Inside Aging

anciebt tree

I am 72. That is not old these days. I am sure there are Hiroshima-bomb-year-baby peers out there running marathons. Poor bastards. But it is old enough to set up a few informative signs along the path downhill. I remember the Burma Shave signs.

Sign #1: No one is watching. No one really gives a fuck what you do, so relax. It does not matter what you wear, as long as you are decent and not flamboyantly overdressed. No one is going to look at you anyway. You are functionally invisible. That no one, by the way, includes any deities. By now you have outlived that fairytale.

Sign #2: Time is tricky. Sure, in science it helps to pretend we have corralled time with numbers into some sort of lockstep, but you know better. The real clock is chaos. Time is not solid; it is liquid and vapor, an aurora borealis. Ask a hawk what time it is. There are languages that have no word for time. Five years ago? Five days ago? Not yet? What is the difference? Hard to grasp? Wait, you will find out. Time thins and pales and vanishes like hair.

Sign #3: Perfection is an illusion. Life is a mess; that is why it works. Evolution is always correcting itself (or fucking up again). Learn to savor the faults in things. As the poet Charles Olson learned: “The only thing that does not change / is the will to change.”

Sign #4: Your inner voice is your best friend. There may have been a time when it gave you bum advice, back when hormones had a say; but now it is one hundred percent on your side. It only wants to help. After all, where would it be without you?  My inner voice has become a sort of son, cautioning the old-man brain inside my head. “One thing at a time, gramps.” “You left it in the other room.” “Watch the step.”  We have our laughs.

Sign #5: Go slow. No rush—all your potential is behind you.

There are a couple more, but I forgot them.


The Teargas Years

teargas Berkeley

I had gotten to learn Strawberry Creek Canyon pretty well. It was my favorite escape on campus, a gash of green nature cutting through the cement and pretense. I had walked it when the creek was in flood, trying to figure out how far I could kayak it before being beheaded by a bridge. It was a channeled hint of what once had been wild in Berkeley before the university was plopped there. It wasn’t Doe Library.

This was almost fifty years ago, when I was a grad student there in the anthro department.  Ronald Reagan was governor. The rotten war in Vietnam had gotten rottener, had spread. Many of my peers were either dying or staying stoned in Southeast Asian rice fields and jungles. America was on another killer mission. Meanwhile, back on campus, classes and seminars went on, as students spared by the draft—women, the unable, and lucky draft-lottery winners like myself—pursued our studies, hopeful of careers untinged by Agent Orange.

The protests against the war had been sustained for years, so long that they had come to partly define, partly shape a semi-generation of people who cared enough to continue to object. At the time, much of the nation did not appreciate us. My Republican patriot father banished me, a Commie. No one thought our government would lie. Our enemy wasn’t even white—yellow-peril gooks in black pajamas.

I had first met teargas at a protest in New York years before, when my major concern had been not getting counter-protestors’ red paint splashed onto the fine, baby-blue, Irish-wool sweater my girlfriend had just given me. I was unprepared. I learned to always carry a cowboy bandana and a small plastic bottle of white vinegar in my backpack. They helped a little, but not much. Maybe they only helped psychologically. I’m a smoker. I know how to cough. The eyes are worst.

For two successive spring semesters the Cal campus was shut down, either by student strikes or administrative lock down. Reagan hated the university, did everything he could to cripple it—a campus with more Nobel Laureates than most countries. For eight years he refused to either visit or convene its governing board of regents there. It was like the other side had gone to all this trouble of drawing a line between us. Yet another American killer mission.

It was a perfect Bay Area late spring day. It had been a wet winter, and everything with roots was eager to be green. Strawberry Creek was cleansing its stream banks. A dozen of us sat around a long table in a high-ceilinged, oak-wainscoted conference room. A Professor Dundes seminar on folk epics or something. I don’t recall. No spring daylight came through the tall plywooded-over windows, but we all could see the wisps of teargas seeping in the cracks. Outside, down by Sather Gate, we could hear the confused sounds of confrontation. This was ridiculous. We all, including Professor Dundes, gave up pretending, packed up, and left. I went to the demonstration.

At times that spring there seemed to be as many men (all men) in uniform on campus as there were students. And the men in uniform were armed—sidearms and billy clubs mainly, but also guys with teargas grenade launchers. The students were unarmed. In all the weeks of protests, I don’t believe a single officer was injured. Any injury would have been big news. The uniforms also had the gas masks. That day we got gassed from above. An army helicopter swooped low over Sproul Plaza, spewing an indiscriminate cloud of gas. If you were there, there was no escaping it. My vinegar-soaked bandana was no protection.

I retreated to the trees along the creek to await the recovery I knew would slowly come, as my burning eyes would relearn to focus and my nose and throat would clear. My bandana became a snot rag soaked in tears and mucus. I headed for home. My way home was past the ROTC compound and Edwards Baseball Stadium. In the road outside the stadium, an olive-colored army truck, one of those with a green canvas Conestoga cover, was laying on its side, both in flames and totally ignored, not a person in sight. Godard surreal, the only soundtrack the crackling of the flames and occasional small explosions from inside the truck.

Then behind those sounds, there was the low roar of a crowd reacting to something inside the stadium. I went to check it out. The gates were open, unattended. There was a baseball game in progress, Cal vs. Stanford. Cal had runners on second and third. A run had just scored, and a white 1 flopped into place on the center field scoreboard. I sat to watch the end of the inning. In the distance you could hear the helicopter as it made another Plaza drop. Disperse, ye rebels. Cal is mounting a rally against its arch rival.

