were native Quebecois, Chinese Canadians who had become planetary citizens.

In the course of our 2013 hike, I discovered that Jesse was a wide-ranging entrepreneur specializing mainly in editorial ventures. Having been the publisher of the Chinese version of Elle as well as other big-market mainstream magazines, he was on the verge of launching broader ventures including books on health and other topics with a partner in Baltimore. During the hike he built an interest in our staying in touch with an eye toward possibly doing business together and, while at our house, he bought a number of my own books, for family members as well as himself. We exchanged some hello-goodbye emails during the year, but I did not expect to meet up him in person again anytime soon. Yet while Lindy and I were in Texas, Jesse emailed to see if I was in Maine yet and, if so, whether we might get together to discuss Chinese rights for some of North Atlantic’s alternative-medicine titles. I wrote that we were in Austin but would soon be in Montreal. He was already there, working at the family hotel, a venture he hadn’t mentioned on our hike.

Wayne Turiansky was a poet living in Vermont during our time there teaching at Goddard (1972-1977). Lindy and I not only included him in the 400-page Vermont issue of Io but, after we started North Atlantic Books in 1974, initially publishing writers only on grants or by donations, his book Sand Cast became something like the fifth or sixth title in the series. Wayne’s short “long” poem had to do with an unrequited romance and a road trip across the country, the picture of the coed at stake gracing the cover. It was by family donation.

Back in the seventies I discovered that Wayne’s grandmother Lillian Brown owned Brown’s, the hotel in the Catskills geographically closest to my family’s resort and named similarly after the founding family. Though quite a bit smaller than Grossinger, Brown’s was part of its recreational, entrepreneurial, and ethnic gestalt—the boorishly epitomized Borscht Belt—and flourished and then faded in roughly the same three-quarter-century period under the same regional, economic, and cultural forces.

I lost touch with Wayne soon after we left Vermont, but I had recently found and friended him on Facebook. I had been searching for Io contributors in present time in order to ask their permission for their work to appear in a fiftieth-anniversary anthology scheduled for 2015. I never quite determined where Wayne lived these days, or where he had lived in recent years, Montreal or Vermont. It turned out to be both places: he had been commuting for a long time.

 

After Lindy and I exited 15 south from the Laurentians, we proceeded such a long way down St. Denis that we were sure that we had overshot Pine Avenue, the next landmark on our map. In fact, we should have been looking for the Avenue Des Pins, and luckily we caught the potential “lost in translation” blind in advance on the car GPS and made the correct right turn.

Thereafter St. Denis became our neighborhood and compass elsewhere. We returned to it many times, to walk, to eat, to window-shop, to sightsee, and to get going in both the right and wrong directions, the latter more times than you would think possible in a mere five days.

Montreal is Francophone, and its underlying bilingual status has a subtle and profound effect on an Anglophone’s interactions with local habitants—bilingualism is deep-seated, a habitual state of mind. In all of Quebec, in fact, language carries cultural and political ballast, to the point being incendiary, as the province intends to keep its French heritage within a larger, mostly English-speaking nation on the border of an English-speaking, imperialistically Anglophile empire (as well as under the pressure of general international Anglicization). English has become the world’s de facto Esperanto, its corporate lingua franca.

Montreal has a notorious cadre of language police who go around town seeking illegal Yanqui drift and issuing criminal citations for English signs with words and even the verbal use of English by civic employees, shop-keepers, and other regular folks. At one extreme, linguistic vigilance is necessary to stem the flood of Anglicization; at the other it is fascistic to the zero degree, a theater of the absurd, with people being fined and even threatened with jail time for trying to make themselves comprehensible to other human beings. [A Quebec-based friend notes, “It is not that draconian, only treated as such by the Anglo media. I have never heard of jail time.”]

For the record, any particular language is an arbitrary band within a broader spectrum of phonemes anyway, all of them (on Earth) originating from some Ur Indo-European/Sino-Tibetan babble that, along with all ancient dialects as well as animal call systems on the planet, originated in Noam Chomsky’s deep syntax: the neurological pathways and logic strings of the chordate, then mammalian, then primate brain. All terrestrial languages are finally variants of the same language, biologically and psycholinguistically, so why valorize or criminalize a particular melody? It’s all the same basic song. On the other hand, you would hardly want to relinquish the distinctive sounds of Stéphane Mallarmé and Edith Piaf under the deluge of corporate English. After all, French has a distinctive aesthetic beauty, soul depth, and meaning set. A semantic conundrum for sure.

We never encountered any reactionary blowback against English in Montreal (as we had on occasion in Quebec City four years earlier), but we did have to engage in a constant give-and-take while navigating a gamut of varying responses, most of them happily and graciously on both sides. They coalesced along the tension lines of our only speaking English in a French-preservation zone. People’s French instinctively held its ground as both the conversation-initiating and default tongue, even for English speakers because they had been daily sensitized to the ongoing cultural and political issue. At widely diverse skill thresholds of English, the speech of individuals flowed back and forth across an elusive line that separated us gringos from them, a line that was not tipped off by a given person’s dress, style, appearance, or mien. We got to experience a small sample of limitless variations on the theme of “English meets French” and “English meets English in a Francais-speaking Zone.” Montreal residents had performed this delicate verbal dance for so long that they had developed diplomacies and linguistic traits that were, for the most part, subliminal yet honed to black-belt level. So, this was even true for English speakers in Montreal: two Anglophones initially had to acknowledge and discount that they were engaging verbally in a French-speaking zone before resorting to English.

My initial Franco-Anglais experience came very soon after arrival when, after helping to unload our items into the apartment, I tried to figure out where to park the car long-term. Streets signs were of course all in French. I understood from our hosts’ explanation that we faced multiple regulations: spots okay for people only with a numbered neighborhood sticker, spots okay except on street-sweeping days (Mercredi and Vendredi in our near vicinity), mirage spots not okay under any circumstances (and for no discernable reason), spots okay if you walk to the credit-card machine, register your parking-space number, and pay. It was unclear to me how they checked without printed coupons on the dashboard, but a friend later told me, “There is a central computer that has its eye on you.” Add to this the complication that cones were later placed around our quite legally parked car, turning much of the street into a sudden towaway zone for electrical work.

So , when Arnie’s written instructions seemed to contradict my rough translation of the French signs, I stopped someone educated-looking, who turned out to speak very little English. While puzzling over the instructions with me, he finally concluded that I couldn’t park where I thought I could because I needed a numbered neighborhood sticker for the location. As I stood there pondering my remaining options, he marched all the way back from further down the block not only to point to a small sector of spaces that did not require the sticker but to indicate the one that was available and to hold it while I hurried. Any tension I might have felt from “forcing” him to speak English was dispelled by this generous act.

The following morning I went out for a walk in my the five-fingered shoes I wear them periodically since, Steve Curtin, an osteopath in Maine, recommended them on the premise that they are therapeutic for spreading out toes and ameliorating, among other things, neuropathy. They make one feels as though he suddenly has ocelot paws and is about to take off after a rabbit. In my first quarter-block in these shoes I was stopped by a dapper man who began speaking French to me. Since Lindy and I had already been approached by two or three French-speaking panhandlers, my initial response was to disengage. He grokked at once that I didn’t understand him and switched to broken English, asking whether I liked the shoes (while pointing) because he was thinking of buying a pair and had read some negative publicity. I gave a thumbs-up followed by an explanation. He nodded and then, as he turned, spoke in disparity to his previous stumbling jargon, “Hey, have a great day, man,” as if having memorized a set phrase at another tier of English.

A less beneficent encounter took place a few days later when, on a visit to Old Town we ignored the shouts of a homeless person in the Champ-de-Mars tunnel leading from Vieux Montreal back to the Metro. When we did not respond to his blandishments (and had no idea what he was saying either), he attached himself to us, following and then trying to block our passage while continuing to shout in our faces. It was lucky that we were in Canada because, in the States, he might have been armed. Lindy finally said, “Would you please get out of our way. We are just trying to get on the subway.”

That unpromising ploy surprisingly worked; he wheeled around while continuing to walk backwards and address us: “English you want, aye? I speak Anglais. I’m from Nova Scotia. I tell ya, everyone here is nuts.” As we kept walking briskly, he fell back to harangue another pedestrian.

My favorite instance of language dissonance occurred at the custodial booth of the Laurier subway station, but I will save that story for later.

 

We began our stay in Montreal the first night by heading to St. Denis for dinner. There are so many restaurants in our stretch of the avenue that it was almost a surprise when an establishment was not for dining. We had a working list of favorites from our hosts but chose one off the grid: Shambala, Restaurant Tibétain, right next to a Coréen eatery, up the stairs and around. The waitress switched from the French she was using for the couple before us to English when we had said little more than “hi” and probably not even that. I think that we must have been breathing English. The menu was in both French (large) and English (tiny and underneath). Diners at tables around us spoke French, except for a loud Anglophone couple in a vocal duet surrounded by diffuse jazz.

The next morning, Monday, was fully choreographed by planned visits with friends. Mary had the week off her job at a community retirement center but replaced some of those hours with the responsibility of shepherding Russell, her nine-year-old nephew from England, back and forth to French day-camp—so she was flexible but not a hundred percent so. Her partner Jia-lin was up to join us at just about anything. Andrew was trying to juggle us with another friend who had showed up unexpectedly in town but was insistent on finding a time for us and willing to prioritize it. Jesse wanted to be sure that we got together before he left for Beijing, so he immediately pinned down dinner that night.

I had a vague goal of putting Jia-lin and Jesse into conversation as Chinese nationals, especially since Jia-lin had expressed, through Mary, that it made no sense to him that we had met a Chinese family who lived in Montreal in the way that I described. In fact, it would be discovered a couple of nights later that Jesse grew up in the same Montreal neighborhood as Mary and attended her high school seven years after her graduation.

I finally settled on compatible dates and times with all parties. Mary and Jia-lin would meet us at our apartment as soon as they dropped off Russell at camp. We would hang out together until they had to leave to pick him up—they needed an hour’s drive time back to suburban Beaconsfield. In that span we would try to eat lunch, go to the art museum, and visit Jesse at his hotel.

Initially I didn’t understand why Jesse was staying at a hotel if he had an apartment in Montreal. In fact, these were one and the same: his family owned Hotel Ambrose near the art museum. Having bought it three and a half years ago, they were still working on fixing it up. While in town, Jesse and Angus were part of the collective clan effort. Meanwhile Lucy had stayed back in Beijing with their twelve-year-old daughter. That I was mistakenly still thinking of them as Beijing-raised was immediately cleared up later that day in the lobby after lunch.

Rain threatened, so we took umbrellas. Jia-lin declared right off that Mary was boss and, in keeping with that hierarchy, she led the way and drove, but he directed peremptorily as if he were a trained guide and we were all tourists. After having escaped the brunt of the Cultural Revolution as a young intellectual in the seventies by going into hiding, he barely made it to Canada on a literary scholarship, an unusual feat for Chinese at Concordia University. Then he married Mary and got to stay. For years I developed an apocryphal account whereby Leonard Cohen introduced them as, in Mary’s initial telling of their history as a couple, the Montreal-based songwriter and poet came up as having something to do establishing conditions for helping political refugees like Jia-lin remain in Canada.

Indefatigably cheerful, Jia-lin seemed to be celebrating every new Canadian day as a sojourn in paradise for its not being a day in Mao’s China. A sense of innocent wonder and joy as well as an innate beginner’s mind had not worn off even after decades in the New World. He was buoyant, exclamatory at each next thing, and bounded ahead on multiple occasions to scout for restaurants and, later, for the entrance to our parking garage which we seemed to have lost while wandering in search of it under umbrellas. But he also insisted on barking out instructions in keeping with his role as Montreal’s unacknowledged avatar. He was the stranger who had taken over the strange land.

After we made do at a drab (cuisine-wise) but otherwise spiffy downtown Chinese eatery, Jia-lin ordering unknown dishes in his native tongue, we headed out on foot for Hotel Ambrose, having conceded that there was no remaining margin for art-museum tarriance, our initial goal, before nephew-pickup time. Ambrose was, as represented, a residential hotel. In fact, we could not imagine that there would be a commercial establishment on its apartment-filled street and, from the outside, it was a barely converted apartment building, only a “hotel” sign distinguishing it from the other stone façades. The woman at the front desk directed us to the lobby while Jesse’s whereabouts were sought. After about ten minutes he joined us (looking quite a bit younger than I remembered him from the hike—context can be everything). We sat there talking, settling matters of residence and lineage (as well as Jesse’s new publishing venture). Meanwhile the hotelier enumerated in detail what a hassle fixing up an old boarding establishment was. “You should know,” he said to me. “Your family was in the business. I don’t know how people make money at it. The banks know, though; they won’t give you a loan if you’re using a property for a hotel.”

Interspersed with our banter, Jia-lin engaged in a side Chinese conversation with Jesse, while brushing off Mary’s instinctively prying inquiries into what he was saying (knowing well from the exchange’s tenor and his expressions that he was up to something). By the time we were leaving, we learned what had happened: Jesse and Angus (who was off painting a room, so not in present company) had been invited (and Jesse had accepted for them) to a gala Chinese meal that Jia-lin proposed to cook on Thursday night: all his own original recipes, he insisted repeatedly (because Jesse had told him he would come only if he cooked anything but Chinese food).

Jia-lin is, as I said, continually feting his freedom and celebrating everyone’s affability, at least by comparison with the Red Guards, hence the spontaneous invitation in the Ambrose. Mary then explained to Jesse that when Jia-lin cooked a meal, he invited the proprietors from all the stores at which he bought ingredients—and some even came. When the two met me several years earlier in Vermont, Jia-lin had invited the American border officials to dinner in Montreal! In some regards his gruff, passion-filled enthusiasms elicited in me the Chinese version of the Okinawan karate master working as a custodian in the San Fernando Valley as portrayed by Pat Morita in Karate Kid.

After Jia-lin found our lost garage and Mary dropped us off at our apartment, we had only a couple of hours to rest before Jesse showed up anew, this time with Angus but also his unexpected, cheerful sister Chin. “She read your book,” he explained without further elucidation.

For me the back-to-back events marked the beginning of crashing physically and mentally. We had been on the road for over a month, having driven more than 4800 miles. From that afternoon through the next day or two, I struggled for enough energy and emotional stability to keep going. I fell into a familiar anxious, migrainous, indigestive state that colored everything, plus I had a very swollen left foot from having tripped over a suitcase in Ann Arbor and a cramping back from too much driving. Everything that follows that day and the next took place in a sort of a sleep-walking haze.

As Jesse and crew arrived in the evening, we were reintroduced to Angus as a recent graduate of Brown headed to his first job, an illustrious gig with Dreamworks in the animation and 3-D modeling department in Shanghai. While awaiting for his visa, he was joining in the family project at the Ambrose. “I guess you did ‘brush on, brush off’ all day,” I said (Karate Kid still in mind).

“No, just brush on.”

We dined at an Ethiopian restaurant on St. Denis; Jesse and Lindy noted simultaneously that it bore the same name as a favorite one from the eighties in Berkeley on Telegraph, long gone, but I sensed an indigenous trope more than a second emigration, from the Bay Area to Quebec. It was The Blue Nile or “Nil Bleu: fine cuisine éthiopienne.” The evening went by in a spiral thump of community-style food platter set downs, bread for picking out pieces of meat, vegetables, and mashed roots (in lieu of utensils), Jesse regaling us all the time. Angus was remarkably restrained, showing only hints of irritation at his father’s loquaciousness. Though I had a headache and the kitchen mixed vegan and meat dishes on the platters after not only promising not to, it was otherwise a delightful and high-spirited evening.

The next morning the view across the street where statues of animals and cartoon characters were posed dramatically on the fire escape was even more amusing, for a woman was yelling in French while shooing at the window sill. A squirrel went scurrying out of her apartment onto the metal grid, down one flight, then onto a Philippe Petit narrow ledge of raised stone, around the corner, and down the alley.

All we had planned for the day was lunch with Andrew at a café so close that we could walk there in under two minutes.

I think that we originally met him and Lynne in Ann Arbor out of our mutual interest in avant-garde film. He was part of a group in charge of the film society there as well as being a graduate student in the philosophy department. After we moved to Maine and then Vermont and they moved to Ontario, one of the Lynne’s first publications in the mid-seventies at the onset of her distinguished career was a series of photographs of kitsch, naugahyde, TV-set-dominated American interiors in Io/19. Her portfolio, established over decades, was based, in part, on her turning tacky or not-so-tacky industrial, urban, and otherwise mechanized landscapes into aesthetic compositions.

After Vermont, the four of us dropped out of touch with each other for most of thirty years until a mutual friend in Berkeley, Rick Ayers, a North Atlantic author (Berkeley High School Slang Directory), gave me their contact information in Ottawa. A local public-school teacher and brother of Fox News’s whipping boy Bill Ayers, Rick had been in Ann Arbor in graduate school at the same time as the four of us.