All classes were cancelled after that, not to resume that semester. But I was back on campus the next day. The anthro grad students wanted to issue some sort of statement. It was one of those meetings that makes no one want to attend meetings, but some sort of document of solidarity was cobbled out. I went back to the demonstration, just another body added to the chanting throng. Today, the full panoply of paramilitary California law enforcement was on display. Not just campus cops and Berkeley cops, but CHP and National Guard, and squads from all the local counties sheriff’s departments. The most notorious of these were the Blue Meanies, the blue-jump-suited, black-helmeted Alameda deputies, in full riot gear, including three-foot black wooden batons. The highway patrol contingent was the most restrained, most professional. You got the impression they were embarrassed to be there. The Blue Meanies were there for sport and blood and bashing-hippie bragging rights.

I remember thinking how strange it was that a movement based on the belief that the state had no need for enemies either foreign or domestic was now the enemy of the state. I stopped to write down, any enemy of enemies is my enemy. The teargas canister landed about three feet away from me. I kicked it away and headed in the opposite direction. It scattered the crowd of protestors, broke it open. And the Blue Meanies, in grotesque, outdated gas masks, rushed into the gap, swinging their black bats. I was fumbling to get my notebook back into my backpack, the gas already stinging my eyes, when he decided I was his prize.

This is where Strawberry Creek comes back into the story. It was only ten yards away, and I made for it—out of the gas, but with my own, personal Blue Meanie only steps behind me. It was mud to the first boulder, but he took it quick on his ass. His baton hit the rock where I was standing. He had missed. After that, it was a piece of cake. Adrenalized, I gazelled up the stream bed, while he floundered from boulder to pool. He was screaming obscenities now, as if enough fucks would stop me. I looked back. Behind my predator, on his hands and knees now in the gleeful water, the white chemical fog closed out the canyon. Sometimes I still can smell it, or think I can. That was a long time ago.

There Is No Campus 911

college campus 1

Catherine had hoped but not anticipated that it would be this easy. Maybe, in a way—she had no one to admit it to—she even felt a little bit miffed that it had been so painless. Perhaps he really was as soulless as she had accused him of being, and she hadn’t hurt him at all. The prick. It helped, of course, that they were in different departments. That made it easy for him to avoid her. But she and Seth were co-chairs of the interdepartmental symposium series on multicultural diversity, so on Thursday she wore the mint green raw silk blouse and the charcoal Lord & Taylor slacks. He would have to be there for their guest lecturer. Everyone would be there. Dr. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was quite a catch, and Catherine would be introducing her.

The way the spider webs had blown against the screen they made a road map. It wasn’t oriented north-south, but he could imagine the brightest, straightest line being the Interstate and the other more random lines being the state and county roads. That imaginary intersection of back roads there he decided was College Station. In his mind he traced the roads back out to the Interstate. Then the late autumn sun was eclipsed by a cloud, and the map vanished from his office window screen. Seth supposed he could take some sort of comfort from the fact that no on else seemed to like her. More than one of his department colleagues had referred to her as the “Anthrobitch.” Male colleagues.  Unsolicited. Of course, he had never even mentioned that he knew Catherine beyond their co-chairing the symposium series. As the new man there, he didn’t yet have a personal life in anybody else’s mind. Perhaps he never would. In any event, he had a symposium talk to go to. As we was leaving his office he realized that he would just be listening today, so he paused long enough to take several good tokes on the hash pipe he kept hidden behind Keats on his bookshelf.

Catherine got to the lecture hall ten minutes early and it was already almost full, but Dr. Saki-Hopkins wasn’t there. For a minute she panicked—what if their off-campus guest couldn’t find the building or the room? She walked to the front door of the building, looking everywhere, and there, still a hundred yards away but walking toward her on the diagonal sidewalk across the quad, was her guest speaker, dressed in her trademark long denim skirt and leather jacket, a wide streak of white in her bush of black hair. Walking beside her was Seth. They were deep in conversation. They stopped, still well short of the building and out of ear-shot, still not seeing her waiting there, and Dr. Saki-Hopkins lit a cigarette.

Initially he had been sort of flattered. Even though it was his first semester on campus, he had been asked to co-chair the inter-departmental symposium series with the distinguished and tenured anthropology professor. Then he got to meet her and was surprised to find her attractive, friendly, and not much older than himself. A few working lunches and meetings went smoothly. In spite of her seniority, she didn’t seem at all controlling and readily agreed to his curriculum suggestions. He would take the lit/fine arts part, and she would take the anthro/culture part. Then one day she asked him to stop by her office. She had a favor to ask him. It was a book-length manuscript she was working on. It wasn’t really in her field, and she felt uncertain about it. He was the English professor. Would he take a look at it for her?  What she didn’t tell him, and what he didn’t discover until he had the manuscript home and started to read it, was that the book was a rather frank and very descriptive autobiography of her sexual life, starting with her first discovery of a garden hose and moving through early adventures with her mother’s boyfriends onto grade school and high school conquests of her classmates. And that was only through page fifty, where he stopped the first night to masturbate again.

When Dr. Saki-Hopkins and Seth came up the front steps of the building where Catherine was waiting, they were both laughing. “So, the shit missed the fan entirely,” Dr. Saki-Hopkins said. She butted out the filter end of her cigarette against an iron railing and stuck the butt into her jacket pocket. Seth made a point of introducing them, as if they hadn’t met before, as if Angelica wasn’t her invited guest speaker. Then he smiled that goofy smile of his as if he had just said or done something clever and left them there, headed into the lecture hall. Catherine gave Angelica a sisterly hug and told her how glad she was to see her again. Angelica smelled of cigarettes and sweat and asked to be reminded where they had met before. On their way into the lecture hall Catherine asked if Angelica would be speaking on her scheduled topic, the cross-cultural roots of gender dominance, and Angelica informed her that she wanted to talk about a new topic, gender roles as revealed in the folk humor of Native American and African cultures. “It’s about time we got some laughs out of this, isn’t it?” she said. Catherine stopped to make some quick notes on the backs of her typed-up three-by-five cards.