I was going to leave our lunch with Andrew out of my blog, as it is difficult to achieve the respect and dignity necessary for the gravity and practice of grief. Yet I also want to alert my friends to Lynne’s amazing work. The compromise I achieved was totally with the help of Andrew who is now curating her large collection of photographs, placing them in exhibits, books, museums, etc. In fact, I will get to that first by inserting the relevant section of his later email into my text:

“The video in which Lynne plays a supporting role follows (below). There is also a short item in which Lynne discuss her show here last year. It starts in French but shifts to English a little way in. I especially liked the segment of the “Light under the door” picture. Click here: https://vimeo.com/63606522. Also I’ll throw in a nice tribute to Lynne in the National Gallery of Canada magazine: http://www.ngcmagazine.ca/artists/remembering-lynne-cohen. I shall also be happy to see Rich’s remaining blog items.

“The video (it is short, just give it a minute or two to appear and wade through the ad):

http://o.canada.com/news/final-exit-this-doctor-sees-death-daily-but-should-he-help-suffering-patients-end-their-lives/

You can also get it via the following link:

FINAL EXIT: This doctor sees death daily – but should he help in the Calgary Herald. Cohen’s voice is halting and choppy from the radiation, the veins in her arms badly damaged by chemotherapy. Her husband, Andrew Lugg, is seated nearby.”

At lunch we talked about the intersecting issues that affect us most deeply as we age: identity, mortality, marriage, navigating life and death. In his direct presence Andrew was trailblazing, modeling what we all face: our own final passages, the prior passing of a life partner—how to grieve and yet live, live with the unbearable. His gentleness and good humor, some of it perhaps ingrained English fortitude, were illuminating and encouraging. You finally survive only moment-to-moment while trying to ride the roller-coast of unpredictable emotional shifts. Seven years ago a therapist I saw in San Francisco for almost two decades, Gene Alexander, wrote me one of the best descriptions of this process I have ever seen:

“i think it works like this: you think about the loss and instead of trying to control things you accept the possibility and the grief that comes with it. it feels like you, yourself, will die if you allow the feeling of sadness to have its way. but slowly, very slowly, it visits you because…..well, I suppose because it is there….and you survive the emotion. Perhaps in this survival of sadness and loss one begins to realize the beginning of a sense of self. not a self held together with paranoid vigilance, not a self made safe through control, anxious ritual, or worry, but a self that has come back time and time again from loss.

“remember that story about faith i told you once? that we have faith because we ‘kill’ our parents and then discover that they are still there, psychologically intact, and we realize that there is an ‘other’ who is truly separate from us? well, maybe the self needs to die of grief and then return for us to create the plug that was never put in place.

“in facing the death of a close friend and the illness of others, I have seen that i will, that i have to, come through this and that I have to not just grieve, but grieve in the service of coming back to living. isn’t that what we all want from each other? to love and to grieve and to live again?”

It’s not like we have any other choice, except perhaps to die, or to live in degrees of continuous solipsistic sorrow, a tantrum against the universe.

Just having this time with Andrew increased both recognition and courage. I noticed (twice) how he started a sentence as “we” and then almost indiscernibly switched to “I” before finishing the pronoun. When you have been a couple for so long, it is always “we” internally; “I” is a mere socialized convention, in this more sober case to set someone else at ease because you ostensibly can’t be a “we” if one party is in the world of the living and the other in the land of the dead. On the other hand, “we” is intrinsically a social convention because you never cease being an “I” who is in relationship with another impenetrably subjective “I.” One of the features of life in this plane of the cosmos is that entities are never inter-subjective. You are born and die as an isolated “I.” The couple’s “we” operates in a corporate and lay legal sense, also as a plural pronoun of convenience.

The youngish maître d’ at the restaurant knew Andrew by sight because he and Lynne came there regularly. When Andrew explained in French that Lynne was no longer here, the man was visibly shaken. The two talked for a while. Later, as we were leaving the restaurant, a waitress stopped Andrew and they engaged intensely while Lindy and I continued onto the street. He told us later that she was crying. He himself continued to absorb this incident as we walked to St. Louis Square to sit in the park by the fountain.

The Square had once been a drug hangout but now was in a stage of reclamation and gentrification, so it was still a mixed habitat, homeless people and drunks among couples and well-dressed professionals sitting on wooded benches and the stone masonry encircling the fountain, many having their lunches.

What does Andrew do these days? He writes about a couple of philosophers; he reads; he sees friends; he collates Lynne’s work; he lives out his decision to be in Montreal and laughs inwardly when people wonder if he’ll go back to England (where he hasn’t lived since the mid-sixties—he isn’t English anymore). He talks of his wife easily in both the present and the past, her presence when lecturing, her commission photographing in Venice not long ago, their travels in the Soviet Union (quite long ago), her wish not to have him attend her lectures, his standing outside the door anyway in order to not be absent, her late good humor along the lines of “we all have to die.”

Six squirrels gathered at one patch of lawn to share the droppings of two men eating lunch, the most I have ever seen together. They treated one another quite well compared to gulls, plus their collective bushiness was compelling, cute from a human view.

A rough-looking, burly tattooed young man with a diffident “fuck-you” attitude took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants cuffs, and got in the fountain bearing a tiny furless dog. He then set the unhappy pup paddling for dear life as he worked his way across the circle alongside it, something a hair less than a full diameter (which would have been blocked by the spout). Periodically he lifted the dog out of the water, but its legs never stopped paddling, even in his hands, a painful sight to observe, as he then set it back in. When he reached the other side, he removed the animal from the bath, retrieved his footwear, gave everyone a sweeping glare of appreciation, and continued toward St. Denis. [Two nights later Lindy and I watched a guy arrive on a bicycle, take off his clothes except for underpants, bathe in the fountain with soap, and slowly and meticulously towel off on a bench. Remove his bike and he looked like the other homeless men who used the park as a bedroom and toilet.]

A couple on a bench near the fountain was having an escalating argument. First “he” sat on the bench while “she” remonstrated wildly, arms punctuating insistences; then they both sat while he emphatically issued rebuttals, punching one hand with the other.

Our discussion with Andrew awakened some of the slumbering anxieties and vulnerabilities that informed our trip, life passages that were never far from my mind anyway. The title of a book by Stanley Keleman, a bioenergetic therapist for whom I worked as a freelance editor in our early days in Berkeley (1978), resonates with this implicit epigraph: Sexuality, Self, and Survival. It’s always the given state, for every animal, no matter its status or age.

In a very different vein, my long-time psychic friend, astrologer Ellias Lonsdale, finds countless ways to point out, taking the long view, that the primary difference between life on Earth, at least in this plane, and life elsewhere in the universe and on other planes is that here when the dead leave, they are gone forever; we have no idea how to find or address them. Yet they are somewhere, for they are real. He claims that this disconnect is a local aberration but a crucial one in the karmic evolution of human consciousness.

Leonard Orr, another North Atlantic author and founder of Rebirthing, touches on a different aspect of the same theme in the title of his book with us: Breaking the Death Habit. To Leonard, breaking the widespread human habit of dying is half an authentic yogic and psychological exercise, half a parable and metaphor—he also means it as stated: death is a deeply ingrained habit indeed, for just about everyone adheres to it: corporate bankers, terrorists, priests, healers, pornographers, crooks.

By using Andrew as a sounding board for our reasons for leaving Berkeley, Lindy and I were able to articulate one of them more clearly than before we bolted: very simple—we didn’t want to die there. Both together and separately we didn’t want that. For a whole number of different reasons such a fate was unthinkable, hence it was absolutely essential to get out while the going was good—while we were physically able. We were in the process of competing an amazing getaway that, in its full scope, had consumed the better part of a decade: first buying a house on Mount Desert; then building a second life and community presence there; then (the activating breakthrough) preempting our primary residence by buying a home in Portland (last December); which allowed us (next) to sell our Berkeley house (in June); then cutting down on our belongings; packing up, greeeting the movers with their van, getting in the car, driving out of town; now approaching the last baffle of the labyrinth in Montreal.

We took leave at the fountain, hugged, and headed our separate ways.

 

Wednesday morning Lindy and I set out on foot along St. Denis with an ambitious goal of hiking maybe a couple of miles to the museum district where we had been earlier in the week with Mary and Jia-lin. This was probably unrealistic anyway, but it became absolutely impossible when we walked for almost an hour in the wrong direction. You might ask how that was possible since Lindy map-quested it and we had a street map of Montreal as well—but we managed. For one, she forgot to bring the list of steps she had carefully copied from online. For two, the map was in tiny print, hard to read, and left out too many intervening streets. Mainly, however, it was because Lindy marked our starting point on the map at a completely wrong spot based on a name that resembled the name of our street; thus, our landmarks on St. Denis were wrong from the get-go and we invented a false reality to cover where we actually were.

But it’s not as though the miscue was much of a problem. In a strange city it is enjoyable to walk anywhere and peer around. Sights, textures, and regional differences hold one’s attention and support one’s mind, so the landscape is entertaining, relaxing, and internalizing—factors rarely in play on one’s home field. French language streams and bright colors of Montreal added to an intrinsic pleasure. There were so many brilliant rainbow-painted buildings and primary-color kitsch and manga posters and graffiti that I found myself taking continual snapshots on my iPhone.

I was recalling an American avant-garde film-maker from the early sixties—Taylor Mead, I think—who appeared in the Film Makers’ Cooperative Catalogue with a documentary of Europe under something like the following first-person precis: “So much to shoot and not enough film or cash, so I set the camera on single-frame.”

That’s what his movie was. I never ordered it for our Amherst series back or saw it myself, but I assume that it was hundreds of photographs of Europe in a fast-moving time-lapse like an animated film or one of those autonomous hypnagogic downloads the brain sometimes unexpectedly makes of its inventory of images—thousands of them, unbidden, unconnected, and at different scales. I was logging a more mundane version of such a film in Montreal—it’s not Kodak anymore, you can trash it anytime and reuse the dollop of drive space. Using iPhoto, I became a daily spectator of my own Taylor Mead show, anywhere from a dozen to sixty images per loop.

Another bewitching activity was looking at people. One does this anyway. I instinctively read the faces and shapes like tarot cards, feel for the energy of each passing hominid, notice the pretty girls and get whatever pheromones and biological charisma they are emitting (probably from ancient chordate hard wiring), diagnose the odd-looking, odd-acting, and generally eccentric folks, including tattoos, primps, degrees of agitation and acting out, and assorted nuances. I know that Lindy more closely checks clothes, hair-dos, and general stylishnesses while constantly comparing herself and considering new ways to dress, new barber cuts to try, attitudes, pouts, and smiles to model. Meanwhile, I view shop windows like abstract paintings unless there’s something I am especially looking, whereas she window-shops with the potential of going into any establishment on a dime and browsing, especially where there are dresses hanging or on manikins, or shoes, the more shoes in the window the more enticing the vortex. She also looks at herself in the glass whereas I try not to see myself.

On this walk I drifted into an exercise that continued to some degree or other throughout our time in Montreal. It went something like this:

I know none of these people nor will I see anyone I know, but how do I actually tell myself (1) that a person is not someone I know and (2) that he or she falls within the range of acceptable human features and physiognomies, the basic gene pool, i.e., is human and of this planet and species? In other words how do they not get a second glance even though they are utterly novel? Why are strangers not more startling for not being known. This is a remarkable thing because the “emic” variations are so exquisitely slight. Everyone in fact looks like everyone else, and the distinctions are not easy to measure or articulate: exact size, shape, and tilt of a nose, coloration of hair, discrete expression, posture, carrying of haberdashery, the rhythm and syncopation of gait. It is remarkable that everyone could look so normal as to be beyond a second glance, yet so obviously not be someone I know that I don’t have to interrogate at all to reach that instantaneous conclusion. Variations that are exquisitely slight are still absolute and irrevocable.

Another theme that influences this equation is age. When you get to a certain time in life, you understand that, even if you were to see a familiar person, enough years have passed since you last saw him (or her) that you would not be looking at the some person but someone else much younger: a son or daughter or, more like, someone who got a few similar genes or epigenetic synergy from the species pool. Most people you knew decades ago would be unrecognizable from having aged. If they happened to pass by you, they would be anonymonus among the masses, long ago having turned into someone else.

This rule was “proven” by its exception about seven or eight years ago at the Common Ground Fair in Liberty, Maine. I was wandering with expectations of seeing only people from the time since our return to Maine (five years prior) but certainly no one from when I taught at the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham (thirty-plus years prior). Yet during those two years in the early seventies I had contact with well over a hundred students; they were Mainers then, and they were somewhere now, percentage-wise more of them in Maine than not. Thus it would not be a shock if a handful of them were somewhere among the thousands packed into the fairground—I would have no way of knowing. Yet one ex-student did recognize me. Mary Doggett, an old favorite from the Portland campus; she had attended a number of my classes with her earnest, appreciative attention. I would not have recognized her; she was a young, slight girl then. Now she was a stout, gray-haired grandmother who had been farming for her whole post-college life.

How about those lookalikes of movie stars whose photographs were taken fifty or a hundred years ago; they could pass for the same person in every respect: the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce and everyone else

Another theme: a few years ago I read a book called The Last Human. Its premise is that many other human species became extinct or were exterminated by Homo sapiens during its Stone Age evolution. The authors then reconstructed images of what each of these lost hominids might look like if walking down the street today. I can attest that none of them would have passed without stopping traffic. They were legitimate aliens, true proxy ETs. I saw none in Montreal.

I had more of an ET experience in Trieste, Italy, in 2006 when Lindy and I walked through a vast street fair that went on block after block in all directions. A number of people in the dense crowds were unlike anyone I had ever seen or imagined; they defied norms or wildest expectations. Their features were larger or more spread-out, their shapes eerily broad or long, their coloring and curves unidentifiable by race. They had a deeply foreign, boondock ambiance. The stroll in Trieste also gave me a sense of how many human beings there are on this planet now, a mind-boggle reinstated by wanderings in Montreal. Back then I wrote:

“We walk through the hoopla and energy silently, scanning and absorbing it. There is so much to see, so many unusual faces and bodies, such beautiful teenagers and young men and women, dark Italians, magnificent Ethiopians and other Africans giving the fair a pan-Mediterranean seaport feel, fantastically eroded elderly people, madonnas and boticellis, bambinos whose faces for centuries have been cast have in manger scenes—so much color and light.”

As I pondered not knowing anyone in Montreal and—no one even a reasonable candidate for someone I knew—I considered the possibility that, on top of what can be seen or interpreted on the street by the usual visual cues, an unconscious recognition factor may be at work, including vibrations of the person on other planes such as the etheric and astral. If so, then another’s being and aura are “looking” at you, while you are picking up their whole being unconsciously, with no way to pass that information on or process it consciously—they are two separate platforms with no pass keys. Yet subliminal information is being psychically transferred as you and they silently and briefly say hello, even without meeting each other’s gazes or attending them. Under unconscious signatures of psychic recognition and information-exchange, everyone is passing anonymously and automatically. These two events are happening at the same time without any conscious bleed. We aer like automatons: the fact that we don’t recognize or know how to find the dead begins in the fact that we don’t recognize or know how to find the living, not the whole being anyway.

Then I considered that a few people who inexplicably looked somewhat more familiar might have been known to me karmically or in my aura or Akashic record; perhaps they were from my same group soul, perhaps from other lifetimes. I am not stating a belief system as such, just recounting some of my idle notions and considerations as we walked and I played this game with part of my mind.

In any case, we confirmed that we were going in the wrong direction by finally asking someone. Quickly changing to English, the woman weighed our plight. The museums we were looking for would have been far even if we had gone in the right direction, but now, after an hour of regress, they were out of the question. She had an elegant solution, though. She pointed down Laurier, the side street on whose corner we conversed, and explained that a subway stop on the Orange Line, a Metro station, was only a few blocks away. If we took the train, we could be at the museums in no time—a click of her fingers.

Even her mention of an Orange Line indicated what we were up against: an entire underground cosmology. I knew the New York City subway quite well and had also learned to get around the far simpler butterfly of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), but the Montreal Metro was a blank sheet. Not only didn’t I know the grid or its nuances and punctuations; I didn’t even know the map on which it was set. However, we had succeeded in the past at unrehearsed public transport without major mishap in London, Berlin, Prague, and Reykjavik, so it was worth a gambler’s shot.

After short walk down Laurier, the station appeared on the left, but its presence in itself was hardly a solution. Our new crisis was that we had no Canadian money and didn’t know if there was a custodian and, if there was, whether he could take a credit card. So Lindy stopped at a shop inside the opening to the station to see if the proprietor would exchange currency or sell a pass; meanwhile I went down the stairs to check for a booth with a live person. There was one, not near the entry like in New York, but at a much deeper level. I hurried back and retrieved Lindy from the onset of what would probably an impossible conversation. That began our most interesting French-English interaction—at the station custodian’s booth.

Luckily no one else seemed in need of assistance or wanted to purchase a fare. Everyone was happily entering and departing, smoothly flowing through the turnstiles. That left enough space for an entangled exchange inaugurated by a variety of factors: (1) it was noisy (both a footstep din and the racket of entering and departing trains); (2) the acoustics were poor (including the booth-woman’s scratchy microphone); (3) the window to the booth was extremely tiny, making wedging a map through it an origami function; (4) then Lindy has age-related sound-differentiation difficulty so wears hearing aids that tend to amplify background unevenly; she also experiences increased dyslexia at times of stress and reverses or otherwise mis-hears names and denotations; (5) she has more experience speaking French than I do, almost enough to get by, hence its own trap. The conversation started with her asking, “English? Anglais?”

A middle-aged, seemingly humorless woman responded, “Un peu.” [“A bit.”] This was, however, a tease because she proceeded to talk in perfectly fluent English. However, with all the acoustic factors at playt, Lindy missed that and continued to try to communicate with her in both French and English. The woman was correcting her French while continuing to talk in English, enjoying herself mightily. I tried to intercede but got pushed out by both women who each seemed to relish the exchange for her own reason, even as Lindy tried to scrunch the map more and more while pointing at it and wedging it through the opening.

In fact, the custodian was more irritated with me for interrupting their exchange as I blustered through my own set of know-it-all presumptions; for instance, that the system resembled New York or BART in ways it didn’t, that she wouldn’t take American dollars, that we wanted to buy a round-trip. I was wrong on all counts and, by the time I finally realized that I should back off and let the interaction play out, Lindy had purchased two twenty-four hour passes with an American twenty (that the custodian held up to the light for a surprisingly long time—by contrast, a single round trip would have been eleven dollars for the two of us. The transaction was successfully concluded because the enjoyment of being lost in translation led to camaraderie and cooperation, and it wasn’t even really translation that was the problem, it was the noise level.

I then blustered further by acting on my presumption that you stuck the card in a slot; you didn’t. Lindy had been watching and had to physically restrain me from losing my card in a sterile groove. Instead, you placed it bottom down on a glass scanner and the gate opened. Then she told me that you didn’t need it for exiting like; people were just walking out the turnstiles.

After getting officially inside, we plunged down the wrong staircase and, if we had taken a train there, would have been continuing in the same direction along St. Denis. Luckily there were none present, so Lindy stopped a group of tattooed teenage boys and got us directed to the other side of the platform. Place-Des-Arts was the stop we wanted, in the Côte-Vertu not Montmorency direction. But first we needed to switch from the Orange to the Green Line at the exotically named Berri-Uqam station.

The Montreal subway has a butterfly shape similar to that of the BART but with more of a folding and curl. Berri-Uqam was a key switching node between wings, like MacArthur on BART. It wasn’t till we passed through it again in the evening that I realized the name wasn’t exotic at all. Uqam is actually UQAM: University of Quebec at Montreal.

The three things I don’t like about BART are: (1) It is priced by the distance that you go, so it is less an urban subway than a commuter line masquerading as a metro; you never get to play around with the grid and maximize your ticket. The fares are increasingly expensive. (2) You have to keep track of your ticket. If you don’t have it, you can’t exit. You are trapped. It is like losing your ticket for a parking garage: then you can end up paying quite a bit extra for the lost ticket. (3) You can’t get to very many places within any of the large BART cities, especially San Francisco. Each route is a single line through the grid, and it misses major urban territory. The curls and folds of the Montreal butterfly improve coverage. (4) This is not official because it is too much of a generalization, but I find BART unfriendly—Fruitvale Station unfriendly. Though I loved moving from rural Vermont to the edgy, sophisticated Bay Area in the late seventies, the counterculture has withered locally into artifacts, shells, derivatives, and reactionary blowback. I wanted to get away an antipathetic self-absorption that seemed a regional Northern California trait—the condescending glance, the solipsistic stare into the distance or internal space, the professional, going-about-my-business/get-out-of-my-face attitude, the cool, laid-back boredom with humanity. In sum, people don’t connect as much in Northern California; the sense of community or pride in community isn’t as strong (though it is paradoxically stronger in Oakland than Berkeley or San Francisco or the suburbs, precisely that Fruitvale zone of the indicative and the brilliant indy film). I don’t find that dissociated quality as generally prevalent in New York, Quebec, or New England. Those folks bond and help, go out of their way to help, so you feel a natural part of human community and camaraderie. They have other ways of being reticent and establishing distance

On the correct platform, Lindy struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman standing next to us, a dialogue that continued on the train. Initially it was just to make sure we were on the right course and about to make the appropriate switch. This became a larger exchange about her job, editing books in “French as a second language” (FSL not ESL). That did, however, leave her halting English unexplained. She reassured Lindy that, unlike in France, “People in Quebec love it if you try to speak in French, even if you speak badly.”

We next asked directions of two elderly women at the first light on the street at Places-Des-Arts in order to get going in the right direction.

As we wound uphill, the combination of plazas and buildings was both daunting and entertaining—such spectacularly designed architecture, so much aesthetics and activity nested in each other, the mostly orange and blue and other camp colors of young children in groups adding to the overall esprit. The kids walked in lines or were seated in clusters among sculptures, fountains, and statues. Conceptual art pieces with mirrors invited pedestrian participation. Further along the plaza stood huge mural-like placards of native Canadians doing ceremonial dances, the background and meanings of each of the forms explained in French and English

Gradually the levels descended back into ordinary urban life, streams of people maneuvering through each other on a NYC-42nd-Street-like stretch (that was also generic touristy) below the museums plazas. That’s where we ended up, after checking out other options and selecting an Asian-fusion restaurant with an outdoor dining platform, but not before I left Lindy behind to read the Indian-dancer signs (as she walked) while I soldiered several few blocks more to see if there were better dining establishments; there weren’t. The scenery and rhythm became more like 57th Street; in fact, all of Montreal in that neighborhood radiated one New York tenor or another.

After lunch we selected the Museum of Contemporary Art (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal) for our one indoor tour. To pick up on a theme I initiated in my description of its Austin equivalent, I find that art museums these days are places for interrogating the act of the artistic view as much as for viewing art per se—and I mean that in terms as much of the physical and mental capacity to take in information as subtext and cultural deconstruction (though the latter is precisely what the artists and curators intend). It is flat-out difficult and depleting to look at artifacts for too long without becoming overwhelmed by the effort, both conscious and unconscious, to organize fresh information. After all, each piece projects its own history, biography, and cultural frame, yet one goes from piece to piece as if they belonged together or could be assimilated in each other’s contexts consecutively. The foiled attempt to do so leads to an oddly disjunctive splay and welter of meanings, most of them subliminal.

In the case of the Musée d’art contemporain, this condition was dealt with explicitly right away, for the first exhibition up the stairs (to which we were pointed after paying) was a horizontal series of serigraphs or serigraph-like prints or paintings, about nine of them in bright colors, by a Montreal artist named Michael Merrill. Titled by their hues—Cobalt Blue, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Gold Yellow, Spring Green, Breughel Red, Electric Blue, Grey, etc.—they were meant to depict as art the process of producing and then hanging art, e.g. themselves, in a museum. As such, they were the perfect entry item because their didacticism and banality of topic were alchemized into something compelling by the brilliance of their colors and sleek shadow-like imagery. The overall title of the series was “I Never Saw Documents.”

After that, we looked at a video installation by Canadian-Armenian film-maker Atom Egoyan, an oral history of a woman discussing her childhood initiation by her mother into the magic of a full-blown musical legacy by way of old, reel-to-reel audiotape. On one screen the woman is holding and slightly unraveling a tape while fingering it and explaining how the whole thing seemed enchanting and mysterious to a child, and also dangerous because of the fragility of the ribbon and warnings of her mother not to harm it, all to a young girl apparently destined to become a significant musician of some sort (we didn’t stay for the whole sequence to find out). On the other screen an older woman, identified only by her hands (but probably meant to represent the girl’s mother) is carefully operating a reel-to-reel recorder.

From there we watched videos of displaced folk musicians in their adopted countries, riding trains and peforming in streets. These were alternately projected on four screens, each visual narrative on both sides of each screen.

Then we went into a large darkened room with more than a hundred large bright round light bulbs in its ceiling. I say “darkened,” but the room got quite bright when the bulbs started flashing. A line of children in camp colors had accumulated in the corner of the room and were taking turns activating the mechanism. Each participant held two metal bars for about fifteen seconds, letting go once the device picked up his or her cardiac rhythm, identifiable as a change in the blinking cadence. A few seconds later the entire room went dark and then the light display began dancing on and off in the person’s heart rhythm.

We watched for quite a while, for the kids were delightful in their blends of intimidation, slapstick, and awe at propelling such a personal enormity into motion. We came back to the room at the end of our time in the museum to see if there was less of a line, and there was, so I will attest to the fact that seeing your own heartbeat fill a huge room in the form of waves of rhythmic pulses of light bulbs is profound; it grounds you anew in your own body.

From there we went into the general exhibits, which consisted of several adjoining rooms of very diverse works in spacious settings. By “diverse,” I mean in every sense: decade of creation, style, color, texture, degree of representationality, degree to which the work leaves the canvass and extends onto the wall, shape of the frame itself (from minimally irregular to rolling jigsaws), overall cosmic dimensionality, etc. The works were aesthetically oriented in relation to each other, sometimes bunched, sometimes isolated; in fact, this building had the best museum feng shui I have ever encountered; I found it possible to be among separate art works in a state of relative relaxation for a long time.

I can’t begin to recount the variant color combinations and designs, but the whole landscape was pleasing that. Not seeing any sign beyond “Do not touch the art,” I asked a guard if photographing was allowed. He nodded, so I did a second pass and took a series of images of not so much the paintings and sculptures as the collective context of the people viewing, about thirty in all. Then, upon exiting the museum, I saw a picture of a camera with a line drawn through it. I can’t explain the discrepancy nor do I have to, but I did feel a bit like a thief slipping off with booty.

We returned to our neighborhood station as seasoned Metro riders (it turned out to be Sherbrooke), switching from the Green back to the Orange at Berri-UQAM.

That evening we elected to get more use out of our one-day passes, so we took the Metro to Vieux Montreal on a lark. The actual gambit at street level was totally disappointing—heavily touristed with expensive restaurants, barkers quite successfully summoning folks into them by some magnetism I don’t understand, overcoming high prices and bad food. The architecture and port themselves had rich overtones and antique resonance, but they were a dead stage on which was set in motion simply hordes of misplaced, overamped people.

The best part of the outing was a family of four large friendly folks—Ma, Pa, boy, girl, Lebanese or Syrian—who helped Lindy and me find Old Town, in fact led us all the way there. We met them while wandering half a block from the Metro exit with no idea where to go. We hung with them for a good fifteen minutes, as they guided us back down the exit, through the subway, along a tunnel, and out the other side, all the time engaging with Lindy in a situation established by the fact that the woman spoke decent English but none of her kin did, though her husband had a lot to say to her in French, some of it with evident aggravation, none of which she conveyed to us. He probably wanted her to disengage

Yet, for whatever reason, without any spoken commitment or explicit indication, they did not abandon us and were even loosely protective, though intensely involved in their own debate about it. That is, they shepherded us at a slight distance like a Jovian moon. I am guessing that they were looking for Old Montreal too and had figured out at the same time as we did that they had made a mistake in leaving the Metro, though they never admitted that. For all we knew, they had changed their entire evening plans on the spot to lead us where we seemed to want to go, and then, as an afterthought, decided to eat dinner in Vieux Montreal too. Where we turned, they turned, and then vice versa, Lindy and she all the time chattering away at different levels of English, not only on finding the right streets but through Lindy’s narrative of how we ended up in their company that night (clear back to our departure from Berkeley in in June), a tale which seemed to fascinate our benefactress. Lindy even engaged in conversation with her about whether she herself would like to come to California someday; she would, her slight non sequitur, more a free association, involving a relative in LA whom she’d like to visit, an all-too-familiar trope

All the while the woman continued to haggle heatedly and at length with her husband in rapid-fire French.

We spent maybe forty-five minutes in Old Montreal all told after nixing plans to eat there and then. With some embarrassment, we watched a street busker who had accumulated a large crowd. That’s in fact where we lost our friends who continued walking down the cobblestone toward the port. A small fellow with a guitar and a classic unshaven swarthy Quebecois look (no racism intended, I like the style as well as its indigenous music and dance), was doing anything but indigenous music or dance. He was playing and singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” through a portable amplifier in imitation of The Tokens’ old hit while conducting volunteer tourists in successive rows of about ten self-conscious, often-cracking-up dancers doing various booty-shakings and shimmies. Alternately he was leading the rest of the crowd in a kind of collective karaoke version of the song as if the director of a hastily assembled glee club. About 150 people surrounded him, so you could barely glimpse the action. I have no idea what the interest or fuss was about, but people seemed to love him and were having a grea oldt time. He was creating community, but if that was community, I wanted to be back on St. Denis looking for a restaurant.

To me an obscure highlight of the visit to Vieux Montreal was the corrugated wall of the Metro, painted in rainbow stripes that could have been hung in Musée d’art contemporain except that they went on for much longer than the museum could have accommodated; this art piece would have exceeded not only its frame but the outer walls of the building and extended onto the busy streets across vehicular traffic. It was that extensive a paint job. While we were admiring it, we were accosted by the unpleasant fellow from Nova Scotia. Like the family, he stuck to us for a while but without their benign intent.

After exiting at Sherbrooke, Lindy and I went back to St. Denis Avenue to look anew for a place to eat. We chose the Coréen place next door to the Tibetan restaurant. It was called Cinq Mille Ans, meaning 5000 years (of traditional Korean cuisine and culture, that is). Clearly a family venture, the place was both packed and understaffed that night. It took a very long time for the food to appear and, when we started to eat, our suspicions of what was being put before us were confirmed: we clearly had the wrong dishes; yet we decided to eat them anyway. For me that meant non-range-fed beef among the noodles. I rationalized that Canada was probably not as bad as the US in the matter of industrial farms, hormone- and antibiotic-packed meat, and assembly-line ritual slaughters. Whether or not this was convenient denial, and it probably was, it made for social sense and good etiquette to go with the situation as it played out.

We never got our teas either, so afterwards we tried to make sure we weren’t billed for them or the wrong dishes. We worked all this out with a man in his early twenties, part of the Korean family in charge but possessing more English than the others. He was clearly embarrassed for the state of things and insisted we return and let him make it up. I explained that we were driving from California to Maine and so we wouldn’t be back. He ignored that fact as incidental and asked when we were leaving town. Upon hearing that it was Saturday, he pointed out that there was plenty of time. In truth, there was only Friday, as we were going to Jia-lin’s dinner on Thursday. He was undeterred. “Friday it is,” he insisted. “I will make you a special meal.” Then he asked us to wait while he went to the kitchen; he returned with two green-tea ice-cream cones. We thanked him and left, though without a further commitment.

On Thursday morning we made plans to meet Wayne at his apartment at 12:30. In the course of this conversation, he gave me directions to a natural-foods market near his place (and not far from ours) at the corner of Rachel and Berri. Since we hadn’t been able to find one thus far, I walked it right away, shopped for what we needed, and came back with a heavy bag and a sense of accomplishment. Hilarious sight on my return: a female likely-professional dog-walker was leading five different sizes and shapes of pups on leashes including two large white Scottish terriers with a lot of hair in their eyes. A squirrel darted across their path. In unison they turned their heads and pulled like a team of huskies such the woman could barely hold all five even as she dug her heels into the ground and crouched low. After she got them under control and led them away, they continued, though not in unison, to look back over their hinds for a glimpse of the provocateur.

Our visit to Wayne would follow almost the same route but from the opposite direction. That is because we used our subway cards one more time at their last hour to go a single stop to Mount Royal and then we walked that avenue to the park. It was a more varied, less upscale commercial neighborhood than our sector of St. Denis, with diverse markets, furniture stores, and variety shops. The feeling was college-like, suggesting a rehabilitated Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley or State Street in Ann Arbor.

We made it through the district to Mount Royal Park, a vast expanse rising uphill to a Cross set at its top, designating (in my mind anyway) Leonard Cohen’s city of saints. There we sat under a giant oak at the end of the initial expanse of fields, watching tennis players and gulls and taking stock of our lives and the enormity of what we were doing. At unexpected moments, the daze wore off and the sense of shock returned.

When we began counting gulls that had landed on the field (fifteen), we knew that it was time to climb some more So we trekked uphill to the next rung where the density of trees increased, and from there watched the city clatter and breathe. Noon told us to head in the direction of Wayne’s, since we had only an approximate sense of the distance and time from there.