Seth found that he made very few editorial marks on Catherine’s manuscript. There were the usual occasional syntactical, grammatical, and typographical errors to be cleaned up, but he quickly grasped that that was not his function. He was being asked if this work was a classic of erotic confession and self-revelation or just another piece of pornographic trash. It is truly difficult to write anything about promiscuous sexual behavior that doesn’t sound clichéd. There are only so many things you can do with a pair of aroused bodies, and only so many ways to describe what gets done. At first, he did note that the narrator seemed to prefer only private one-on-one heterosexual trysts, but as the book progressed into and out of puberty the scope of encounters gradually widened. He was far from an expert on erotica, but he had trouble imagining anything colder and more clinical than her prose. He wondered if she had kept a diary—it would have been more like a laboratory journal—for all those years, or if all of this in all its specific detail was still locked into her long-term memory. Had she herself gotten off reliving and writing it? It wasn’t as if she was apologizing for or rationalizing anything.

Catherine had booked the largest lecture hall on campus for today’s talk, the one in the Life Sciences building. She was glad she had. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was a big draw. Students came because they had seen her on cable talk shows. Faculty came to witness and be jealous of this anomaly—one of them, an academic, who had somehow parlayed a campus job into a career as a minor celebrity. Angelica had said she wouldn’t need any AV hook-up, no PowerPoint or slide show, just a microphone if the hall was large. A student techie assured Catherine that the podium mike was ready, and she was about to go on and begin her introduction when she got word to wait a few minutes. The university president was on his way but late. Angelica was seated in the front row beside Seth, who was leaning back casually, legs crossed, as if waiting for a basketball game to start. Catherine waved and caught Angelica’s eye and gestured that it would be a minute or two. Seth looked at her as if she were a visitor from another planet. Her hand went to the neck of her blouse, smoothing it against her collar bone. He looked so young sitting there, his big hands clasped around his knee.

Actually, he had never finished reading her manuscript. After about a hundred and fifty pages he had returned it to her, inadvertently allowing himself to be enlisted as subject matter for her next chapter. It was the first really cold night of autumn when he walked to her house north of campus and dropped it off, sort of disgusted with himself for having read as far into it as he had. She blushed like a girl when he handed it back to her, just inside her front door and said, “Not for me.” She asked him inside for a drink. She had a fire going. She wanted to tell him why she had written it. Or not. He could just have a nightcap and go, his reward for bringing her book back to her and not burning it. “No, no, never set fire to it,” he told her. “But be careful. It might spontaneously combust.”

She writes the fuck scenes. Seth supposed that she would have made notes for that night. One shared Scotch on the rocks leading to two, the second brought back from the kitchen along with a slim but potent joint. Her sending him out to the deck for more firewood and his resuscitation of the fire. Their laughing argument about slapstick films and her nimble impersonation of Stan Laurel. The soft punch thrown, the first touch, the kiss. The fact that she wore no underwear. How naked on top of her in front of the fire, one side of his body was bright and hot and the other side was dark and cold. He liked taking her. She loved being taken. The fact that it meant nothing beyond just doing it together was fiendishly freeing. She writhed beneath him, somewhere else altogether, some wonderfully ancient familiar place. Then she clung to him and purred, purred like a cat that had been fed and caressed. He remembered the soft fragrant smell of her mixed with the smell of the fire. It was an act well worth repeating.

Dr. August Boucher, the university president, was famous for arriving late, but he always made his entrances unembarrassed. Catherine didn’t mind waiting for him. This was a plus. President Boucher had never before attended one of their symposium lectures. As the minutes crept past the hour, the audience grew a bit restless. Catherine saw faculty members pull out their cell phones and students start text-messaging. Everyone knew that as soon as the lecture began the electronic message blocking device in the lecture hall would be turned on—a campus rule. She went to the podium and said into the microphone that they were waiting on one more distinguished guest, if they would be patient just another minute or two. President Boucher’s entrance caused only a little stir. He strode to the front row, giving Catherine at the podium a patronizing smile.  Did he even know who she was? He found Dr. Saki-Hopkins in her front row seat and shook hands with her, then with Seth, who had also stood to greet him. The three of them spoke for a minute, President Boucher clapping them both on the back, then taking the seat on the other side of Angelica from Seth. Catherine studied her three-by-five cards, then began by welcoming president Boucher and the other distinguished faculty members. She introduced herself as chair of the symposium on multicultural diversity. She didn’t mention Seth, who didn’t seem to notice. He seemed to be staring intently out a high window to his left, over Angelica’s head. She ran through Angelica’s bona fides—her books and papers and appointments and awards. Catherine felt at home behind a podium with a microphone in front of her. She stated the overall purpose of the symposium and tried to contextualize Angelica’s presence there, but was unsure where to go with the new humor in gender role topic that Angelica had just substituted. She said something about an original thinker always at the cutting edge of her discipline, then called Angelica up to the podium. Applause. Not for Catherine, she realized, of course, but for Angelica.