It was not a simple walk. Well, it started out as a simple walk but, as we got close to his street, the instructions coming from the opposite direction misled me, and we overshot it by walking from Rachel to Duluth to avoid construction and then had to walk the entire distance back and then some extra to get to Wayne’s place. What added urgency and made me doubly regret my error was that the whole sky suddenly darkened and, with rumblings of thunder, threatened a major downpour. We had left our apartment dressed for a warm, summery day. As it was, we found Wayne’s front door and rang the bell just as the first drops were landing. A deluge followed, beating and flashing lightning on the windows and sounding a diffuse din from the streets while we visited in the living.

We sat at chairs among four playful kittens, all with designated homes once they were weaned. For now they did the usual: attacked shoes, chased under furniture, and curled up in a ball at the foot of the scratch post, as we and Wayne recounted histories from our last meeting in 1976.

I would not have recognized him or more accurately not recognized him as Wayne, though I think I would have grokked that I knew this guy from somewhere. Thirty-eight years engrave indelible artistry, cell by cell, even as they crafted an immaculate body in the first place. The metamorphosis from child to young man (and young woman) and then to full-fledged adult and to elder is as gradual as it is profound and, like the shell of a tortoise, tells a thousand tales. Time’s transformations take on a rich flavor when so many decades intervene. Every old friend we had seen recently in Canada—Victor, Merrily, Andrew, Wayne—had re-costumed himself/herself from the cameo starring role of youth to the gist in which they had incarnated, leaving behind most of the affectations, conceits, pretenses, and primping.

Since 1976, Wayne had followed an interestingly fated route: he had moved to southern Vermont and lived in a barn while he tried to achieve the next level as a writer, finally giving the whole thing up as “I’m never going to be good enough to reach the top tier and nothing less is worth my interest or time, it’s Yeats or bust.” He printing t-shirts for a bit of income and ended up several decades later with a full Vermont and Florida t-shirt business employing ten people in Burlington to which he commutes maybe once a week while residing in Montreal. In the process he joined SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and not long ago had taken a dedicated baseball journey to Cuba for which he wore a souvenir t-shirt, a typical Cubs jersey with the exception of an “a” in place of the “s.” It was not one of his company’s.

During the same period he had married twice and had two children and a stepchild, all successful at one thing or another on the West Coast. In fact, his daughter who had gone to Haiti recently in the service of Oxfam was working on her PhD at UCDavis and, with her husband, had just bought a house on Francisco Street in Berkeley. They had had to overbid by more than twenty percent after missing out on a previous few. We had no such “luck” as a seller. Our original buyer withdrew his offer and we accepted the back-up and then absorbed some of the deferred maintenance to boot—our greater vicinity to the Hayward fault, plus that Kensington isn’t quite Berkeley or San Francisco.

Wayne explained how his grandmother ran Brown’s on a kind of scam, extending to the executives from Sullivan County National Bank tons of free meals, gratis rooms for their friends, and other perks, while continuing to get loans from without fulfilling the obligations. Once Citibank, or whoever, bought the local institution, its principals put a quick end to the practice and Brown’s quick folded; then it burned to the ground under different ownership.

The rain did not abate, so our lunch choice was limited to a Portuguese place on the corner, Wayne in a slicker, Lindy and me sharing an umbrella as we hastened. Lindy and he ate; I didn’t—it was meat-oriented, cooked on spits right behind the counter, and I wasn’t feeling very good anyway. We sat at a table and exchanged more stories. The most memorable one (to me) was Wayne’s tale of the breakdown of his last marriage while on a home exchange in Paris: “If we hadn’t had our son and his friend with us, we might have killed each other.” When Lindy asked if he was looking for another relationship, he feigned horror. He said he had never been happier than now. He liked his solitude, his non-interest in romance, and was very much into biking. In fact, in a few days he was leading a Quebec group of which he was the head on a five-day pedaling- and-camping trip along the north side of the St. Lawrence River.

The rain still hadn’t let up, so we “borrowed” Wayne’s umbrella to traipse back to our temporary Montreal home; that is, he could get another one.

The arrangement that night was for Jesse and Angus to come by our place and then for Jia-lin’s daughter Kelly to drive there a bit later, collect everyone, and bring us to Beaconsfield, a good hour away in rush-hour traffic.

A bit about Kelly: she was raised by Jia-lin’s parents not her mother who, in Mary’s account, did not want to be saddled with children. In fact, Kelly had had no contact at all with her birth mother for many more than ten years and did not know where she was presently located but thought that it was maybe Bolivia, more like that than China. She herself had come to Quebec at age twelve and considered Mary her de facto mother. She had lived in Canada since then except for a marriage to a Japanese student in Montreal with whom she spontaneously moved to Japan. They were there for seven years until one night when he didn’t come home. After that choice of his was clearly ratified, he moved back to Canada. Since then, she had lived variously in Ottawa and downtown Montreal and was now ensconced at her parents’ house while she studied 3-D animation for a career change. Mary told us that Kelly was quite willing to run this errand, adding that she was very upbeat and good-humored like her father.

While writing this entry, I asked Mary for a summary of Kelly’s career so I didn’t slight her, and she wrote:

“She is an accredited travel agent and worked in that field in Ottawa and Montreal. She also has a diploma from a private college as a make-up artist, but she didn’t get a chance to work in that field because her husband decided they should move to Japan. In Japan for seven years she worked as a nursery school teacher, eventually becoming head teacher. Then when she came back to Canada she took an eighteen-month course of studies at Computer Data Institute in 3-D modeling, animation, and design.”

I am glad Kelly didn’t mention till late on our drive back that she also loved motorcycles and raced cars. The jaunt out to Beaconsfield was like a NYC taxi ride, though I’m not sure I trusted a girl from the People’s Republic quite as much as a New York cabbie but then, after all, what is a NY cabbie anyway but a guy from one or another people’s republic or Eurasian theocracy? Kelly went hair-raisingly fast, getting right up behind cars at full-commitment speeds. She explained that the rule of Quebec driving was: “Seize space. If you don’t get it, someone else will.”

She had an interesting way of changing lanes that I was not familiar with. It was as though she put the car energetically in the next lane first with her aura and then the metal yawed to meet it. That is, her moves were mind, then matter: it vaguely felt like riding in a large suspender. She didn’t use her blinker because that was like giving her opponents an undue advantage. As to going too fast for anything but a crash if the car in front were in an accident or slammed on its brakes, she said, somewhat non sequitur, “Drivers in Ontario are worse. No, Quebec drivers are just as bad, but Ontario drivers are stupid too. They don’t have a plan. I always have a plan.” I was curious to know what the plan was, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. Her final answer was, more or less, “I got a motorcyclist’s license in Japan and, if you knew how hard that is to get, you’d realize that you can trust me.”

That’s good because we had no choice.

At the door in Beaconsfield, everyone stopped to admire Jia-lin’s garden, clearly the pride of the neighborhood, an extensive collection of flowers and herbs with a few large trees that, he informed us as he came out the door to enjoy everyone admiring his handiwork and curtly shout out names for anything anyone dawdled over, he had planted from scratch. Mary added:

“In bloom in the garden right now are different kinds of day lilies. But it depends on which month/week one visits, as it is a passing parade of hundreds of different blooms and blossoms. Almost all are perennials, except for some pansies etc. on the front stairs. So things follow their own rhythm and appear on cue in a succession of flowers starting in April or May and extending till late into autumn.

“Joggers and cyclists like to make this part of their route to see the garden; one lady said she felt the garden was just inviting her to come and play in it. A local seniors residence always makes a point of driving their little shuttle bus by the house, even though we are on a crescent that is not en route to anywhere.”

Inside, after drinks and conversation (and once Russell and two neighbor kids, who actually looked like one boy made in triplicate, had finished their meal and gone off to play Minecraft), Jia-lin produced his banquet spread across a large table. It consisted of soup in a carved-out watermelon, a duck dish, a trout dish, and various other items making up an entire buffet. Mary told the group

“Jia-Lin’s dishes don’t have names. I think duck figures in a few of them, including that soup invention which has a duck-broth base and has shrimp in it and which was baked in a watermelon in the oven. It has tofu and veggies in it too. There is also a dish with duck and some kind of sauce. There is a vegetable dish with mushrooms and assorted Chinese vegetables and chayote, and a shrimp dish with lychee fruit. Oh, and trout with peaches.”

Dinner discussion ranged over topics ranging from Kelly’s international adventures, what the three boys were doing upstairs (Kelly came downstairs mock-weeping that she had just been dissed and kicked out by a trio of nine-year-olds), the over-amped house dog, Jia-lin’s time in China, Angus’s plans, Asian martial arts, the preparation details of the dishes, what the people’s actual names (Jesse, Angus, Kelly, etc.) were in Chinese. It turned out that their Canadian names were merely the closest agreeable Anglicizations the parents could form of the person’s Chinese name, something I would not have guessed. I thought of them as attempts not to be Chinese.

Still remarkably patient and respectful, Angus only got peeved at his father once and that was when Jesse said one time too many, with exasperation (this time in relation to Kelly’s time in Japan), that Angus wanted to go there, maybe to teach English as a second language, at which he then shrugged, perhaps, without intending it, a bit contemptuously.

“You keep saying that,” Angus snapped, “and it’s not true. I never wanted to teach English as a second language. That’s your fantasy. I wanted to go to study judo katame waza, period. No other reason. I never just wanted to go there.

Smiling almost beatifically, Jesse remained undeterred.

After dinner the whole dinner group minus Kelly, Mary, and the tripl- Minecraft boys went on a walk through the neighborhood, to the St. Lawrence and back, the river quite wide and magnificent at this point. We strolled past stately houses, some with turrets, all part of peripheral Anglophone Montreal (no council vote for an extension of the Metro here anytime soon either). The jaunt took a good forty minutes with Jia-lin leading the way. I lagged behind with Angus, and we discussed various edge topics like chemtrails (for, if there were such things, there were plenty of them presently overhead), UFOs, modernity subtexts, personal consciousness (a topic Angus brought up), and Dreamworks, with the curious twist that my half-brothers in the Grossinger family, Michael and James, played with Dreamworks director Jeffrey Katzenberg as children. His father Walter and mother, name long forgotten, were friends of my father and stepmother, and I was occasionally present and got included in their games. It was a bit of trivia for Angus to take to Shanghai for the right moment to spring.

Kelly’s drive back into Montreal Centrale was even more aggressive. I sat in the front seat (both times in fact because of susceptibility to motion sickness). Lindy, in back with the Ning family, just closed her eyes and hoped for the best. Kelly insisted many times that we were perfectly safe. It was not a quick re-entry. There was a plenty of evening traffic and heavy gridlock once we got into town.

I found ice hockey a compatible topic with Kelly but reduced her to adolescent razzing by mentioning that I rooted for the Ottawa Senators. She let me know how meagerly she thought of them. Then shouted, “Go, Habs,” and more of that kind of stuff. Over the next fifteen minutes she went on about her team and their issues (they traded or lost too many good players, had too many rookies, etc.—I didn’t agree with her team-building strategy). A number of times she apologized in advance “for my language” but never used a stronger word than “ass.” She said that the Canadians kicked this team’s ass and that team’s ass, most notably the Bruins, and then she added that the mayor of Boston had been forced to fly the Canadian flag in shame, a thread I lost somewhere along our bumpy, swerving way, probably a distracting lane change.

As Kelly sought the best route through gridlock, we encountered many downtown neighborhoods at night, including Chinatown and the red light district, all glided through as if a movie from a car.

 

Our schedule was set the next day by Vendredi street-sweeping. We removed the Prius, drove to Mount-Royal, ate lunch outdoors at a vegan café, and walked to the park. On the way back we stopped at Rachel-Berry, the natural-foods market, to buy lunch makings for the trip to Maine the next day. I mention that because of another variant on the French-English theme. When we returned to the apartment, lucky to grab the last parking space for nonresidents again, we discovered that an expensive bottle of chlorophyll tablets had been put in our bag—and on our credit card. Under the circumstances I decided to walk it back but, when I arrived, all those people who spoke perfect English just a half hour ago as well as on the previous day suddenly seemed not to understand me at all. They shook their heads, communicated a policy of “no returns,” and went about their business as if assuming I would give up and leave. But I kept insisting that it wasn’t a return, I never bought it in the first place—perhaps a previous customer had left it on the counter by mistake and the checker had missed. Finally a clerk came to the back of the store where I was talking to a possible manager and she handed me a stack of thirteen dollar coins plus some change. But we were leaving Canada in the morning and would have little opportunity to spend it. She had zero enthusiasm taking my credit card but seemed or pretended to try to run it and then shook her head again as if it wouldn’t go. My strategy of wasn’t working, so I went around the store looking for other things to buy that matched the amount of my coins. I left with under a dollar in change.

A couple of hours later I took a stroll by Cinq Mille Ans, the Korean eatery, and met the same young man, on duty at five o’clock, as prompt as promised. He introduced himself as MingGi Choi (he later wrote it out for me), shook my hand, and said in response to my ambivalence and continued assurance that he didn’t owe us anything from the other night, said “You must come tonight. Where is your wife? I have prepared a Korean barbecue for you two.”

“She’s at the apartment. Are you sure?”

He nodded.

“Then let us pay for it.”

“No way. On the house. You choose any table you want. Do you want to be indoors or outdoors?”

“I think outdoors if it’s available, but we can eat indoors if someone’s at the table. I don’t want you to lose a customer.” I found myself responding as if we were really going to do this!

“No, it’s your table. What time do you want?”

“Maybe six.”

“Okay, I will be ready at six.”

I handed him the last of the copies of my books I had been toting from Berkeley. It was my contribution to a gifting, pay-it-forward paradigm. Each of us in our way seemed to want to preserve grace and integrity even if we weren’t dealing in exactly the same terms. The book was all I had left that to give, and it was more the spirit than an exact balance of the transaction.

When Lindy returned at six, a picnic table that could have seated ten was set for two. A Korean flat wok-like pan steamed at its center, giving off hot piquancy as MingGi attended it. Once we arrived, he brought out slices of beef. Again, I conceded to myself that it was Quebecois and not industrial US cow, but who knows? Then he made Korean stir-fry in a separate dish, also right there at the table, as we conversed. He brought us each beers, though I traded mine for sparkling water. He continued to hang with us as we ate and there were few other customers yet. In answer to my questions, he said that he had come from Inchon eight years ago and liked Quebec much better than Korea—it was more laid back. He was working on an advanced degree in economics at a university in Montreal, the main branch of which was in Paris where he hoped to continue his studies next year.

While we were eating, a flurry of police cars came shooting down the street, about eight of them without sirens but with colored flashing lights. We and other diners stood up to look. Initially there was nothing to see, but then a classic protest march appeared in the distance, headed down St. Denis. Before their signs were visible, I wondered if the cause was Quebecois or international and, even as I hoped it might be a response to the bombing of Gaza, I could see the first sign: “Free Palestine” in French and English. It sent chills down my spine. Other banners heralded self-determination for Gaza, etc. The demonstration brought together Muslim women in chadors with Canadians. They were loud as they shouted in French and English.

I know that it’s romanticism and the type of stuff that gets you called a self-hating Jew, but I found the black, white, and green Palestinian flag with its jutting red-orange triangle at the margin thrilling as it flew on the streets of Montreal—no Zionist counter-protest anywhere, no AIPAC remonstrations. It was clean and moving and struck not so much at the whole Israeli-Palestinian thing as Rodney King’s “Why can’t we all just get along?”

For all the complexity, there is also the simplicity to the institutionalized killing of civilians, by whomever, wherever, regardless of ineffective bombs lobbed by the jerks ostensibly in charge. You don’t take an eye for an eyelash.

I feel an extra charge in being Jewish and standing against Israeli right-wing Likkud politics. But I’m no naïf. I get it about Hamas and their missiles and tunnels and wanting to obliterate Israel (or, more properly, to allow pragmatically for its existence while refusing to acknowledge its right to exist). I understand about the complex politics that has Egypt and Saudi Arabia and even some of the Arab emirates in secret collaboration with Likkud against Iranian proxies. I understand that Israeli and US intelligence networks are irrevocably tied together and interdependent at the highest levels, particular in relation to Al Qaeda and post-Qaeda jihadist groups and that all of our safety depends on it—which makes any sort of American neutrality virtually impossible. In fact, militarily the US and Israel are the same country. I understand that most Israelis and their overseas friends support Israel as other nations are supported, with qualifiers and disagreements, hedged by criticisms, but they are nonetheless committed to its survival. I get too that there are no angels in the Middle East. But I can’t stand Jewish superiority and racism; I have experienced too much of it directly in my life. It replaces the old Jewish tradition of decency, tolerance, and justice. It’s why Nathan Englander was asking, “What are we really talking about when we talk about Anne Frank?”—and it’s not as though he is exactly on my side either.

I mean, I got kicked out of Hebrew school at age eleven for complaining aloud when we were asked to throw darts at pictures of Nasser and other Arabs at the Purim fair, an event I have written about in a number of books (see The Bardo of Waking Life for one). “They’re not people,” the principle explained, “they’re animals. And you, son, are an anti-Semite.” That was 1955, mind you.

The Settlers are no better than the US Tea Party, or those Dixiecrat slaveholders who wanted to conquer all of Mexico until they found out it was anti-slave, or the Andy Jackson/William Custer faction removing Amerindians, Australian Aborigines: racist, provincial, fundamentalist, macho, self-righteous, robotically and sociopathically uncompassionate, narcissistically entitled. Yeah, there are two sides to every story, and I’ve got Facebook friends who post every little pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian squib they can suck out of cyberspace, as if you could ever change the true reality of land theft and disenfranchisement or apartheid or make it right by rhetoric. Let Vladimir Putin bomb a UN refugee camp in Ukraine and see how much slack he’s cut.

Those people, the Palestinians, were there, whether before or after the Jews of the Old Testament, and clearly they didn’t want the Jewish resettlement Israel in 1948, but who wants uninvited guests anyway, especially guests who take your homes and kick you out, set themselves up as civil authority, judge, and jury over your land, and legislate away just about all your rights? The Settler and Likkud youth, with their “Go fucking die, won’t you please?” to peace activists and their other opponents, with their violent mischief to random, peaceful Arabs, their destruction of their olive and lemon groves, their murders of politicians, their general fanatical racial purism resemble nothing so much as Nazi Brown Shirts and the accompanying civilian mobs. Israel has become a perfect metaphor for the psychological maxim that those who were abused fuck over whoever they can in the same fashion. In the larger karmic, psychospiritual picture, the victims are trying to understand and feel what was done to them—in this case forming an ethnic constellation over generations.

I know, many Israelis are more decent to Palestinians than most Palestinians are to Israelis or to each other; they try to mitigate harm to them, educate and heal them, and provide services and revenue that they wouldn’t otherwise have. But that’s not half as decent as they should be as a society, even to save their own democracy or soul as nation. When you have the upper hand, so much more is required of you—so much more than what you can afford at the level of self-congratulation.

I go with my childhood friend Phil Wohlstetter who is only half-Jewish. When accused of being a self-hating Jew for supporting the Palestinian cause, he said, “Only half of me is a self-hating Jew; the other half is an anti-Semite.”

After leaving a tip for Jesse with a member of his family, we hurried down St. Denis behind the march to see if there would be speeches or countermarchers, but we never caught up and ran into crowds of diners so thick across Sherbrooke that we could barely move. It was suddenly women in strapless red dresses and young couples lining up outside cafés. That’s modernity: a march with Palestinian flags melts into the urban landscape like planes full of people melding into the Twin Towers. All is lost, or transformed, endlessly.

 

Our last night the “other” couple returned prematurely from their Quebec adventures. Nothing wrong with them: two sweet young Parisians, the male very tall and French, the female tiny, Vietnamese, just as French. Both them had a good command of English for basic conservation, but it fell short of subtleties. Yes, nice kids; it’s just that they unconsciously occupied a lot of space. Their stuff was in the kitchen, half-drunken Coke and beer bottles and half-eaten candy bars. Young people. They initially arrived at the apartment midway through our first evening and socialized briefly while taking possession of space amoeba-like. In the morning the woman stopped me on my way to the bathroom after the guy had already just been locked in there for a half hour, saying, “Please, okay, just one minute.” She held up a single finger, but something was lost in translation. She may not have broken the all-time record for time in the bathroom, though she sure challenged it, and she did break my all-time record for one minute in the bathroom when someone else is waiting to use the toilet. It was fifty-seven minutes; she apparently took a complete shower and conducted other cosmetic prep. At one point, I considered going out to look for a restaurant loo, but I kept thinking, ‘It can be that much longer.’ It always was, so I did make it to her eventual breach through the door. I even waited an extra two minutes for a graceful succession and to remove any potential drama.

What can I say? They ran on a certain sort of youthful lack of empathy. They smoked. Of course, they didn’t do it in the apartment itself, but they smoked up a storm outside on the back porch and it drifted back substantially. We had taken to locking the back door at night because of carousing, bottle-smashing spates on the street (which I will get to). These two young Parisians did not know how to get the lock open and so summoned us from our bedroom with evident chagrin that they had been locked in. They explained that it would be totally unnecessary where they come from. I tried a milder version of Kevin Spacey as Prot, the alien, in K-Pax when I said, “But people in Montreal don’t come from where you come from.” That was around eleven PM. They were still smoking at twelve, and again at two when I got up from the street racket and then went to check the unlocked back door. It was convivial and very European to enjoy beers and cigarettes on the back porch all night. They were type-cast from some Godard movie, but it wasn’t 1959 any longer; we were well past the New Wave and innocent reign of the Marlboro Man, well past 9/11 too.

As for the racket, it was a surreal. It sounded as though our bed had been transported to the middle of a street party. Crowds had poured out from nearby parks and were continuing down the side streets as though no one was asleep or, if they were, shouldn’t be because they were missing all the fun. Separate groups and their shouts, screams, shrieks, and general clatter finally trailed off around three. There had been noise the other nights, but Friday was the acme, though I bet Saturday would rival or beat it. We didn’t stay around.

On Saturn’s day morning we set out on the last leg of the trip. Leaving Ile de Montreal, we seemed to ascend like a plane, as if over rather than across bridges and water. Perhaps it was the mood of our cross-continent odyssey and the knowledge that we were finally descending for a landing. Montreal is a complicated city anyway, so our extraction felt like winding out of a giant snail-shell.

Afterwards we plunged into the vast, mysterious northeast—the landscape of Vinland, of James Fenimore Cooper: forest, rivers, and lakes in abundance, Iroquois Nation. The Google-map directions got complicated near the border, involving a number of small roads for brief periods around Magog, angling us toward the narrow part of New Hampshire and above the White Mountains. Instead we missed the exit for the 141 turnoff and ended up staying on highway 55 for the duration of Quebec because there was no other stop for about fifteen miles, or until the last Canadian town before the border.

It took us an hour to reenter the US, as the line of cars moved at a snail’s pace. We saw only Quebec and Ontario licenses in the various lanes around us, so worried the whole time that we had missed our cue. We hadn’t.

Lindy’s dialogue with the US border official went by rote except for the closing sequence:

“Is that guy over there a criminal?”
“No, he’s a pretty good guy.”

“Okay then, you can go. Welcome back to the United States.
I felt guilty, like we should have been fighting in Afghanistan or at least caravaning somewhere dangerous. Lindy probably said it best:

“It feels right. It’s where we live. It’s where we’re from.”

We went down Vermont 91, switched to 93 south of St. Johnsbury, and finally crossed the mountains (and thicker part of New Hampshire) on 112 east, picked at Lincoln and winding through thirty-six rugged, seemingly endless (but classic scenic) miles, including many sluggish vehicles and a dirt portion, to Conway, then into Maine at Fryeburg. After that it was south on 113 and then east on 25 through Westbrook and Gorham into Portland. Along both 112 and 113 we saw the snippets of the thousands of people on summer vacations, bits of water through trees, cabins, rivers, giant lakes, motorcycle clubs, children’s camps, pieces of my own summers past. At times we were crossing mountain vistas on all sides. Any of it could have been Maine. We were back in the Northeast of my childhood, our college years, and the first decade of our marriage—and it felt like it: ancient, rich, nostalgic, incipient, as complicated as the universe. By contrast, the Bay Area felt like a weatherless mall. We had done the seemingly impossible. We had driven from the front door of our former house in Kensington, suburban Berkeley, California, to the door of our friends Ken and Patti Rosen’s house in Portland, Maine. In fact, we passed Ken on Spring Street, off to his afternoon swim. Lindy called out her open window and he applauded the final lap and then checked out our California plate, not so much to prove that it was real, as he had been following the blog, but to view a palpable artifact, a Moon rock of the journey.

We had driven 5147.5 miles. Of that, 577.7 miles were around places we stopped, the largest numbers being Austin (182.3) and Houston (93.7). We didn’t put on any miles at all in El Paso (driving round with Bobby and Lee) and only 6.5 in Montreal because of public transportation. That means that the trip itself took 4569.8 miles as opposed to 4466 predicted by the mileage between cities offline. The distance from Houston, Texas, to Avant, Oklahoma, was about 75 miles greater than predicted online. Other discrepancies were more minimal. By the same online measure, a direct trip would have been 3301 miles. There is another variation, though: I calculated Kensington to Mount Desert (Southwest Harbor) instead of Portland, and that would have been 103 more miles from Montreal. Thus, 4466 should have been 4363, which doubled the discrepancy. If we had driven directly to Portland, the distance would have been 3127. Thus we drove an extra 1442.8 miles to travel a labyrinth rather than the closest thing available to a superhighway straight line. Over the whole journey (38 days), that added up to just about 38 miles more per day (an unlikely near square, a perfect one being 1444 miles), though the straight journey would have no doubt taken fewer days. My point is: it wasn’t much extra. Overall we drove an additional 2020.5 miles (counting driving around in destinations), but even that was only a little more than 53 miles a day. And we got so much out of it

 

Testimonies (names given only of people in the journal)

 

  1. FIRST: (perhaps also popping because it was in blue) was the material about Hyperobjects.Your enthusiastic summary sent me off to experience Tim Morton’s 6-part YouTube introduction first hand. THANK YOU.

 

Now, I should mention that, in a course called “Semiotics in the Marketplace” taught by Marshall Blonsky (“American Mythology”)—part of a mid-life-crisis master’s program I enrolled in at Tisch Film School, NYU in the mid 90’s—I had to read Jameson’s book on Postmodernism. I found it dense, but kept at it and eventually got what I needed from him. All this is to say that I am not completely unused to cultural theory, or absorbing ideas that take time to tease from among the words they are embedded in.

 

However, I found Tim’s YouTube presentation did not serve him very well —particularly his refusal to acknowledge either periods at the end of sentences, or the need to take a breath. But, it was intriguing enough that I plan to come back to Hyperobjects when I have the time.

 

Even at this early stage in my exposure, however, I was left with a question. Based on what I grokked from Tim’s presentation, I do not understand why human cultural phenomena such as, agriculture, writing, monotheism, and the like, do not qualify as Hyperobjects. Or, perhaps they do, as he also acknowledges that evolution and tectonic plates do. But, then, if Hyperobjects are not limited to his archetypal ‘Global Warming,’ nuclear fallout from Fukushima, and other elements related to the current ecological crisis (which he seems to say is essential to hyperobjectivity); and, do include hyperobjects that are millennia or eons old, why is this now the Dawn?

 

Is it the dawn of our awareness? The dawn of Tim’s analysis and definition? Or does he date the dawn to 10,000 BC or earlier?

 

Another last minute thought popped into my head: How well does Tim’s five-part definition of what characterizes a Hyperobject (Viscosity; Molten Temporality; Nonlocality; Phasing; and, Inter-Objectivity) apply to the concept Meme? Is a meme a subclass of hyperobject?

 

TWO: You wrote in your blog: “I shared with Julie not wanting stuff in her space moved once it landed and thus, when Lindy “cleaned up” and Julie reacted negatively to her behavior, I enjoyed watching my partner confront the fact that everyone doesn’t like being picked up after. We both would have said the same thing: you can never find stuff if someone else, especially an inveterate orderer and perfectionist, is always moving stuff to where he or she thinks it belongs or should go. And this refers to thoughtforms as to objects.”

 

First, I found myself literally grinning at the resonant joy I felt reading someone else express what I feel on a nearly daily basis.

 

Although there are differences. Your disorder is in conflict with Lindy’s order. In my case it is my tendency toward vertical order (which is not to say the piles I generate are in any way ‘neat’ —it is just that I can locate any object I have personally deposited via the recollected latitude and longitude of the pile it occupies, along with the geological strata within that pile that corresponds to the time it was deposited) which is challenged by Anne’s (my life and business partner of 30 some odd years—she would probably say all odd) influence of horizontal entropy.

 

I was also enormously surprised, and only slightly tickled, that you would call your wife a ‘worm’ in what I assume will become a public posting. But then I reread “especially of an invertebrate order” correctly as “especially an inveterate orderer” and the world made sense again.

 

Lastly, if this is destined to become part of your public blog, I must express my admiration for your wife’s sense of charity and forgiveness; or, perhaps, your own unbending courage. I can only hope, for your sake, that it is the former.

 

 

  1. From Facebook:

First post: Go

Second post from same person: Leafs

 

  1. Another Facebook post from Canada:

as a West Coast guy-was big fan of Vancouver Grizzlies and Seatle Supersonics—alas both have shape-shifted away—enjoy Montreal—too bad there’s not an Expo’s game you could catch…

 

  1. It’s the writer’s charge to describe what s/he observes, which is what you did. It’s axiomatic that these observations will contain that particular writer’s subjectivities, on whatever philosophical, cultural or other level. The only true foolishness is to imagine that one can think and write above the level of those particularities on a consistent basis—that’s a nonsensical goal. Your journal is not one big long Namaste. The best one can do is be sensitive to the differences that separate us, which, again, is what you did.

 

I think the self-effacement exercise in “Interlude” was excessive. You made some incorrect assumptions—presumptions even—for which you feel apologetic toward Julie. That’s it; statement made, move on. Because, back to the beginning, it’s simply not possible to express anything without crossing swords with at least some other people’s views about that same thing.

 

It takes me back to our one evening together, when you had been made miserable by a critic of “The Night Sky” writing that it was the worst book ever written. Not a very intelligent comment, I grant you; but it was his opinion and he’s welcome to it. My favorite example is Rimsky-Korsakov saying of Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony (surely one of the greatest symphonies ever written), “Well, I suppose that’s also possible.” Mean-spiritedly dismissive of course, but on a literal level, true.

 

The sentence that offended me was about considering discontinuing the journal. Don’t even think about it; you’re doing too many of us way too much good.

 

[For the record, the Seattle Weekly called The Night Sky the worst book of 1981, not ever written.]

 

 

  1. From Bobby Byrd (on Facebook):

I forgot to thank Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough for putting us in contact with Phoebe Gloeckner, and thru Phoebe, Catherine Thursby. We had a wonderful lunch together at the Hello Day Cafe in downtown El Paso and then they dropped by the office and bought books. That’s how the writing and publishing life is supposed to work. Unexpected happy events that always seem to make good sense afterwards.

 

 

  1. From Andrew Lugg:

I hope you had a successful/good drive. Don’t hesitate to mention me. I am fair game and you are not one to beat up on an old bloke. Indeed I fancy I would find what you write fascinating. I am as nosey about my own past as I am about other people’s and your reflections, which go well beyond “gossips”, are always interesting. I am also interested in seeing Lindy’s novel. I am a poor reader of novel (philosophy has a lot to answer for) but I give friends’ work special attention. Cheers, etc.

 

  1. I only learned after getting to Ken’s that Julie had sent a response to the sole mailing group that she was part of. Since her intent to send to the whole list was frustrated, I will let her have her say, though I am not in touch with her any longer and she likely won’t find out. Since this can whip back and forth indefinitely and she is not in a position to reply, I won’t insert much of a rebuttal here, only to say that I left people whom we visited out of the blog by request and would have left her out entirely (as per our agreement before we came) if she hadn’t changed her mind while we were there and not only given me permission but encouraged me to include certain details; in fact said she “couldn’t wait” to see what I wrote, and then, after we left, she emailed me to make sure to send her my unabridged reflections.

She must herself know that what she is broadcasting is an intentional fib of omission and that what she is upset about is not that I had broken a promise but that she misjudged what I would say. People, of course, are sensitive to how they are portrayed, and some people have different self-images than personae and don’t necessarily know that. In fact, all of us do.

I will leave it to the reader to decide if I spoke negatively or disrespectfully about her finances and ancestry. I did leave out a lot of things that I thought would have been embarrassing to her, but the available territory was obviously smaller than I thought. Here’s one negative thing I omitted, just for an example. The night we stayed, Lindy asked, “When should we make dinner or should we go out?” and Julie said, “I’ve eaten. Do what you want.” Also she tossed garbage over her shoulder for the dogs to fight over on the floor while cooking, to amuse herself, but don’t get me started. What she wrote.

 

From Julie White:

To those of you who read Richard Grossinger’s ” blog” regarding his and Lindy Hough’s visit to me, I would like to state that it was inaccurate, degrading, and insulting to me. I had read his previous blogs on visits to other friends on their recent cross country trip and I had told him I was a very private person, and asked him to please NOT dissect my personal life and then share it online.

I made it more or less a condition of letting them visit me. I had not seen nor been in touch with Lindy in 53 years and had never met Richard. The visit went very badly. They were not at all at ease in the country at my ranch, and they gave me a hard time while here, but the blog he wrote afterwards was intolerably inaccurate, invasive and offensive, about my home, my character, my pets, my life in general, even remarking on my personal finances and making completely inaccurate and disrespectful comments on my ethnicity and ancestry! I am shocked and furious as are my family and friends.

This was a betrayal of trust and a breach of security.

Mr. Grossinger should know better.