Seth had never been with a woman for whom orgasms were so easy and frequent and so seemingly meaningless. Their trysts were like secret yoga classes, set according to her busy schedule. He didn’t mind. His social calendar wasn’t exactly packed, and he got a teenage kick from their clandestine meetings. He also had to admit that he found frequent passionate sex unencumbered by any hint of courtship or public display quite preferable to his earlier attachments. He recognized some of her techniques from her chronicles, so he was not surprised and went with them. It was almost like a one-on-one seminar. And afterwards she was always sweet, almost girlish. He never spent the night. She made sure he left nothing there at her house, not a trace of him except his semen inside her. They never discussed contraception. He figured she didn’t bring it up because someone with a history like hers would have dealt with that a long time ago, and besides at the urging of his first graduate-school wife years before he had had a vasectomy. He never even thought to mention it. It wasn’t something he was proud of. The applause in the lecture hall brought him back. Catherine had been talking, and he had been watching the flights of Canada Geese high in the sky out the lecture hall windows—not so much Vs as ragged check marks headed south. There was always something melancholy about that sight, the feeling of being left behind. Angelica put a hand on his knee as she stood up. “Wish me luck,” she said. “I’ve never been a comedienne before.”

“Knock ‘em dead,” he said.

Catherine saw Angelica’s hand on Seth’s leg and their whispered exchange as she rose to come to the podium. It crossed her mind to go take the seat beside Seth that Angelica had vacated, but that would be too obvious. And what would she say to him? The truth? That she missed him and that she was now suddenly jealous of him with that notorious cougar Angelica Saki-Hopkins? She picked up her three-by-five cards and took a seat off to the side of the podium. It had been ten days since she had sent him packing, furious with him, and he had not once tried to contact her. Of course, it was over, but she had found no one to replace him and she had confessed things to him that no one else knew. She had told him she wanted to have his baby, and he had as much as laughed at her. “Sex and parenthood are two different things,” he had said. “We may be suited for one but not the other.” Either he didn’t understand that she didn’t want him as a parent of her child just as its biological father or he was saying that he didn’t think she would make a good parent. She thought she would make a fine parent, and she thought it was time to find out, time to move on to the next level. She would record it all, keep a detailed journal of motherhood. She had had her IUD removed after her first luncheon meeting with Seth, having decided he was an ideal sperm donor. But that night ten days before, curled up together under her down comforter after sex, when she had told him she hoped she was getting pregnant, he had just shaken his head and said, “No, no, bad idea, impossible, can’t happen.” And she realized that he didn’t care at all about her, her needs and dreams. He was just fucking her. And she felt used. How dare he not care after she had repeatedly given herself so totally to him.

Angelica took the microphone from its stand at the podium and looped its wire free. “I don’t like those things,” she said, walking away from the podium. “They remind me too much of pulpits. It doesn’t seem right that I’d be standing there above you and you all are sitting there. Can I have a chair here, please? In traditional societies the story teller is always on the same level as her audience, both physically and socially, and I am here today not as an academic, nor as a woman, just as a story teller.”

Seth watched her move. There was an unhurried ease and sway in her stride, as if she were strolling barefoot through her own kitchen. Her gaze was down. The techie brought out a folding chair for her. She moved it closer to her audience. “I want to thank Seth and August and Cathy for inviting me here. I’d never been to your campus before. You could use more trees.” She sat down on the chair, her legs apart, and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. “What I’m going to do today is tell you some jokes. You probably won’t think them very funny because they’re not from our culture, but where they come from they got a laugh. I call them gender jokes, because they’re told by members of one sex about members of the other, the opposite, the oh-so-opposite other sex—guy jokes about gals, gal jokes about guys.” Angelica sat up straight in the chair and looked out over the heads of her by now hushed audience. She paused, holding the microphone against her bosom.

Catherine hated being called Cathy. She bridled at Angelica’s casualness. Would the president think that all of their symposia were just joke sessions?  The woman had no text or notes. What was she going to do to fill her forty-five allotted minutes? Catherine had to admit, though, that the pause was effective. Angelica had the by-now standing-room-only audience in the palm of her hand. Then the pause didn’t end. It just went on. Angelica didn’t move, her gaze up at the high windows at the back of the hall never wavered. The microphone remained at rest on her chest. A minute went by. Was she channeling her jokesters? Was this part of her routine?  The silence became uncomfortable, and members of the audience began to fidget in their seats. Before sitting down Angelica had moved her chair up closer to the first row where Seth and Dr. Boucher were seated. Now Seth leaned forward toward her. Then in a crouch he went up to her. Angelica didn’t move. He put a hand on her left arm where it rested on her thigh and said her name. The microphone picked it up so that everyone could hear— “Angelica?” No reaction. He looked back toward Dr. Boucher, who came to join him. No one knew what was going on. Catherine put a hand to her mouth.

There was nothing in her eyes. Seth had never seen such a vacant stare. It was as if a switch had been thrown and Angelica’s lively laughing dark eyes had instantly gone totally dead. She was still sitting upright and breathing softly. Except for her eyes she looked at rest. Then a thin line of saliva appeared from the corner of Angelica’s mouth and started down her chin. Dr. Boucher was now squatted down beside him. He too said her name. “Angelica, are you alright?” Again, the microphone broadcast it into the hall. Seth reached up and gently took the microphone from her hand to turn it off, but not before everyone heard Dr. Boucher say, “Stroke.” Then Catherine was there, acting hysterically, shaking Angelica by the shoulders, telling her to wake up. “Do something,” she yelled at Seth. “Call 911, call the campus clinic.”  Dr. Boucher pulled out his cell phone, but the electronic message blocker was on in the hall and he could get no signal.

“I’ll go,” Seth said. He knew it was useless, but he wanted to leave. He desperately wanted to leave that place. He went out the side fire-door exit and started to run. The campus clinic was on the outer edge of the campus, and he settled into a long loping stride. It felt good to run. He looked back. No one was behind him, either following him or chasing him. He was all alone, running. stretched out and free. He should run more often, he thought.