 

[I began apologizing in person to the people in Portland who received this, but one young reader said, “No need. It was hilarious. The whole thing was very entertaining.” And I realized, of course, this is the blogosphere, planetary Reality TV, where stuff like this happens everyday, usually far more outrageous. Plus a number of people wrote saying that they couldn’t figure out what was so horrible about what I said.]

 

Julie also took matters a bit further by claiming shamanic power over Lindy’s health, a level power trip and voodoo in the form a direct that was ruthless and unconscionable. They crossed a certain line. Lindy responded:

 

Dear Julie—

 

Richard already apologized profusely for his role is misreading you. But we

all three did our best under the circumstances, tried hard, and established new contact. It was bumpy, and remains bumpy. So what? You and I are at least reconnected; we learned more about who we each are. Why not

be generous? Why so insulting? Why all the strum and drang? You were not notably insulted. You should know that Richard sent your own email (that only went to the small group of which you were part) to the entire list that received the blog, because that was your intention, that everyone see it. Numerous people have written him back saying that they don’t know what you were so upset about—and you are really quite over the top in “upsetness.” People felt you were portrayed respectfully and positively. He wrote very carefully and thoughtfully about you, and even the things you claim he said he either actually didn’t say or said the diametric opposite of what you are

accusing him.

Nonetheless I understand that any portrayal is an invasion of privacy, and he and I both continue to feel terrible about his misstep. But again, aren’t you milking it for all that it’s worth and then some? It didn’t go to the whole world; it went to a very small list, most of whom would have forgotten it by the next hour if you didn’t make such a big stink about it, and then they have pretty much forgotten it by now. The Internet is full of far worse mudslinging than even what you pretend he said.

But he wouldn’t have written anything as was his and your agreement if you didn’t encourage and ask him in person and in an email after we left. You said things like, “Be sure to include this in your blog” and “I don’t want to get in the way of editorial freedom” and then you wrote him specifically asking for an unabridged version. As it was, he was light and restrained.

You have been hundreds of times more insulting than he ever was.

“Rat-faced,” c’mon. Were you called your equivalent caricature of

“rat-faced”? I could go on, but you might try re-reading your emails and

comparing them to his piece. You would see that you are the one who owes an apology. If his comments were around a 2 or a 3 in degree of insult (by any objective panel), yours were striving for a full 10 or 11. You are continually trying to hurt me and him by one means or another, resorting most often to really ugly name-calling).

I don’t like any of the other of your later caricatures either. I fully

admire your expedition to Mexico and admit that it would have been over my head and is out of my skill set. More power and full kudos to you for pulling it off. That is the Julie I remember and love.

But I’m not an urban wimp exactly. I have had many adventures by myself and with Richard and try edgy things regularly. As for more immediate stuff, I would argue that that drive through the Tall Grass preserve was unnecessary. What was the goal exactly, to get to a souvenir and gift shop? That wasn’t worth the slog. You could have suggested we turn it at a view site and walk; after all, you know it so well. We didn’t see anything more by driving the whole distance. It wasn’t like there was a sacred site at the other end. You imposed that on two car-weary people who had driven over 1000 miles in the previous week to get there with no consideration for our stamina and state (to which you seemed oblivious). You made no concessions to our situation, demanding only that we respect yours. But I didn’t expect you to and don’t expect you to feel bad about it even now; just don’t accuse us and me of all sorts of manufactured misdeeds. We were reasonably affable house guests. We did our best. We dug holes and planted rose bushes for you. We tried to get in the spirit of your ranch and your town. We used our car on the washboarded road, though we still had thousands of miles to go. We gave you books as a gift. You make it sound as though we were the worst guests ever when we at least deserved a passing grade.

You also abused the first rule of shamanic and healing practice by making a statement about my health without my permission, showing me something about yourself that, frankly, you need to watch big-time–trying to get power and superiority over people by any means possible. If you want that as your m.o. (rather than friendship), then you don’t have a willing victim here. If you want friendship and fair play, don’t call us names out of the blue and keep criticizing Rich and me.

 

  1. From Tom Cuniff (at whose vacant house we stayed the night before leaving):

I’ve been following you travel blog and it sounds like a wild, Jungian ride you’ve been on.

 

  1. I called Robert Phoenix on the phone first thing from Portland and, to my further apologies, he said, “I don’t lose friends. You and I are good. We could never not be good. Your Saturn is crossing your Sun, so this is a time of big change for you, change and cutting down to the basics. I appreciate what you’re going through. I’m just sorry we didn’t have more quality time together.”

 

In retrospect, what was the trip about? We arrived in California from Vermont in 1977 with two young kids, no defined careers, very little money, certainly no house, and no plan to stay for more than a year. We were ourselves still a relatively young couple with our college memories fresh and our first apartments not so long ago. We left there in 2014 with adult children who were confirmed Californians, themselves considerably older than we were when we came to the Pacific Basis, plus three grandsons, a mature nonprofit business with 26 full-time employees, and enough equity for retirement, and places to live. We were approaching our fiftieth anniversary and fiftieth college reunion, our childhoods and courtship, our break-ups and comings-back-together now viewed across the chasm of a lifetime.

Life doesn’t allow enough raw time for too many such metamorphoses and crossroads. We were now, in essence, unwinding the film, returning to the starting point, having been initiated, “made” (in mafia terms), “cooked” (in shamanic terms). It was perfect to drive the labyrinth instead of ship our car and go JetBlue to Portland. We achieved a deeper and subtler awareness of what we were doing; it was, as Tom observed, a Jungian journey, including an encounter with the shadow and a reclamation of lost pasts.

When we finally got to Mount Desert a few days later, we found Chris, our neighbor across the street, a classic homey about to blow town, leave the island, after twenty-six years, pretty much his whole adult life, to resolve a different sort of loss and life passage before winter set in again. He was forlorn, his partner having split, and was ready to become redeemed and vindicated, to see the universe, to go out (as Willie Nelson put it) “riding and hiding his pain.” First thing on our arrival, before any questions or testimonies other than the most basic data, after I walked across the street and said “hi,” he showed me the inside of a “bad ol’ van” that he had customized, boom-box speakers demonstrated (perhaps to folks as far as a mile away too), as his traveling home. When I asked him which way he was headed, he pointed west. “I’m following that guy,” he said. I looked confused. “That guy. The bad ol’ sun.”

Well, we had followed the dude west too, long ago and in different circumstances, and now we had tracked his ass back. But he could never be caught. Not until the circle itself gets unbroken.

 

 

Epilogue

I can’t lapse too far into this addition or I’ll be writing another blog. I will say a few things. The adjustment to Portland has been huge, a sense of dislocation and “what am I doing here?” Living somewhere for so many years, e.g., Berkeley and the East Bay, builds habits and associations, senses of automatic daily living and expectation and convenience, that are hard to break or replace with something entirely different, even something once well-known. We missed the acupuncturist, the cranial therapist, going outside without a bundling-up ritual, Berkeley Natural Grocery, organic Thai and Tibetan food at the Farmers’ Market. A stretch of January days in Berkeley/Kensington is a different planet from a stretch of January days in Portland. It’s not just the weather, the cold and the snow; it’s the mindset, the somatic instincts, the whole damn marching orders and autopilot regime.

After the road trip, we stayed mainly on Mount Desert until mid-November, so the impact of the move didn’t set in right away. MDI was familiar from fourteen previous years. Our two-week-long gambits to Portland (three to three and a half hours to the southwest) involved mainly getting the house together, hiring folks to fix things, make shelves, etc., buying used furniture and other household items. These kept us busy and in context, unwitnessing of the bigger picture—it was a project, a check list of taks. Plus, it was late summer and early autumn, mellow. I went to the Binghamton Mets versus Portland Sea Dogs Eastern League playoff series, the final three games in Portland when the underdog Mets won. Here are a couple of emails I sent to folks at the time:

 

“The Binghamton Mets playoff series begins tonight and we go Friday to the first game in Portland. A surprise that they are starting Steven Matz, their best pitcher and the Mets’ best lefthand prospect, on our game, the third, rather than the first, so we get to see him. The Portland Red Sox have that new Cuban guy they just signed. The Mets are missing key players, moved to Triple A or the Major League team. I’ll write you from the game.”

 

“Beautiful stadium, especially with the arc lights at night, old-fashioned advertising signs. There is a Maine Monster wall in left, mimicking Fenway’s Green Monster. The Mets just keep playing the count and chipping away, lots of small ball. Brandon Nimmo was fantastic. Although it was probably a mistake to draft him ahead of José Fernandez, he looks like a solid hitter and outfielder. The game rivets on him just as much as Portland’s $70 million Cuban Rusney Castillo. He has a vague Mickey Mantle presence. Gabriel Ynoa was shaky on Sunday after the Mets took an 8-1 lead, but Hans Robles, who definitely has a mean edge out of the bullpen, bailed him out. Yesterday the Met farmhand with the best name if not the best chance of making the majors, Rainy Lara, came up big with them down 2-1 in the series. Portland charged out to the lead, but he held them to two runs, and the Binghamton Mets won 11-4. The Mets hit only one homer in the whole series, and Portland had eleven. I decided that Mets’ Friday pitcher Steven Matz, who is 6’ 5” and has challenging mechanics, is a dead ringer for Jeff Goldblum.”

 

When we came back to Portland for the winter, it was after one major snow storm, another soon to follow, laying the winter stage-set down till April. We were thrown into shoveling, getting our driveway plowed, walking gingerly with duck steps (as they call them) on ice (and hidden ice). It was no longer an abstraction, being back in the Northeast. Everyone around us seemed to be a lifer, but we had just arrived. No one could believe that we had vacated California for here of our own free will; everyone was trying to figure out how to get to California, had some vague mirage or plan about endless summer and illuminated Beach Boy beaches.
I remember six years ago when we published a Plainfield poet’s book of “Dreams of the Presidents,” and stopped back in Vermont to visit friends. The Montpelier Library held a poetry reading for the book, and we showed up. It was early autumn, plenty of yellow and orange, a nip and winter smell in the air in the building. Three separate people we hadn’t seen in almost thirty-five years came by and said hello, assuming we had been there all along and just hadn’t run into each other. On one level, that’s just the nature of time, a trickster, mud demon who doesn’t even exist for real in a post-Einsteinian string-theory universe. On another level, our etheric ghosts and probable selves were there all along, in another dimension, and we were not only being mistaken but being recognized, psychically and hyperspatially.

 

While Mount Desert was familiar and had a known arc, Portland was

utterly strange. It meant next to nothing that we lived there in the early seventies. That was not only long ago; it was a different Portland. We lived on the exactly opposite side of town too (south, Cape Elizabeth then, as opposed to North Deering now).

At odd moments, we found ourselves looking at each other in the hall or kitchen of our house in utter bafflement and a tinge of remorse. We understood the choice, the deal, the adventure, but living it day to day called for a new degree of commitment. It wasn’t that we wanted to return to Berkeley either; we didn’t want to sink back into the staleness or torpor our lives had become, the sense of not belonging in every venue that had once seemed possible or promising. It was more as if our lives and life itself had been turned from the inside-out, not just the return to Maine but to be newly seventy, to be starting over in a different place, to be experiencing novelties and surprises continually, to be looping on the roller-coaster of incarnate life, only this time to be watching the loop rather than dazed and Cali-dreaming. Great and terrible both. The body and the mind do long for the familiar. But it’s all going to be taken away.

In less than a month after arriving in Portland, we were on a home exchange in New York City, for three weeks, from mid-December to after New Years. That had also been part of the plan behind the coastal shift: easy access to the cities Boston and New York, the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires too—friends in all of them. Being back in the city of my childhood made sense, felt right, especially reconnecting with family. But understand how long I had been away! Some of the sons and daughters of cousins that I was meeting anew at holiday parties were older now than I had been when I last saw them; they were married and had children older than they had been. It was a Rip Van Winkle sensation, of having awakened after a long sleep, a long sleep on the other coast: lots of regret, but at least I was awake. What a relief that I had been awakened for this glimpse of lucid light and return before the big sleep!

I will provide only one NYC story just for flavor (and because I am pulling it from an email ready-made):

I was on the subway, and this guy gets on at 59th and Lexington. He¹s got crates piled up like in China on a hand truck, really old vegetable crates, about eight in all, precariously stacked and then tied to one another with twine; he looks like a homeless person but also doesn¹t, because he¹s wearing a photo ID badge; it could, however, be one he found on the street, and he’s put it on like found jewelry. The car is crowded, but it gradually becomes clear that each of those crates has live animals in them. There are chickens running around clucking in one of them, some mice in another, something larger in another and, as other riders move away from him and clear the angle, I see that he¹s also holding two giant dogs on leashes. Everyone is staring. Finally someone says really loud, “The guy¹s got a fucking zoo.”

 

We returned to Portland at the start of a big snowstorm on the evening of January 3rd, just before the roads began ice. It was an old-fashioned journey from NYC through Connecticut, Massachusetts, the snippet of New Hampshire, into January darkness under a frigid, foreboding, aching-to-snow sky, the car trip bittercold and cozy alike. Out of doors, then back in, numerous times.

As the days pass, the issue of what am I doing here and what to do is pervasive, but then that’s partly transitioning to retirement, partly the unknown place and new home, being deeper in winter than I’ve been since 1976, each day a temperature and snow check. It’s already been well below zero at night, and one has to work not to let the ice build up on the driveway because once water turns to stone, it’s hard to remove it, and then the snow falls again. Yet we walk these streets and appreciate the sheer wonder of it, the world and existence itself, and this allegiance of kids who threw together in college and turned into full body-mind-soul partners. I will tell one adventure and be done with it:

Ice-skating was in my imagination from the beginning, and I’m not even sure what that means. I mean, I missed being able to skate all the time in California, but it was not even in the reckoning. I didn’t think about it as a serious thing except for one brief stretch in the eighties when I tried circling the rink at Iceland in Berkeley a few times.

When I imagined New England from Cali each winter, it was the snow and ice I most summoned—sledding, hockey, skating—the same snow and ice that I was so relieved to get away from when we moved by caravan in 1977. So I can’t kid myself about reentry four decades later. While other people were cross-country-skiing, snowshoeing, shoveling their driveways, playing hockey and put on skates, I was in Berkeley, helping to manage a publishing company, studying craniosacral therapy, doing t’ai chi, riding my bike around town as the most ambitious exercise or energy output, but maintaining no muscle memory or skills or habit around ice. Skating for me was vestigial at best.

What was my prior skating history? Well, I got put into skates young once I began going to my father’s hotel but, I think, even before that because my stepfather took us to his main account, the Nevele, in Ellenville, and they also had a rink. Getting skates on the kids was pro forma. Those were generic beginner’s models, I can’t remember, probably figure skates, and I didn’t get to use them too much because we lived in the City. We went to rinks like Wollman’s in Central Park occasionally or Rockefeller Center for a Sunday session, but they were way crowded and it wasn’t much fun. I stoically waited out the imposed ordeal.

That all changed around age fifteen when my cousins at Grossinger’s got into speedskating. After I arrived per usual during school vacation and saw that I had been left out, I wanted “in” too. It looked like so much fun, whizzing around the ice, plus that was the age of high athletic competitiveness as part of being a guy, a mensch, for godsakes a viable human being, so they bought me skates and lessons with the hotel pro Kurt (last name forgotten), and I got good. I got good because I was very into it and put my spirit and heart into it. Speedskating had a romanticism and a power, as I could try to outrace my melancholy and fear, convert them into energy and pleasure in my body, exhaust my anxieties and doubts. I would skate at night because it was my father’s hotel and I could break the roles (unless he found out, but no one else dared to stop me). My indulgence was to go to the closed rink, turn on full floods, put on some pop music (the score from West Side Story was my favorite) and race around for a half hour or so in the cold black, shifting the vibration of my thoughtforms, what in psychic work is known as changing the color of your crown. I wouldn’t have begun to understand that then, but I knew the effect and it was euphoric if a bit hyper. “Tonight, tonight/won’t be just any night….” was my theme song, when I could spur myself up to the fastest: “Tonight there will be no morning star.” What an image against the night and cold: another galaxy, a faraway star, a different life. Zoom, cut the corner low, make myself one with and meet the thoughtform, that cosmic moment—yet be in the body, the self, this world.

Thereafter, speedskating became a part of my prized repertoire until Lindy and I moved to California, and then it stopped abruptly except for that one brief homecoming at Iceland. Before California, I skated on ponds in Maine and Vermont, whipping around as fast as I still could, kindling teen nostalgia and enjoying lingering skill and the basic sensation. My edge was still there at Iceland. The surprise was that I even had skates bu then, but that was because one of my cousins had abandoned his pair at Grossinger’s and, when I went looking for a set in 1980, the skating-shop manager gave them to me and wonderfully they fit. I have no idea how or where that pair disappeared sometime after Iceland. I couldn’t find it for my last twenty-five years in California, any time I got the whim to go again, before Iceland closed. I don’t know how you can lose something as big as ice skates in a house, but I did at Woolsey Street, or maybe they got accidentally thrown out or someone took them.

My initial approach to renewing my speedskating self was to look online for a shop in Portland, a place at which to buy skates (of which I assumed there were many in the frigid north) and then to go out seeking a pond or public rink on which to test myself. I was also interested in pick-up hockey, but that’s another story that I will get to shortly. The trouble was that there was no such shop, and I scoured the Internet and even visited a couple of stores. My failed searches on the Internet eventually led to a Falmouth speedskating club run by a woman named Karen Schilling. I emailed her solely to find out where in tarnation to buy skates, but she converted those queries into an invitation to join the club, they met on Sundays; January 11th was my next opportunity, but then the 18th would be unavailable because they were doing club competitions. They rented the skates, what size shoe did I wear? That was a quick change of direction, but I was okay with it.

While the scene sounded well above my skill level, more competitive than what I was looking for, Karen was convincing. She said that they had older as well as younger skaters plus some beginners in their sixties plus, of course, lifers. I agreed to come on the 11th, but then, out of the blue, two days later, she emailed me that neither day would work, the 11th was out for new folks because of preparation for the competitions on the 18th. She promised that the club was for fun not competition, but conceded that they had a couple of races a year and this was the time. She urged me to come on the 25th and then thereafter.

But part of Lindy’s and my deal was to return to California and visit our adult children then, staying in Berkeley for a month and then LA for a month. We had already committed February and March to that. We also added a trip to Denver for Lindy to look up some lost cousins, so we were going to be leave on January 29th, return on April 1st. There didn’t seem enough sessions left at Karen’s club, just one, for a meaningful start.

I went back to asking Karen where to buy skates. She suggested Nordic blades. I had never heard of those, but I discovered online that there is a blade that gets attached to a ski boot. I called a number of shops, but the closest I could find to buy a pair was in Camden, almost two hours away. And Nordic blades weren’t cheap: boot plus blade plus binding landed somewhere in the high $300s.

I went back to looking for speedskates online and, after finding nothing on Craigslist, got myself deep in the eBay jungle which, as expected, offered plenty of everything, including more than a dozen classic pairs of speedskates (enticing photos as well) but in listings that rarely included the size. Once I began corresponding with sellers about size, I discovered that not only do shoe and skate sizes not correspond to each other (skates are a size to a size and a half smaller), but European, Canadian, and US sizes do not fully correspond either, so you need a comparative sizing chart to figure out the right one per each brand.

I worked on a combination of sizing websites and site exchanges with eBay sellers for several days and ended up with zilch. Most of the skates, if someone even answered, were dramatically the wrong size—for children or like boats. Two were in my size range. One of those pairs was offered for $360 and seemed perfect fit, but once I began inquiring, the seller removed them from eBay because, he said, he wasn’t getting any action at his price. Before that, he had had me trace my foot and measure the longest line: it was exactly the length of the skate. The other was offered at $1, free shipping, which made no sense until I wrote the auction house to get size confirmation (a size and a half too big) but also got told just to make a fair bid. I bid an immediate $8 bid, low enough to get stuck with the unusable skates, but someone marked “private bidder” immediately responded at $8.50. I bid $10, and “private bidder” bid $11. A couple of days later I bid $15, and “private bidder” bid $15.50. I became suspicious. Was private bidder the auction house itself in Minnesota, pushing its own price up? Was it someone with an automatic bid that would always top me?

I wrote Karen again with the link to the skates, and she told meat once not to get that pair, I wouldn’t be happy. I didn’t know if she meant the type of skates or the size-and-a-half gap, but I backed off and then, for the record, was told by eBay a few days later that they “got away” (their incomparable words). I’ve got to say, don’t you just love capitalism?, how it takes its right to message and have the last word as inviolable, takes it for absolute fucking granted, as knee-jerk by the scions of eBay and Google as the advertising madmen in 1955 for GM and Campbells Soup or Taystee Bread (that NYC staple of yore). The shopper is always re-invigorated, re-enlisted with a drumbeat, and his or her wins and losses are celebrated with the same fabricated upbeat phraseology, a kind of Orwellian muck that gets churned out by lackeys. “Sorry that you’re trying to skate again after forty years, but got away, dude!

Recently all of the high-organic-ingredient brands of Pamela’s Cookies disappeared from the shelves of stores, not just Whole Foods but everywhere, so I wrote them on their website, lamenting that the only ones we had been buying had all vanished. I got the following back from a Ms. Denise: “Unfortunately we did discontinue most of our Organic cookie line. We appreciate your interest in Pamela’s Products. It is only through relationships with our customers that Pamela’s is able to celebrate 26+ years in the natural food industry! Pamela’s passion has always been to create a food experience that will establish lasting memories for our customers!” Huh? How do those sentences even belong together?

It was mindless doubletalk, like a brief inattentive mumble followed by a prefabricated company line. I told Denise so and added that, if it was bottom life, why not just say so? She wrote back as a more humanized robot: “I am not sure what else I can say that would satisfy you. You won’t be happy we discontinued the cookies regardless of knowing it was a financial decision based on sales nationwide, and a total of 7 cookies were discontinued the beginning of this year.”

So shop on, you happy shoppers. Keep the cash register tingling, the subjective reality of capital alive in the hearts and minds of your customers, for we are consumers all.

Anyway I had moved on to hockey during my speedskate-purchase breakdown. If my speedskating credentials were dubious, my hockey ones were a total joke.

I became interested in hockey a couple of years after speedskating, as Irving Jaffee, the former Olympic racer who ran the winter activities at Grossinger’s, got hockey sticks and pucks for guests, family, and staff to play around with. But no lifting the puck because there was a huge plate-glass window for recreational viewing. No instruction either, just teach yourself.

From that beginning, I joined a few high-school classmates on a pond in Westchester for a Saturday pick-up game, a couple of times in fact. There were no boundaries, just chaos; none of us had even minimal requisite skills and the mis-shot puck rolled forever into the distance, or as far as momentum and inertia carried it along the frozen surface. At least I could skate, and that kept me in the game.

My one true hockey experience was sophomore year at Amherst when intramural hockey was an elective for required PE, so I took it for a whole semester and learned a bit from a coach about dribbling and passing the puck, receiving it with my blade on the ice. I never scored a goal but I took shots, and I loved the fray and the mood created by sticks and puck.

In Ann Arbor our first year (1966) I joined some pick-up games on ponds, but they were very fast, well over my head and I rarely touched the puck, so I stopped going, basically quit the sport. (In New Moon I tell pretty much every speedskating and hockey story I have.)

Yet hockey stayed in my head all those subsequent years. I summoned autonomous hockey images at odd times, like filler and links between thoughtforms: the puck hitting the crossbar, a pass from wing to center, a tip-in goal, a stolen puck. I lived out these fantasies only in a toy game with tin men and an oversized puck. In fact, I got good enough at that that almost no one could beat me. But it was a sorry substitute for real life, not as sorry as video games but close.

Getting started on pick-up hockey in Portland was a separate track from speedskating, though the same skating rink in Falmouth was ground-zero, no frozen ponds mentioned. I found the schedule online—12:00 noon to 1:30 virtually everyday of the week. On Friday, January 9th, I go up my courage to go for a look.

Falmouth is really close to North Deering. It is a matter of seconds to cross over the Portland line into Falmouth, less than a minute on Allen Avenue across the Presumpscott River, a right on Lunt Road, Lunt becomes Depot Avenue, turn right at Hat Trick Lane a hair before Highway 1: six minutes from my front door.

I watched the pick-up game. This was no pond choose-up reminiscent of Westchester or Ann Arobr. It was an indoor professional-size ice arena with a scoreboard, NHL standings by team insignia on the wall, regulation-size netted goals, not sticks or jackets to aim between, players in gear and matching shirts going up and down the ice. When I looked at these could and tried to gauge whether I could do it, I foolishly, idealistically imaged the toy hockey game, summoning to mind my skill at that, plus the fact that I had once been able to skate pretty well, plus my intramural experience at Amherst, plus watching the NHL on TV, and told myself yes, I could do this—even though the reality before me on the ice could have been the NHL for all its relevance to my actual skill level. Also I had not been on skates for thirty years and had not played hockey for more than forty-five, and even what I enacted was a mere taste, without significant skill training. My experience playing hockey on the ice amounted to a matter of maybe twenty to thirty hours total. I had spent a lot more time on the tin men with their levers. That was my skill set.

These guys, one would have to figure, had started before age ten, even before six, had skated and played all their lives, had been coached, and also had no forty-year drought from the sport. They lived in the climate and it came naturally to them. They had the full muscle memory and game logs in their brains.

In the equivalent baseball situation I was good enough to be on the field for any sort of pick-up. I had been well coached and played thousands of hours, hardball and softball, years of pick-up in Berkeley as a capper. Here I was a craven imposter. But I didn’t know it yet and didn’t tell myself so. That would have stopped me dead in my tracks, turned me around, back to the safety of home. But think about it: forty years or more of playing versus forty years or more of not even being on the ice. They were separate universes.

I waited till the game ended; then I followed the guys into the locker room and asked my questions; they were all ages, but those ages were younger than me; they started around a little more than the ages of my kids. Yes, I was invited; it was open to all. I needed equipment, not just skates but, bare minimum, shin guards, helmet, face guard, cup—add hockey gloves and black and white hockey shirts, as I found out later. I initially thought that I only needed one shirt, white or black (“definitely not red or green,” I was warned) because that’s the way you tell the teams apart during the action. I didn’t realize that you actually needed both black and white because you don’t know in advance what team you were going to be on.

As to where to get them, Play It Again, the major local winter sports and hockey shop, was unanimously recommended, and the place also carried second-hand items. I had already been there; it was the first place I went looking for speedskates, the start of my wild goose chase that yielded nothing. I was hesitant, so the guys at the rink told me to ask for Nate, a real tall guy, because he played with them; he would know how to help me.

I headed right down there, keep the momentum, but I was told that Nate was off till Sunday at 11, so I decided to postpone the matter till then. I did go around the shop pricing items. It was sobering—not much used gear left, and I didn’t see any way to come out at less than $600. This seemed an expensive gambit and for something that might not work.

The guys at the rink had also mentioned great prices on Craigslist, but the trouble with that was that there was no Portland Craigslist, only a Maine one, and pieces of equipment that I probably could have used were strewn tantalizingly across the state, most of them closer to Mount Desert than Portland.

I had another idea, though. I called everyone I knew: the tenant in the house we bought (who stayed on for eight months as our renter and was an athlete), near neighbors, friends. The only one who got back to me was our next-door neighbor Jeff who said that he didn’t skate and hockey was out of the question but a friend of a friend of his had a group of older guys who played Tuesday mornings at eight. He also might have some equipment. His name was Mike. I called Mike a few hours later. He didn’t have any equipment but invited me to the group. I gave him what by then was my stock line, “I haven’t skated for forty years and haven’t played hockey for fifty.” I should have added that I never really played hockey.

“Fine,” he said, “you’ll fit right in.”

I couldn’t get those hockey images out of my head or my body. It was a legitimate craving that brought me to Play It Again at just past 11, store opening time, on Sunday, but Nate, the guy in the Bruins shirt, folks said, was sharpening skates and the place was mobbed: kids, parents, teenagers, gear out all over the floor, people experimenting with sticks and pucks, faking shots, trying on Bruins and Maine Black Bear gear—this was hockey central, totally dizzying, like a movie rather than real life (where was the Ben Affleck character, where was Matt Damon?). I felt like an outsider; I was peering in from another dimension. Ultimately I gave up waiting for Nate and accepted the offer of another young guy, name tag Brad, who described himself and the other guys there as hockey bums, played as often as they could and the shop provided minimal employment.

To make a long story short, Brad got me outfitted for $362, the main bonus being a pair of $100 skates that might have been not only the cheapest adult skates in the store but the only ones that fit me, especially this late in the season when stock was down. He also found me a bargain CCM helmet with attached face mask and then good prices on the rest of the outfit. He also explained the necessity of gloves (you’re not supposed to but could get slashed by a stick) and both a black and white shirt. I felt slightly hallucinatory while enacting all this—I mean I had never even bought a cup before (“you gotta watch out for the guys who play dirty,” said one of the dudes in the locker room, “not supposed to but they’re sly,” flicking his chin in another guy’s direction while everyone laughed—but I kept at it methodically until the inventory was compete. Brad said he’d see me on Tuesday because he played in that game. I asked the difference between the 8 AM Monday game and the daily noon one; he said the noon one was faster.

Out the door at Play it Again at $362, and the experience was heady, a car full of impressive items that I tossed on the floor for Lindy to come downstairs and admire. That was the easy part—not easy but by comparison easy. Now came the hard part: seeing if any of it was real.

The first question was could I skate? Not only could I skate like the old days, but could I skate on hockey skates? Believe it or not, I had never worn hockey skates. I played intramurals at Amherst and pick-up pond hockey in Ann Arbor in speedskates; no one objected. I wasn’t looking for such indulgence now, and I didn’t know if I could regain my skating ability on an entirely different kind of blade.

I was determined to find out quickly. Brad has said that there was public skating on the pond next to the Falmouth Ice Arena that afternoon so, after lunch, I grabbed the skates and headed back there.

Lee Twombly Pond was a delightful Brueghel-like winter scene beyond the arena. There were figure skaters, hoi polloi skaters, kids pushing each other on chairs and plastic milk crates across the ice, panicked kids fleeing from to their parents’ arms across the ice against the flow, whole families, couples. Nothing to do but to dive in. I asked the guy next to me on the lace-up bench where to pay and he said, “Nowhere. Pay if you use the rink, the pond’s free for all.”

I squeezed my feet into the boots and laced up the skates, trying not to be impatient, to get them tight enough. It was difficult pulling those laces in the stiff newness of them and cold, and the hard cheap plastic pinched as well. I had felt that snap in the store too, but, again, they were the closest fit and $100 by comparison to the $300 minimum I had expected to spend.

I stepped on the ice and almost toppled over backwards. It was a wake-up call. I felt like a rank beginner as I stumbled along, barely keeping my balance, trying to get a feel for this. My mind told me that it wasn’t going to work, wasted money, $360, but my body adjusted. I gradually got my balance and a feel for the shorter blades. Soon I was whipping around the rink faster than anyone else on it and elated. I had swung from one extreme to another in about four minutes.

But soon enough the pendulum swung back. I realized that I didn’t know how to stop or turn corners. Either hockey skates were different from speedskates or I had forgotten the motion. I worked on the corners first. The blades wouldn’t hold my weight, and I didn’t trust them either, they skitted across grooves and caught, almost tripping me each time. Plus spots of foot pain were intense as I shifted my center of gravity and tried to dig in while bracing for a possible fall.

Then something occurred to me. I went back to the bench, got out my cell phone, looked up Play it Again, and phoned. Luckily a voice answered, “Play it again, Brad speaking.” I said “Hi, Brad,” and then asked if my blades were sharpened.

“No, that’s just factory steel. The cashier was supposed to tell you. We sharpen them for you. Well, if you’re at the Falmouth ice arena, just go inside to the shop and get them done.”

I worked my way indoors, then in and around underground passages, and found the skate shop. The indoor rink was even more crowded than Twombly Pond and much larger, a surprise since it wasn’t as nice and cost money. The ice contained a whole small village in motion.

It took only ten minutes to wait in the rental line and then get my blades sharpened, during which I watched Somalian families get fitted out with skates, totally riveting scene.

Back on the pond, I initially didn’t find my capacity much improved, and the sharper blades kept getting caught even worse in the many grooves, almost tripping me a number of heart-stopping times. But after a while, though, I began to trust the weight shift on the corners. Nothing spectacular but a beginning, one stride for real and then more of a fake turn, a pigeon step.

Stopping was impossible. The two times I tried I fell and got up dizzily, seeing floaters, and chastened. That was going to be a big-time problem in a game.

I went home with good news/bad news line, the good news being that I could still skate. Then I spent a half hour online looking at videos of how to stop on hockey skates, instruction by young men in uniform, meant for novice kid players. I wondered what my learning curve would be from mental image to physical act. Usually that was a tough one.

The saner idea was to wait for Tuesday and the slower group, but I was hell-bent to take the next step. I figured that I’d get to the rink well before noon onMonday, skate up, and see if I could have the ice to myself for a while, even practice with a stick and puck if they were provided.

It worked as imagined. I drove out in a medium-light snowfall, totally beautiful, Maine epiphany, parked by the rink, went in the player door, found the locker room, and put on my skates, no gear to start. I walked on blades like stilts pretty capably out on the ice, graceful compared to the day before. One other guy was skating on the gigantic rink. So I went around and around at a distance from him, sometimes making near approach, faster by degrees. I tried turning—a little better. I tried stopping, maybe a bit better; at least I didn’t fall.