The Disease of His Need for Women

traffuc jam

Well, at least he wasn’t delivering cement. Not that Joey ever had delivered cement, but he could imagine that knowing the stuff slushing around in the big drum behind you could turn into solid concrete if this traffic jam proved too endless might arouse its own variety of anxiety. Which Joey did not feel even though he wasn’t moving. The audio tape he had on was of an exercise program: “Now repeat—bend and stretch and one two three four.” He had taped the soundtrack of one of Sandy’s early morning exercise shows. A woman’s voice with a slight alien accent. From her breathing you could hear her doing the exercise. He found it soothing. He used to listen to that every morning as he woke up and Sandy worked out in front of the TV set in the other room. He would roll over and go back to sleep to dreams dictated by his dawn erection.

What Joey had on the flatbed behind him was not going to turn to stone—a full load of rolled turf, stacked piles of it like giant green-and-brown jellyrolls. There had to be an accident on the bridge. That’s the only thing that could lock the highway up this bad. There was no traffic in the two on-coming lanes, so all four lanes across were closed ahead. They hadn’t moved in five minutes, so Joey turned off the Peterbilt and got out of the cab to stretch his legs, have a cigarette, and check his tie-downs—funny load, turf. A woman in a silver Camry in the other lane buzzed down her window to ask him why the hold-up, as if truck drivers were supposed to know everything. A good looking woman, his age but well maintained. “Haven’t the slightest, ma’am,” was all he said. She was dressed as if she had somewhere to go.

Joey had a theory that everything happened for a reason, even if the reason rarely if ever had anything to do with him. Everything that happened happened because it had been scripted, not by any god but by something much simpler, call it fate. It wasn’t predestination. That shit was way too personal and self-important. What was salvation anyways? Maybe preordained was closer. Shit happens because shit was meant to happen, and people were like meaningless markers being moved around—not like named chess pieces but like the individually unimportant little marbles in Chinese checkers. The first rule was that it has nothing to do with you. Here they were all stuck on this fine afternoon on this actually rather pleasant piece of country highway lined by woods because up ahead the cross hairs of fate had caught some stranger at the moment of their fatal mistake. Sooner or later everyone makes that fatal mistake. This afternoon it was someone else’s turn. There was no escaping it, nothing personal. Shit happens. It was like the wild fire. In the end everyone said he had started it, but the fire had been doomed to happen anyway. He just happened to have been there as its agent.

Joey strolled to the rear of his rig. The stopped traffic stretched as far as he could see up the grade to a curve behind him. All that painted metal shimmered like a florescent snake with the sun behind it. There was a nice breeze blowing down the cut that the road made toward the water. That woman in the silver Camry was wasting gas keeping her engine running so that she could sit in her car with the windows up and her air-con on when it was such a beautiful day outside. She had fine collar bones. Joey ground the filtered butt of his cigarette into the pavement with the toe of his boot. He’d go back and tell her. Then the peaceful breeze-swept silence of the scene was broken by the loud honking horn of the white Chrysler right in front of him. With a start Joey looked up at the man behind the Chrysler’s wheel, an older gent, white-haired and red in the face. He was yelling something as he leaned on his horn, but Joey couldn’t hear him because his windows were up too. Joey shrugged and raised his hands in a question. What? Sitting beside the white-haired man was a blue-coifed wife with a sour look on her face. Joey walked up to the driver side window. “What’s the problem?” he asked.

The white-haired man buzzed his window down about five inches. “What do you think you are doing, lollygagging about on the highway smoking when we could begin moving again at any minute? “

“People like you,” his wife added, leaning toward the half-opened window.

“Look, Mac,” Joey said, gesturing ahead. “I’m not the problem. The problem’s up there a mile or so.”

“And you are compounding it,” the man said.

“And littering and polluting the air,” the wife added.

“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Joey said, turning away.

“What did you say?” the white-haired dude yelled, sounding really enraged.

“Or go fuck each other. You’ll have plenty of time, and I won’t watch.” Joey walked back toward the cab of his rig, kicking tires along the way. Up ahead there was still no movement. He went into his sleeper behind the cab, and pulled out the fifth of Jack Daniels from its hiding place beside his gun and took a slug, holding it in his mouth so that his head filled with the fumes of it. He wondered what the old guy was really pissed about. About being stuck in his car with that bitch?  He swallowed and took another mouthful. Well, dude, he thought, it was immutable that you’d be there. Even your anger, your misplaced road rage, was the only possible way you could feel. Only, this set of events could possibly pass. You were trapped inside time’s screenplay as surely as you were strapped inside your Chrysler, just like everyone else frozen in time in their cars around you. Joey popped two peppermint Altoids into his mouth—one for each drink. A helicopter passed above them in the direction of the bridge—not a good sign.

Her name was Susan. By the time Joey got back to her silver Camry she had already lowered her windows, turned off her engine and air-con and was reading a magazine. “Be a while, I guess,” he said. She looked at him, sort of surprised, over the tops of her reading glasses. He was seated on the step of his cab, just across the dashed white line from her. “Figure it’s an accident on the bridge. Nice day, though.” Joey lit another cigarette.

“Could I have one of those?” she asked.

Joey came over and handed her the pack, and she took one out and handed the pack back to him. Joey handed her his lighter, and she lit it.

“Thank you,” she said, handing back the lighter.

“Joey. Name’s Joey. You?”

“Susan,” she said.

That’s when he found out her name was Susan, but it seemed like he’d known it all along, like her name had to be Susan. Joey went back and sat down on his step. “So you smoke OPCs,” he said.


“Other peoples’ cigarettes.”

“Only and exclusively,” she said. “It’s sort of a personal campaign to make other people smoke less.”

It wasn’t déjà vu. It wasn’t that this scene was familiar because he had already experienced it. But it was like a scene he knew by heart somehow, as if he had rehearsed it, as if he had watched himself do these things and say these things and had memorized it all. Next, he thought, she will ask me about the old guy in the Chrysler.

.           “What was that all about back there?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette toward the rear of his rig.

“Harmless venting,” he said. “Take it out on a stranger, me.” Even her ear ring, the one he could see, was familiar to him—a small silver star on a tiny chain, nothing like Sandy would ever wear. The blue blouse looked like silk. He crossed his legs and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was enjoying her cigarette. The breeze moved her hair around her face. Some events seemed just bound to happen. Now she will turn on her radio and ask him….

“You like country?”

“Not especially, on a fine day like this.”

“Lyin’, dyin’, cryin’, cheatin’music.,” they said in unison, and she turned to look at him, exhaling slowly. “Where you from, Joey?”

“Hereabouts, over Narragansett. You?”

“Fort Lauderdale.”

“Long drive,” he said.

“I flew.”

“How’s your brother Bobby?”

“You know Bobby?”

“No.” It was all written out. Joey wondered what language the text would be in. Something pre-Aramaic. What would that be? Something with symbols, hierogrammatic. She opened her door and swung her feet out onto the macadam. Golden sandals, just as he would have suspected.  How could it not all be there already?  Order did not create itself. Order was precedent, imposed. Without order everything would fly apart. With order the future was possible. Her ankles rhymed with the thinness of her neck and were similarly tan. “You like a drink?”

“What you got?”

“Jack, no ice.”

“I’ll take one. Wait, here.” Reaching behind her, Susan produced a fast-food plastic soda cup with some icy residue sloshing around in the bottom. “Put a splash in there,” she said, passing it over to Joey.

Sandy had been a believer, one of them personal believers who thought she was important enough to merit individual divine attention. It was like her birthright or something, a given like gravity, as unexamined as her native tongue. But her belief in salvation was on a par with her trust in horoscopes and diets, so Joey found it easy to ignore. Sandy had never gone to church or owned a bible, but her omniscient being was the standard-issue Christian one—the skinny gay guy with the beard, who shared a luxury penthouse condo in her consciousness with the other sacrificial heroes—JFK, Jimi Hendrix, Princess Di, and Kurt Cobain. Joey had tried several times to explain it to her, that none of that mattered at all, that all the god talk was just dogs at a dog show. Sandy loved watching dog shows. She also liked looking good for the guys, for guys in general. If he had asked her to name the Ten Commandments, she might have come up with Thou shalt not kill.

When Joey asked Susan who her heroes were, she said that off-hand she couldn’t think of any. “Why?”

“Because you can tell a lot about somebody by who their heroes are,” he said.

“And you want to learn something about me? Just because I smoked one of your cigarettes and accepted some of your whiskey?”

“Just to pass the time. Why not talk about heroes?”

“Well, then, who are yours?” Susan had gotten out of her car and was now leaning against its hood, looking out down the highway. Pleaded tan shorts, muscular legs. She had put the plastic lid back on her cup into which Joey had poured several fingers of Jack. She was drinking it through a straw as if it were still a soda.

Joey was sipping his from a coffee cup. “I’ll go with Nostradamus and Evel Knievel. Now you give me two.”

Susan laughed. “Talk about learning things about someone. Okay, Sacagawea and my sister Josie.”

“Johnny Cash.”

“Audrey Hepburn. Isn’t it strange that no one else has gotten out of their car?”

It was true. There was not a single human being in sight among the hundred vehicles they could see on the highway curving down away from them. “Is it a law or something?”

“I guess nobody wants to admit that they’re stuck in a parking lot with no exit. It all has to do with their expectations of the immediate future.”

“Maybe they’re listening to music or for a traffic report.”

“That’s true. A traffic report would help them predict where they will be for the next fifteen minutes or an hour. Some people find it comforting to play at predicting their future, starting with little day-to-day stuff like this.”

“I don’t think much about the future,” Susan said.

“Next weekend’s weather report is not next weekend’s weather.”

“That’s right,” she said. “You got to wait and see for yourself.”

“You may not even be around to enjoy it.” Joey was thinking about the accident up ahead. What believers like Sandy gained from their believing was an afterlife, which obviously they thought was a good thing to have. It was like an invisible winning lottery ticket that someone else was holding for you, a futures guarantee based on nothing at all, a suckers’ market if ever there was one, angel jowl futures. Of course, not everyone would be saved. What about the non-believers? That introduced the problem of the predetermined damned, like himself, the ones that didn’t give a damn, who were just in the game for the length of the game and accepted the fact that the only thing certain about their personal future was that it would end. Amen and put a bullet through it. Of course, he wanted Susan now. Once they became human and he had them alone he always wanted them. Though they were hardly alone out there in the middle of the highway.

A trickle of vehicles was beginning to pass in the opposite lanes. “Another splash of Jack?” Joey asked.

“Sure, another short one before we start moving.”

When Joey came back from his bunk with their fresh drinks, the white-haired guy from the Chrysler was walking toward them from the back of the rig. Joey ignored him and went over to Susan to give her her drink. Susan didn’t see the Chrysler guy before he stopped to deliver his little, well-practiced speech. Sometimes fate gives folk these little set scenes to perform. Captains of their destiny and all that crap. Little teasers of scenes to trick them into thinking that they could contol the flow of events, instead of the actual opposite.

“I want you people to know, I want the pleasure of telling you, that my wife has called the state police and reported your little party, your smoking and drinking in the middle of the highway during an emergency.”

“Now that’s a strange thing to want to take pleasure in,” Joey said.

“She gave them your license plate numbers and descriptions and reported your threatening us earlier. They will probably be waiting for you both up ahead.” That was the end of his rehearsed speech, and now the Chrysler guy didn’t know what to say and just stood there, his hands twitching a bit at his sides the way a gunslinger’s do in the movies just before he draws.

“Your wife put you up to this, didn’t she?” Joey asked, and he stooped down to put his cup on the pavement. When he stood back up the Chrysler guy took a step back.

“I wouldn’t try anything if I were you,” the guy said, just like in the movies he’d seen. “I am armed.”

“Now, why in the world would you…,” Joey started, edging toward his truck and the thirty-eight special beside the now empty Jack Daniels bottle beneath his bunk—who knew what the immediate future now held for Mr. Chrysler?—but Susan interrupted him.

“Your wife reported what to the state police?”

“You heard me, your license plate numbers and descriptions.”

My license plate number and description?” Susan took a few angry steps toward the guy, who stumbled backwards and reached into his pants pocket.

“I wouldn’t.” the guy said, and, yep, he was armed. He pulled out a small silver woman’s pistol that he just showed but didn’t point. By now Joey had his hand on the handle to the door of his bunk, but Chrysler looked over at him and made a little motion toward him with his gun hand and Joey stopped. “I’m going back to my car now. We’ll be moving soon. I don’t expect any trouble.” And he started walking backwards.

“Why you stupid piece of shit.” Susan was yelling now and stamping her gold-sandaled foot. “Who do you think you are, reporting me? Pull a gun on me, will you? I’ll show you!” And she turned and ran back to her car. Joey wondered if she was going to get her own gun and he ducked inside his bunk door to get his thirty-eight. The script had suddenly gotten more surprising. If she had a gun he was going to get to fuck her, he just knew it. Reprobate that he was, he was about to be tossed a small token reward on his certain path to meaninglessness.

But it was the sound of screeching tires, not the sound of gun shots, that greeted Joey as he re-emerged with the special in his hand. Susan’s silver Camry was jerking back and jerking forward trying to escape its place in line. Mr. Chrysler was just standing there watching her. She finally got enough room to lurch around the SUV in front of her and she goosed the Camry into a flight off the pavement onto the grassy meridian. It wasn’t that far to the opposite-headed lanes, but the slopes on both sides were steep into a drainage ditch. She cut the Camry at an angle over the ditch at full throttle and her rear wheels caught on the other side and spun her free, fish-tailing up the opposite incline. There were sparks from her undercarriage when she hit the pavement. She sped away up the incline, easily passing the few other cars.

“Cool,” Joey said. “I guess she didn’t feature the future you had planned for her.”

Mr. Chrysler turned toward him, raising his little purse gun. Joey raised the thirty-eight. “Why don’t we just call it another day we both survived?” he said, and Mr. Chrysler went back to his car. In front of them the traffic had started to move, creep forward. Joey started up the Peterbilt. A ways up the road, even before they got to the bridge, all the troopers sped past with full flashing lights in the other direction. No one stopped him. No one noticed that the turf was late when he got it to its destination.


U.S.A., That’s Entertainment

TV test pattern

We are an entertained nation. This year the U.S. show biz industry—the entertainment and media market—will make more than $632 billion. That does not include the $70 billion Americans will spend on gambling or the $74 billion on sports. The TV industry’s revenues will be in the neighborhood of $121 billion. As one pundit has observed, “America is the first culture in jeopardy of amusing itself to death.”

Our appetite for entertainment is so ubiquitous it is almost silly to try and draw attention to it. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of being entertained. Our celebrity pantheon is almost exclusively occupied by entertainers, by performers, be they thespians, musicians, or athletes. There was a time, not that long ago, when these professions were among the least respected and poorest paid in our society. Not today. Who doesn’t want to be paid like a star?

So, who is complaining? Who is even paying attention? What’s the problem? Reality is the problem, reality’s diminishing presence. As Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, has observed, “Entertainment has nothing to do with reality. Entertainment is antithetical to reality.” (And he should know. The four films foaled from his book have grossed more than $1.4 billion.) The more we are entertained, the farther we drift from reality’s anchor. (It is interesting that cheap ‘reality shows’ have become a staple of cable TV. Of course, the staged ‘realities’ they portray have no relation to the lives of their viewers. That would not be entertaining.)

And entertainment is not art. It cheapens the meaning of art by pretending to the name. Art abides; entertainment is ephemeral. The poet W.H. Auden once observed, “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Or, as Eugene Mirman put it more bluntly, “Entertainment is business: the business of fucking art in the face.”

But there is an even deeper problem, and it has to do with our vanishing hold on what is real. Thirty-seven years ago, Americans elected an actor, a not very good actor, as President, a man who had made a living doing TV ads. And as TV infested politics, it slowly subsumed it as a form of entertainment. The veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow saw the writing on the subway walls: “We are in the same tent as the clowns and the freaks now—that’s show business.”

Reality and truth are twins. They are inseparable. Entertainment has put them both in a boat and set them adrift. The fake-news circus maximus is now upon us. Persuasive license substitutes for facts. Faith trumps science. Neilson ratings outweigh the ballot. The most outrageous clown—Red Skelton being dead—is given the title Commander in Chief. We are entertained.

I sit on the shore and watch the tiny skiff with Reality and Truth—our nation’s Romulus and Remus—drift with the outgoing tide into the sunset. But at the end, no credits will roll, and the audio track will be just the sound of the surf and the wail of an empty wind.

TV test color

Knuckle Down

marbles 2

Knuckle Down

Don’t forget that any marble

larger than the rest may be

termed a boulder, bonker

masher, plumper, popper

shooter, thumper, smasher

taw, bumbo, crock, bowler

bumboozer, tonk or trunk

godfather, tom bowler, fourer

giant, dobbert, hogger

biggie or toebreaker.

Play for keepsies always.

Common Magic, Cyclone Ofa


Ofa 1

 After the storm the whitened limbs

of the sea-sucked trees stuck in the reef

catch your eyes more than

the thousands of others strewn on land


after that day and night of the sky

as a limb of the murderous sea

pawing over us, its hind legs

raking the beach, the screaming.

An open ocean storm upset with

the prospect of shores

and land its meat. And trees.


Ofa 2

Ko’s exploded and Nofo’s disappeared.

The laundromat in Malaeimi left its

washers sitting on a concrete slab

all alone.

Sometimes Ms. Nature just won’t take oh

for an answer.  Why is it everything

looks burned by her breath?

Such a kiss

makes anyone’s knees weak, so helpless.


Ofa 3

 And in Malaeloa like a metaphor

come to deliver the yachties from

the cliché of their reality, a fragrant

mulch of shredded jungle leaves fell

a soft green rain on the harbor

while roof irons sliced through the

other, upper air—an argument that

wasn’t theirs, a domestic tiff

between the natives’ deities.


Ofa 4

We stayed up all night and listened

to Rilke’s  angels sing whosit’s kaddish,

the chorus running its fingernails down

the blackboard of night.  We got stony

still and ever so insignificant,

the children never out of our reach.

Any end should come in such a roar,

something twin beyond description,

a possession by 50-foot seas,

another tree downed in the bush

and swept by common magic

back to mama ocean.


Ofa 5

Strike the stone the phone rings

around towards the back where

the houses are all blown down and

strike a match in the night

there’s nothing there but concrete

beneath your feet a few inches

off the ground and weeds all around.

Take a piss it’s pitch black

when you piss on the weeds

you can suddenly smell them in

the dry wind with all the palms

snapped near the top you can

see the ocean from just about

anywhere and the women are still the same.

                                          1990, Tutuila



Hurricanes cover

6 Dec. ‘91



What do you know? The power is back on. It was off when I got home at dusk and I got all my hurricane and Coleman lanterns fired up. There’s a hurricane warning for tonight, and I really didn’t figure that (the power just went off again) the power would come back on. Well, I was partly right, temporarily wrong. Back to writing by hurricane lantern (that long shadow the pen makes across the page). The computer is unplugged.

Hurricane Val. Val? Sounds more like someone who wants to put ground pepper on your salad than a storm that’s going to toss your coconuts.

*     *     *

Thursday  12/19/91

I have been suffering from a somewhat severe depression. The place is so trashed. Everything seems pointless. But the house slowly takes on a rather bedraggled normalcy. Still no power or phone, and it will be a while longer before the repair crews get this far out.

Part of your check went for a little fake Christmas tree for Liam. Thank you. That other storm I mentioned slipped east of us and headed for the Cook Islands. I still have no doors or windows on my ocean-side verandas, and no structural repairs have been made save what limited stuff I could accomplish to make the place minimally safe and livable. Another storm really could wipe the place.


Those are the opening and closing paragraphs of my contribution to a book called Hurricanes about living with Hurricane Val in Samoa at the end of 1991. The images of what is happening in the South this season brought back those memories. I hope my posting this will not be taken as a case of catastrophic appropriation.


The Lap of Jeopardy

malitia 1

The opening page of the latest chapter of the Dominick Chronicles novel in hand, The Lap of Jeopardy:

Chapter 9

             The border was closed, in both directions. No one in, no one out of the U.S. The skirmishes had increased in number and intensity, especially along the coasts and in New England. A bunch of states had declared martial law, with legislators fleeing their capitals for safety’s sake. Government buildings were a popular target. Citizen militias were springing up everywhere.

There seemed to be three major factions, none of them coordinated, but each at war with the other two. One faction could be called the libertarians—the government called them anarchists—who claimed they wanted to reclaim their country from the industrial/military/ polluting/profiteering corporations and their puppet plutocratic government. The second citizen faction called themselves patriots—white supremacists mainly, flying the Confederate battle flag—for whom government had always been the enemy. In each of these factions there was a vast smorgasbord of disparate regional and obsessional affiliations. The only belief both factions shared was that the other was the nexus of evil.

The third faction was the beleaguered government—federal, state, and local. In the past year, the poll approval ratings for government had cratered. In the eyes of many Americans, politicians and their institutions had lost any claim to legitimacy. Now the bureaucrats were under attack from left and right. They had allowed the citizens to arm themselves to the teeth, and now they were reaping the bloody harvest of that sowing. Cops and soldiers were being asked to battle their neighbors. Desertions were rampant, and their weapons went with them. There were a hundred fronts, and, unlike in foreign wars, airstrikes could not be called-in to level an insurgent stronghold in, say, Berkeley.

Harry spent much of the day watching cable news. Dominick tried to escape it, but could not entirely. There was a video of men in hunter’s camouflage with assault rifles looting a big-box store, carting their liberated booty away in stolen pickup trucks. Another of firemen being warned off with rifle fire as they tried to approach a blaze in Baltimore. Highways were packed with people fleeing one place for another. Several dams in New England had been blown up, wreaking havoc downstream. Mortar fire from New Jersey was hitting Wall Street in lower Manhattan.

malitia 2