Then suddenly there were pucks all over and goals being wheeled into place, fifteen guys on the ice. I fled to the locker room where other players introduced themselves, different ones from Friday, most of them in their twenties and thirties, maybe forties, hard to judge. I offered my stock line about forty years and fifty, but no one seemed to care or give it more than a quick laugh; they invited me to play.

I put on the gear. Well, I put it on and took it off, several times. First I remembered the shin guards but forgot the underpants with cup. Then I put that on and got dressed without the shin guards. When I started over, I missed that the sweat pants went over rather than under the shin guards, something I got right before the cup. Finally I was a suitable hockey manikin standing there, and one of the men helped me strap on the helmet, under the chin, studs above the ear. I chose the white shirt and walked boldly to the edge of the ice, got on, picked up one of the many pucks with my stick, and skated around with it, dribbling it on either side, every so often turning to shoot at the goal. The second time it went in from the blue line. I probably shot about fifteen times and got three in. Everyone else, however, was lifting, firing bullets, snaring the netting. I cringed every time I circled the net, afraid of being nailed, but folks were careful.

For five minutes I played around with pucks and shots and dribbling. Then all of a sudden these were being sent toward a container and someone was picking them up and dropping them in. I made myself useful by going to the nearest net and shooting the half dozen pucks loose and buried in it to the spot. It was a small victory that I got them all there at the right speed.

The pick-up game’s beginning was confusing, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Out of deference to skill, I left the ice for the bench, but I got shouted back on—I was in the starting line-up. The puck was dropped and reality set in. The change was immediate, from the toy game and watching NHL on TV and quasi-, heroically-enhanced memories of Amherst, to the sheer speed and force all around me. An intention not to get hurt took immediate priority. Burly guys were moving and turning on dimes very fast, and I was just trying to get the feel of my skates. I could barely maneuver, while going back and forth on the ice. I got near the puck but didn’t touch it. Then people were shouting. After only a minute or two, my shift was over and I was supposed to leave. Gradually I got it and didn’t have to be yelled off each time. That was the way it went for the whole ninety minutes, on for a minute or two, then off for three or four.

Basically five guys (and there was one woman) play per side, and the rest of you are on the bench, about ten per team altogether. As they tap out in sequence, you tap in. Coming to the bench, they shout out the number of replacements needed, depending on how many are leaving, usually “One in!”, often “Two!”, occasionally “Three in!”

You plunge over the boards, get into the play, go fullspeed for a minute or two. Then you tap out as you tire. Just getting over the boards onto the ice and, later, back onto the bench was challenging. At first I was the only player who needed to open the actual door instead of climbing over the boards, and I couldn’t even do that because it was tight and I was pulling the wrong way (it went in not out). By the end, I throwing myself over the boards onto and off the ice, not with aplomb, more like belly-flopping, but I was doing it, and that was a victory.

Though the game itself was way too fast for my reflexes and skills, it was exhilarating just to be on the ice amid the skating and passes, filling in the long-abstracted thoughtforms and body images. I was doing something important, I was somaticizing and internalizing tulpas, image sets, translating them into belief, action, and locale. Occasionally I got my stick on the puck, but it was taken away almost at once. I couldn’t skate well enough to get in the mix or handle the puck, and I couldn’t improve my puck handling without being able to skate more confidently. At one point the puck was right at my feet and I instinctively tried to kick it forward and fell down, which left me light-headed and spooked, after one more back and forth, I headed to the bench.

The experience reminded me of three things. One was Irving Jaffee who played “The Fox” once a year during Christmas holidays when Grossinger’s was packed with guests; that is, he skated around the rink in a fox suit with dollar bills, tens, and twenties attached by pins, and kids had to catch him or at least get near enough to pull off a bill. I never got even a one from Irving as the Olympic champion danced and spun and swirled in our midst, but I got tantalizingly close innumerable times. Few kids could get close enough to grab one until he slowed down. I was chasing the fox, and he had the puck. It also reminded me of how hard it was to feel the cerebrospinal pulse when I began craniosacral training. I couldn’t get it for a year and a half. And then I thought of George Plimpton, fake quarterback, fake pitcher, fake hockey goalie, in the mix secretly among the real dudes, the players, camouflaged until exposed. I was sure that I had been exposed and everyone knew.

Ninety minutes at that speed, even with breaks, was a very long drill, and I got into its rhythm. I was racing up and down the ice, not accomplishing anything, but the keeping roughly in the play, turning instantly as the puck changed hands, turning again when it was stolen or ricocheted back. That itself was the workout. After a while I realized that I was stopping and starting and turning more easily and even spinning around in place. I had to. That was a big gain and it held an esoteric lesson: you learn by doing, by being in the mix. Acts conceived and carried out abstractly are not as effective as by necessity. Just throw yourself into the ceremony and follow the leader. I could not stop worth a damn on Twombly Pond amid slow-moving families and kids, but I was stopping and starting as called for among fast-moving players, not nearly as slickly as them of course but enough not to be a rock in the stream. The transmission was almost telekinetic, telepsychosomatic.

I have learned things in the past that way: somatic palpation, hsing-i animal forms, psychic meditation and, briefly, aikido rolls. No matter how I set my head and torso on the matt I could not do a single roll in my aikido class, a form I soon quit anyway because I got motion-sick just trying, but one afternoon at Peter Ralston’s dojo, where more tai-chi-like forms were trained, during a kind of open-studio free martial play, I did a number of perfect rolls automatically because an opponent kept throwing me. The information was transmitted by contact.

Even my speedskating radically improved after Kurt had me skate a half hour of laps with Ray Blum, a world champion who raced under the sponsorship of Grossinger’s, one late afternoon on the rink after closing. Ray was training. As I followed this smooth racer around the ice, I became faster and smoother myself, and it stuck. My father had taken me to see Blum in the Silver Skates when I was about nine and, as promised, he came from last place to first in the final four laps. “That’s what he always does,” my father had exclaimed with a proud smile—his guy. “He lays back and saves his energy.”

On the ice that day in Falmouth, I was Ray Blum’s shadow. I stopped when I had to and turned as needed. I skipped all the intermediate lessons and, though the day was a failure in terms of accomplished hockey play, it was a success in that I had progressed exponentially past my original status of stumbling onto the Twombly ice less than twenty-four hours ago.

But then, wake up, Richard, there was also the reality: I was no once-upon-a-time or has-been hockey player reclaiming skills and moves. I was a never-was, imaginary hockey player. I had fiddled around a bit with hockey, fantasized and imaged it for ages, played with a mechanical miniature, that’s all. So to be allowed on the ice with the real players was a dream, and not to overly disrupt play was a victory, the only one feasible.

The game would have been fast for me under normal circumstances, but a few of guys afterwards told me that this was the fastest day they could remember because Maine and Bowdoin college players had dropped by on school break. Great! I had been in the NHL without knowing it. No wonder it felt so radical.

In the locker room I floated the notion that I shouldn’t come anymore and mess up their game, but I was encouraged back; they made it clear that the issue was desire to play, not skill. Who cared about skill? There was no score, no real outcome. If you wanted to be there, a place would be made for you. Yeah, you had to minimally skate and know how to carry a puck, but I could do that. The rest was forgiven because, again, there were no goalies, no standings; it was just an endless scroll of hockey praxis, hockey dance. Of course it was being enacted by people with hockey bodies who had internalized hockey for a long time. I could have made baseball plays but not hockey ones and, alas, they were not transferrable. In that regard, I was an outsider, an interloper, an imposter (a la George Plimpton), but they needed players to do their dance with. As long as I wanted to be there, I was cool.

I was now more ready for Tuesday morning than I imagined possible just two days earlier, immeasurably more ready than before the skate at Twombly. I had a body map and a starting point.

I was primed to wake up early, get myself dressed and out there, see if the action moved at a more comprehensible pace for me. In truth, I knew it wouldn’t. It couldn’t. You can’t not play and be at the same place as if you played. You can’t replace an unlived life with a lived one. There are no proxies. You can, however, be who you are and put your enthusiasm and imagination and edge on the line, like bowing before a shrine, with humility and admiration.

Early morning Portland to Falmouth was quite beautiful, street lights still on, snow under eastern dawnlight, quite a bit of traffic, difficulty entering Allen because of so many people in both directions headed to work.

I got to Falmouth Ice Arena, parked, and almost immediately thought that I had made a mistake, either wrong rink or wrong day, because indoors there were young guys in full uniform engaged in a game that looked pure NHL. I almost left before I saw some men in my rough age range getting out of cars. It turned out that there was an advanced league from 6:30 to 8 AM. People laughed when they heard my concern. “Just us old guys now. The kids’ll be off the ice by 8.” Our official start time was 8:10.

The hockey ritual started the same way. We skated around in an Easter Egg hunt of pucks. I didn’t shoot for the net this time—chump change I knew by now. Instead I tried to dribble the puck and kick it with my skate, circling the rink, holding my breath behind the net. When the pucks started retreating to the side boards, I sent mine that way too.

This game was a different format, more like real hockey. For one, there were goalies in full pads with mask and gloves. For a brief moment during the previous day’s scrimmage the puck had sat by my stick and I might have whacked it in if I have moved quickly enough. Someone whisked it away before I could make my move. My chance of scoring with a goalie blocking the net and making saves was just about nil.

Secondly, they played with blue-line rules: you could not precede the puck over the opponent’s blue line. That meant that we had to skate in disciplined arrays. Stampeding herds, ignoring position of the puck vis a vis players, was out of the question. When a team was offside, an opponent called out, “Off,” and play stopped, without an argument (except once). So when I found myself suddenly with the puck all alone skating toward the net, too good to be true, the word “off” was shouted several times, before I registered what was happening and that I was the object of those calls. I felt very tail-between-my-legs for my all-too-earnest approach to the net. I should have known that I wasn’t just being allowed to keep the puck because I had outmaneuvered anyone or was a nice guy.

Third, we didn’t substitute in random order, with anyone playing any position, forward or defense, and being substituted for by anyone else. I was initially a forward, then specifically told to stay on the left wing, then more specifically told that I replaced number 7 with the blue pants and got replaced by him. Every time he came off the ice, I went on. So, when I wasn’t playing, I watched him like a hawk. When I was in the gane, I tried to judge the proper length of a shift. Usually I had a cue, i.e., when my other line-mates left or after a goal or stoppage of play when there was always a shift in personnel because of the convenient pause.

On the bench defensemen sat with defensemen and forwards with forwards, a subtlety I missed initially, given our undifferentiated status the day before. To some of the guys it was hilarious that I took so long to get it. I was sometimes pushed or shoved in a friendly manner toward the right side of the bench. On one occasion a line-mate said, “You don’t want to be with those guys. We never have anything to do with defensemen if we don’t have to.”

I can’t tell you how many goals were scored on Monday because no one was counting and the puck regularly ended up in the net in a way that was of no great concern to players on either side. On Tuesday goals were few and far between, as either goalie usually made the save, even head-on shots.

For me the experience was marginally more successful, but only marginally. The formality of the game and positions exposed my lack of skills and experience more nakedly than the scrimmage on Monday. I was constantly out of position, leaving someone else to have to cover for me and come get the puck or take my man.

Yet on the other side I even made a few hockey plays, perhaps two in all. One of them really stood out. Having crossed to the wrong side of the net, I found the puck passing by me, stopped it with my stick, and swung it back to another player, perhaps the center, who lo and behold scored, maybe a one-in-ten chance from his spot. I was congratulated. Another time I fought for the puck and kept it inside the blue line. Otherwise, I was useless. I stayed out of the way of stout, fast-moving freight trains, acrobatic spinners going up and back the ice and, when one of the more experienced players yelled advice, like for me to get inside position, I was afraid that I didn’t have the balance to stay on my skates and also fight for the puck with leverage, so I didn’t risk it. There was too much talk about MRIs, X-rays, and broken bones on the bench; in fact, it was one of the choruses of the day: $600 for an X-ray, $1300 for an MRI, “expensive sport!”

By pure luck I was on the ice for more goals than goals against us, off the ice for more goals against us. If you asked me the final score, I’d say it was something like 9-8 either way. I don’t think that anyone really knew. Most of the goals were not designed plays; those passes almost never worked. The scores were solo rushes or pokes after the goaltender failed to make a save, gave up a rebound in diving or flopping.
We played seventy-five minutes and, when players started to leave around that point, I asked the guy next to me when we were supposed to be off the ice, figuring we probably had fifteen more minutes, he said, “Fifteen minutes ago, so they’ll kick us off pretty soon.”

In the locker room, I enjoyed the banter and jibes. It was thrilling and a bit intimidating that French, or more specifically guttural Quebecois, was in the air, though not much beyond “bonjour” and some names of players. We had transplant Canadians in our midst. The Monday people were older, none as old as me probably, but well into their sixties. Yet they were playing a game their bodies recalled, not learning a new form. One was a psychiatrist, called Doc of course. I found that out as I was reassured that there was a doc on hand just in case. Brad was there too, living another day of the hockey bum’s life. When it became clear via his and my initial dialogue that Play it Again didn’t sharpen my skates, the older man speaking Quebecois (name turned out to be Guy Rousseau) wanted to know what cashier it was. I thought maybe he was the owner, which turned out to be sort of true; his son was. There were also other young clerks from Play it Again, and they remembered me too: as the guy who came to shop twice and didn’t buy anything but came back a third time, was looking for Nate but settled on Brad. Some mild applause for Brad. Yes, I was observed when I thought I was invisible. I was marked.

Plenty of talk about “the wives” and their okays or disapproval of this activity (“gets me out of the way, as long as I don’t break my neck”), talk of other players not there and their eccentricities, like the eighty-year-old guy who went blue line to blue line only. “That’s all he does. But he makes great passes and wants the puck back.” That was more than I could claim, a resumé of real hockey plays, a reminder that it wasn’t baseball, wasn’t transferrable by wishing it so.

All this time, people were dressing down from their hockey duds, getting into street clothes, transforming back. Male bodies, ageless and aging, taut and slack, flesh and skeleton as assigned and metabolized, shaped and reshaped, dilated and shunken, by time and life choices, by desire, as well as, of course, by genes and heritage. I thought a privilege to share the carnal turf with other men.

In the locker room before and as well as after and on the bench I felt an undercurrent of kinship and male bonding that I had missed for a long time without knowing it. To be in a gym dressing room with men, to undress and dress in their company, to experience their gentle roughnesses and friendly gruffness was nourishing, like earth guides taking care of me. I know the spirit guides much better, or at least give them more of my attention. I know my role and body as a man with a woman in a marriage. The locker room reminded me again, acutely and poignantly, as a man who lived most of his life with a woman, the difference between women and men and which one I was. I needed this.

It was a ritual for me, a coming-of-age ritual too late, but not too late. As one of the guys said to me when I appeared in the locker on Friday, “Sounds like a mid-life crisis,” to which I replied, “Way past that.”

When I went to hand my ten to Mike as my payment for playing, I was apologetic again and mused that I needed lesser competition. Then someone shouted from the other end of the room, “If you want to play, you’re stuck with us. We’re as low as it gets. There’s no game beneath this one.”

Mike added, “Think of it this way, where else can you have this much fun for ten dollars, and this early in the morning?”

The delicate frost crystals awaiting me on the car window and the fine powdery snow blowing about were saying, “Maine okay.” Maine was where lobsterfishermen initiated me into adult life, where I got my first job, where I first experienced a psychic vortex and felt guided by a higher-dimensional intelligence, where Lindy’s and my origins were most palpably strewn about the fields with wildflowers and fireflies, though I was a New York City boy and she a Denver girl.

I would say finally that the secular is the most sacred space of all, and that what the Earth itself means is that the sacred has become secular. Only in certain spiritual traditions are you advised not to attach to this life too fully or participate in these worldly experiences with a whole and open heart. Because then you’re headed to big-time grief and suffering.

Yet I feel that there is only a secular path to real spiritual states, in the universe itself, the big starry fold, if not the particular ordained tradition. On the ice in the mix, I experienced that all my spiritual meditation and internal work exploded magically and incomprehensibly into a wonder the size of the cosmos or, more accurately, showed me why the cosmos is so large, as large and complex and poignant as it is. I realized that I can’t escape sacred space, that is, I can’t escape internalization and worship of this creation. It had always been that way and would probably always be that way, to the end.

Secular action is also when my sacred practice deepens by leaps and bounds. Daring to skate and play with the guys above my level instantly improved my other practices and thoughtforms. Apropos nothing per se (or everything), euphoria is grief and grief is euphoria, always.

I have lots of regrets, that I didn’t train this stuff earlier, that I didn’t practice yoga or Zen or hsing-i animals, let alone play hockey or basketball when younger, or rehearse what I did learn more consistently so that I didn’t forget forms (which I did). What I don’t regret is the gumption and desire and courage, if courage is what it is and wherever it comes from (because I am not courageous about all things), to put myself there and taste the world, taste those tangs of experience firsthand. I fear that I was merely indulged by the other players, being humored, but I don’t fear not bringing spirit, and an honest heart, to their ceremony.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: