28 May 2015

The Accident

Saw a man running he stopped to bounce at a traffic light continued onto the street a speeding car — wham — hit him he went upward and landed in the street — thud, crack — the car broke way way too late sped up again was off this was a hit and run. People came from everywhere running toward the runner a few tried to get the license plate of the driver — bastard. I stood outside the market that I emerged from when I saw the accident. Didn’t need my help not that I could have been any. Within a minute could already hear the siren. I twitched like a shell shock victim I do that anyway from time to time probably cause of all the drugs I used to take or all the trauma in my life before things settled down and I got a job and a girl I lived with name of Alice. She’s from Taiwan I’m from Boston but live here in Berkeley where I saw the accident.

Really I was just standing there looking at the poor guy who wasn’t dead because people had checked and talked to him even though he was unconscious though a woman tending to him spoke as if he was awake saying things like “hang in there” and “help is on the way” and “you’re going to be okay” although it was impossible to say that with any degree of certainty. I twitched some more and someone asked me what had happened and I said the fella had been hit even though the driver had a stop sign and the guy was in the crosswalk and then the fella asked which car hit him and I said the driver just took off.

Ambulance came and you could feel like a sigh of relief from everyone there. These people would know what to do and give an accident victim the best possible chance. Everyone instinctively trusts emergency medical teams. There was a fire truck too which always seems odd on account of there not being a fire but I understand that firemen and women are really good with injured people and such.

By this time I kind of wanted a cigarette which in a way was odd considering I had quit like five years ago and my cravings were pretty much done except for right after sex sometimes which Alice and I were able to participate in again thanks to those pills that help a man keep it up truth being I’d had some trouble in that department for about six months until the doc prescribed me the pills now I’m good to go whenever Alice wants to which is fairly frequently. But so like I was saying I was craving a smoke maybe due to the kind of tension of the situation which was pretty intense. You don’t often see someone smacked by a car and then the driver split.

Next a cop car came and after checking out how it was going with the injured guy they — and this didn’t surprise me or probably anyone else — started asking bystanders what they saw, like taking statements. I knew they’d get to me which was cool I supposed cause I had no perishables in my grocery bag and was off work and Alice was at her job so I had nothing but time although I’d miss the narcotics anonymous meeting I was gonna go to which wasn’t so awful because there was an AA meeting a little later and they were kind of both the same to me cause I was recovering from the booze and the drugs and again they’re two sides of the same coin.

The cop fairly quickly came to me and I doubt I added much to what he’d learned from the first few witnesses he’d talked to but I gave him my side of things and what the car looked like and all. It was kind of weird talking like this to a cop because I’d had so many negative encounters with them during my bad old days when I flirted with the other side of the law. Not only flirted but at times just out and out danced there spitting in the face of the laws of the land metaphorically speaking.

The cop — of course — got my name and address and phone number and thanked me and went on to the next person. By this time they had gotten the guy into the ambulance he was in a stretcher naturally and his neck was in a brace and there was other stuff keeping his body straight I couldn’t see exactly what all. I guess I was kind of looking not wanting to see afraid what I’d be looking at but hardly able to look away.

The woman who’d been out there talking to the poor guy finally came over to where I was standing and someone asked her how she thought the guy was and would he pull through. She said he’d probably live but would have some pretty bad injuries at least a broken leg and some broken ribs and the like and no doubt a concussion all that for starters. She was real somber and seemed nice she was a pretty woman of about 35 not that that has anything to do with it but I couldn’t help noticing. Someone asked if she as a nurse or something and she said no that she’d been a trainer at the gym for awhile and so new CPR and stuff. One person thanked her for being a good seminarian and she was all humble about it which made even more of a nice impression on everyone. I thought that whoever her husband or partner or boyfriend or whatever was well he was a lucky fella.

There was nothing for me to do but get back home with my groceries. I’d just bought a few things like bread and mustard and a can of soup and some paper towels and breath mints. Oh yeah I’d snuck in a Snickers bar me having a sweet tooth ever since I got clean.

It was a few days later I heard that the poor runner who’d been hit had died from internal injuries. It was small consolation that that same day the police had managed to track down the driver and he was in some serious shit now. Amazing that they can track down someone who drives off like that but the cops have their ways and whatever else you say or think about them they use their skills for good a lot of the time.

I had told Alice about the accident of course and she said that I ought to be careful crossing streets because the same thing could happen to me and I shouldn’t make fun of her for crossing streets so warily like she does. It was the day after I heard about the guy dying that Alice came home and told me she was pregnant which I hadn’t expected at all but was glad about. Hell more than glad I was elated and I figured I’d been in recovery long enough to handle it. I also kind of thought of the guy dying and us bringing another life into the world, the whole circle of life bullshit. I even thought for a second that maybe our baby would be the runner reincarnated but kind of dismissed the thought as being silly. But you never know, right?

26 May 2015

The Author Contrasts High School Today With That of His Youth and Includes a Long Digression on Hippies

This took place a few blocks from school. I was in the vicinity at the time.
High school was different when I was in it (this was Fall ’67 through Spring ’71). There was no social media. Telephones had to suffice and they could not be taken out of the house. It was exciting enough when we got an extension cord and I could take the phone into my room. Private conversations. But no Facebook or texting. We didn’t miss it because we couldn’t even imagine such a thing. I remember we looked forward to the day when you would somehow be able to see the person you were talking to on the phone. That was foretold and I for one thought it would happen.

My high school years were very much out of the ordinary. I was in Berkeley for crying out loud. I would cut classes and go to anti-war demonstrations. We had the National Guard bivouacked across the street from our school once for a couple of weeks. Hendrix played a concert in our high school theater. People, including yours truly, were experimenting with drugs, some of which were psychedelics. It was a new age and we were at the forefront. It was all about the younger generation. We were on the verge of changing the world. There was a real us against them mentality. We were cool, hip, with it, they weren't. They were old, conservative and totally out of it.

Hippies were everywhere in Berkeley and they were pretty cool. Today you have crypto hippies who are usually just young homeless people who are as apt to rob as they are to flash the peace sign. They sometimes go to demonstrations, but less out of any conviction and more for the scene. Of course there has always been a kind of floating definition of hippies. Some people assert that you cannot work and be a hippie. Others say its more about drug use and some say you need the right kind of clothes (or lack thereof) and you have to listen to certain music and well it goes on.

In the Sixties hippies often had VW vans and some source of income. They virtually all lived for rock music and were regularly stoned. They usually drank wine and most dabbled in hard drugs. Those without wheels hitchhiked. Some bathed regularly and the main reason many were dirty and smelly was because cleanliness wasn’t always a priority. They were promiscuous but were not necessarily into orgies. Some lived in houses and maintained gardens and were “into” cooking. Hippies could be “into” a variety of things besides drug and music. Generally stuff like nature and meditating and what can best be labeled interpretive dance.

Many hippies were intelligent, educated and well read. A few were as dumb as posts but that’s the case within subset of people. Hippie men usually had beards but not always and hippie women did not usually shave armpits or legs but there were always exceptions. Its not like there was a rule book on how to be a hippie. Another thing you hear about hippies is that “they” are gone. I agree and disagree with this. I agree that the hippie of the Sixties is no more. It’s a matter of logic that people of that generation have died or aged or changed. I disagree in the sense that if you fancy yourself a hippie, a beatnik, a member of the Lost Generation or anything else, who the hell is to say you’re not?

That was a rather long digression about hippies. I will now return to my high school days.

I’m reasonably sure that we read more books when I was in high school. This is partially due to the fact that we didn’t have the internet to distract us. But also we read newspapers and magazines of all stripes. Sure, high schoolers today follow the news and read about current events but its usually through things like twitter and it lacks the depth and commitment we had. When you sit down with periodical it allows you to delve a little deeper into the subject matter. We knew about Vietnam in much more profound way then young people today know about any world event.

We also watched — not religiously but often — the evening news. It was half an hour and it was not filtered through biases to the extent news is today. Sure the major networks tended to give you the government’s spin on things, but they also had reporters digging for the truth and willing to call bullshit when they saw it. We trusted Walter Cronkite, even those of us on the far left. He was the one who used his news show to say that Vietnam was not winnable and he suggested that the government had been jerking us around.

We saw better films too. It seems most high school kids today are seeing that Avenger, Iron Man, Spiderman crap along with shlocky romantic comedies and silly gross out hit in the crotch comedies. We were seeing films like If... (1968)M*A*S*H (1970), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Harold and Maude (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Graduate (1967). Not only were these great movies but they were anti-establishment stories featuring strong anti-heroes. Films, along with the music of the time, were forming both the backdrop and the inspiration to the cultural and social revolution that we felt a part of. Hell, we still had The Beatles back them, along with Muhammad Ali who was a dual political and athletic hero.

My high school experience lacked the traditional rally days, proms and spirit weeks that were in vogue before and are back stronger than ever now. I should amend that to say that were proms but I don’t know a sole who went to one. It all seemed silly to many of us. At my high school alma mater they have long since held  a big spirit day in which all four classes represent themselves and everyone dresses up in school colors and there are competitions and prizes. The very suggestion of such a thing when I was in high school would have been met with gales of derisive laughter.

Another Berkeley scene, I was nearby.
When I went to Berkeley High they started an experiment with a smaller school within the school (now the whole damn place is divided into smaller schools). It was called Community High and it was held right there on the main campus. We had our own building. It was a very liberal Sixties kind of a deal organized by the most liberal free thinking educators who wanted to experiment with new non traditional ways of education. I signed up and got in.

We did a lot of sitting around in circles talking and us students were given the authority to be part of the decision making process. The whole deal fit perfectly with the times. Within Community High there were "tribes" with different focuses.

I’m not sure I got as much out of high school in terms of some of the fundamentals that one normally expects to enter college with, but I was on the verge of feeling stifled and brain dead in traditional classrooms where desks were in rows and teachers talked us silly. So this got me through high school and made me feel empowered and hip and I was comforted to know that some adults could be really cool. I had some great teachers too, one of whom in later years became a principal and offered me a job that I ultimately turned down.

The schools within the school today feature your basic traditional education, they just emphasize different things. Nothing like the student powered experience I had.

Of course much was the same about high school when I attended. We were adolescents so there was that. Discovering the opposite sex (or for some the same) and yearning to get acquainted with other bodies and to start to develop an understanding for this soft and tender gender. I don’t know what dating is like now, but when I was in high school it was nothing like what was and has been depicted in popular culture. There wasn’t the formality of “going with” someone and bringing corsages to your date before “the big dance.” It was pretty casual.

When it came to dating I started off as a blithering idiot. I was cute, charming, funny and an athlete but was supremely awkward around girls and was the last person to know if one of them had a crush on me. I didn’t develop any finesse until college when I needed a few drinks to show a little polish. Eventually I got it together. In high school I never really had what I considered at the time a girl friend. Few people then did. There were a few girls I somehow managed to kiss and one with whom I did far more than that. I am one of about 99% of the male population who wishes he had it to do all over again knowing what he does now.

One of the best things about my version of “the good old days” was youth sports. Today it has become vastly over organized, elitist and exclusive and far too competitive. Some people figured out how to make a buck. Young athletes — and I mean even before high school — are often on high pressure traveling squads. Parents are made to believe that to be on an elite team means future glory, particularly in the form of an athletic scholarship to college. They are being swindled by modern day snake oil salesmen. Coaches are modern day fascist dictators. Many young kids are on teams in which they barely play in games. This is the most ludicrous thing of all. When I coached middle school soccer and softball every player played in every game, period. It sickens me to see what has happened to youth sports in this country and it doesn’t in turn surprise me that there are far far fewer African Americans playing baseball, up to and including in the Major Leagues, as there were in my day. You wanna play ya gotta pay. Sports was a source of great joy in my childhood and the teams I played on were low key and fun. My soccer team was state champs in 1970. We flew down to LA for the match and that’s the only game we played outside the Bay Area. We had to fund raise to make the trip. Everyone on the team played in the championship match. (I scored the winning goal in overtime and it is still a personal highlight.)

I do not mean to suggest that “it was better” when I was in high school than it is today. I have merely endeavored to illustrate some differences. It would be surprising if there were none given that we are talking about 44 and more years ago. I cherish those times and feel quite fortunate to have enjoyed such an unconventional high school experience. So I guess I am suggesting "it was better."

25 May 2015

Running Grave

When, like a running grave, time tracks you down,
Your calm and cuddled is a scythe of hairs,
Love in her gear is slowly through the house,
Up naked stairs, a turtle in a hearse,
Hauled to the dome
- From When Like a Running Grave by Dylan Thomas

Up meadows I fell in long ago journeys taken through the awful magic of LSD. Slurring and mentally swimming I garrulously carried on backwards with quarts of alcohol coursing through my veins. Somnolent happiness while contently and absently nodding through the dull haze of marijuana smoke. The fast humming mind races and perilous pontificating in blurs of laughter that cocaine makes so simple.

Those were times that bent this wallowing swallowing dissented brain whose sole purpose at times seemed to be confusion and obtrusion. Then there was the hell of panic which carried the dead certainty of a life numbed by thorazine spent within four white walls. Come the anti depressants and their muzak muse which rendered me happy to listen to my own banalities and believe each one. I wondered at it all. So the depression itself entered angry and subduing me that ugly black dog lapping at my psyche. Here I am and hear I do saddled with memories of mental torment and unrepentant cries of anguish. Love lost in the shuffle.

I remember this one time.

I remember this one guy.

I remember this one place.

I remember these and those and them and they and that there was this.

Some films and some books and some poems and some conversations with some people bring you wonder and insist on a fresh perspective and a belief that you can soar intellectually. A marriage and the attendant love can be a source of inspiration and joy and unmuddled thinking. It can all work out.

Watching Mean Streets (1973) today I remembered what it was like to be in fist fights. The intense and primal anger and fear. The desperation. The core of your soul screamed and in the end there was humiliation if you lost but especially if you won. To see the blood of another flying that other that you slugged in the face is an indelible and terrible memory. Worse than feeling of a fist landing full on in your gut and leaving you doubled over and vulnerable. Real fights are the abandonment of reason and logic and the full on victory of cowardice. But still we sometimes make with the macho. Chest to chest puffing and preening and talking oh so tough. I did it as recently as about ten years ago when some baseball playing college boys got tough with me as I tried to protect the soccer team I was coaching from errant hits. I went square up to one who stood a good five inches taller than me and detailed the damage I would do to his face if he and his friends did not exit the ball field where they were not allowed to be anyway. He backed off and they left and one of my players later said that at that point the team readily agreed that they would run through walls for me. I defend nothing of this I merely relate a story. I have no strong feelings about it. It happened as things do.

Recently I suffered my longest and deepest depression and celebrated its eventual end with a nasty cold that lasted several days longer than it should have. The mucus and phlegm persisted for too long too. Towards the end of that my beloved MacBook Pro had to go in for repairs and was lost to me for six terrible days. All is well now.

Earlier today I suffered from a terrible bout of writer's block. The words wouldn't come. I desperately needed to write but there was nothing. Like the flow had been shut off. I tried different ways of turning it on but none of them worked. There are some wise asses who claim that writer’s block is a myth. I suppose they’ve never had it. It’s like depression. People who’ve never suffered it don’t take it seriously. Same with panic attacks. Imagine this: “Hey, pal, your leg isn’t really broken. Its all in your head. Just start walking you’re being lazy is all.”

People often struggle with being kind to one another. So often relations are ego driven as each person tries to establish superiority rather than creating a bond of understanding and an acceptance of other ways. I refer mostly to men with men. Women are less competitive and more apt to look at another person as a sort of fellow traveler rather than a rival. I've always liked women despite the fact thatI grew up in a very male dominated environment and the most important woman in my life (mother) was insane. Women are more nurturing and appreciative and oh by the way generally nicer to look at and fantasize about. I married a woman and had two daughters and have lived many years with them and are happier for it.

As I get older I am more prone to rumination and introspection and demand more of myself and less of others. I am in general a very grouchy person, especially among strangers but I've not fooled myself about who I am and so am trying to be better about getting along with one and all and making my presence on this planet more pleasant for others. It helps that my students and I tend to form mutual admiration societies. I can say quite honestly that I am a good teacher. I bring a sparkling personality and active sense of humor and much enthusiasm into my classroom where I create student centered lessons. When I make mistakes I try to own them. They are mine and it is my responsibility to acknowledge and fix them. You learn as you get older the folly of trying to fool yourself about who you are and for that matter who you were. It's best to -- figuratively -- look at the person and the mirror and accept that that is who you are and all you can do is make the best of it.

Getting up everyday taking steps forward and getting done whatever is ahead of you. That's all you've got to do. Miracles are not required. Just persistence.

17 May 2015

Not Crazy About the Mentally Ill -- But Empathetic

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” -Scott Fitzgerald

I was leaving the platform of the BART station taking the escalator to the exit and there was a crazy lady who was engaged in simultaneous laughing and raging. She was a middle aged woman not badly dressed. It appeared as though she had been athletic and attractive in her younger days and had only fairly recently gone off her nut. I didn’t give her a wide berth as many people were doing because I’m pretty good at differentiating between dangerous crazy and harmless crazy. The unfortunate thing about my brief exposure to her was that I had on my iPod at the time and was listening to The Spinners sing, “It’s a Shame.” So it was a shame I missed the vocal accompaniment to her gesticulating and fussing over a dropped water bottle. You know when you insulate yourself as I was doing you risk missing those moments. They’re precious.

Seems like there’s a lot more insane people wandering the streets then there used to be. It was a rarity to see them when I was a kid so much so that they genuinely freaked us out. Of course that was a before a horrible ex actor became our governor and closed the mental institutions (the same crank later attained the U.S. presidency and preceded to run the country into the ground for eight miserable years). But not only are there more loonies than 100 years ago when I was a child, there are more than 25 even 10 years ago. Sometimes it's difficult to tell which ones are just drug addled burn outs and which have serious mental issues. Of course some are both.

(By the way, not only crazies roam our streets, some manage to land positions as commentators on Fox News. It would be funny if it were not also so sad.)

I have great empathy for our kooky citizens. As previously discussed on this blog, my own dear old ma was a nut and I myself have walked the very very very thin line between normal and round the bend. I actually believe that dipping one’s toes into madness has some real benefits for providing perspective and understanding and insight, assuming one is self aware enough to manage it.

Most of the mentally ill encounters on the streets these days live on those same streets. I’m sure that a fragile mental state is made far worse by the horrors of being homeless.

My students — who come from all over the world and stay in San Francisco for anywhere from a few weeks to a year —express astonishment at the number of homeless in this country. They further express horror at how aggressive and seemingly dangerous many of them are. Some don’t merely seem dangerous but in fact are. It is indeed a scathing comment on this nation and its priorities that we have so many desperately poor people and so many folks in desperate need of help who are left to fend for themselves.

I didn’t laugh at the woman in the BART station. She was amusing but her plight is nothing to laugh at. (Then again maybe it’s nothing to be amused by either.) Given her clothes and general mien there seemed little doubt that she had been functioning reasonably well in society for most of her life. Maybe there was hope for her yet, she’s not too far gone, she just needs a medication. Maybe she has a support system in place, family who could look after her. Based on her appearance I very much doubt she’s homeless. Maybe just recently so.

Sometimes I look at crazy people and want to reason with them (I’ve had fantasies about convincing Hitler and Goebbels that their racial views were terribly wrong, I guess that’s the same thing). I want to tell them that it’s no good talking — or screaming — aloud to themselves, that they need to calm down and seek help. Of course other times they annoy the hell out of me and I want to tell them to shut up already. Bad enough I had to shout that at my mother a few times when she was raving nonsense, now my sensibilities have to be assaulted while I’m walking home. Tolerance isn't easy, my friends.

The ultimate insanity is not being able to see the reason of another position, to not be able to consider opposing views or acknowledge that they even exist (like those totally crazy Fox News commentators) and to not be able to see the reality of your own life. The truly insane think they’re fine. Many of us borderline cases think we’re worse off than we really are. We’re just in tune with what’s going on. Decades seeing psychiatrists and sitting in 12 step meetings will make you introspective to the point of pain. In a no pain no gain sense.

It's like Socrates said,"the unexamined life is not worth living" and if you examine it closely enough and spend enough time snooping at the way the world is you're bound to seek a little refuge from reality. It's like an even greater philosopher, Groucho Marx once said: “I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal.”

14 May 2015

You Did Not Just Say That — Or — Weird and Insulting Remarks by Public School Administrators that I Heard Live and in Person

Over the course of approximately 20 years as a public school teacher I had exposure to that strange breed of human known as the school administrator. Typically where I worked these creatures took the form of a principal or vice principal. They are, by and large, soulless individuals whose main purpose in life is to keep their positions. They have to kiss up to pretty much everyone they encounter but most of all parents, their higher ups and members of the public. These are people who are slaves to the latest educational trends. The furthest notion from their minds is doing anything innovative -- unless it has been suggested to them by a district administrator and by suggested I mean ordered. 

A school administrator once told me to never trust a school administrator (wise but wholly unnecessary words). It was subsequently proven that I could not trust him. Administrators tend to have but a fleeting relationship with the truth. It is only employed when to their advantage. Otherwise prevarications will do just as well.

Public school administrators are fearful people. They have no tenure. Every year they are subject to the axe and it can come as the result of myriad reasons. Besides summary termination their greatest fears are lawsuits, scandal at school, low test scores, teacher unrest, parent unrest and visits by their overlords. Many public school administrators can identify students (even by name) but they are too far removed from the classroom (emotionally and intellectually) to have any understanding of what students do or think. Actually they don’t much care for students. 

Many administrators have a particular enemy — teachers. It is not unusual for an administrator to loathe teachers, either as a general group or individual ones. To them teachers are perpetual whiners who are forever asking (if not demanding) things of them and conspiring against them. To an administrator, every teacher is a mistake waiting to happen or a lawsuit waiting to he filed.

I heard many a school administrators utter many a ridiculous comment and sling many a gratuitous insult. I had the displeasure of working under one principal who was renown for her ineptitude and bald faced lies. That it took four years to can her speaks volumes of how slowly the wheels of justice can grind. She provides much, but by no means all, of the real and true comments you will read below. Mind you, this is but a sampling of what I heard over the course of my career.

It was my first year teaching, I had just given a test and students had not done as well as I had expected. I was idling in the hallways after school and the principal happened by. I shared my lament about the test results hoping for a word of encouragement or perhaps some insight. Here is what she said: “That’s a sign of bad teaching.” And with that she continued on her way leaving me feeling even worse. How sweet.

The thoroughly incompetent principal mentioned in the foreword was a veritable fountain of stupidity. This particular one I did not hear but was told of. This principal — let’s just call her Ms. Patterson — once bragged (I swear this is true) that she had a spy in our teacher-only union meetings. First of all, what idiot brags about having a secret to the people she is keeping the secret from? Secondly, what idiot brags about spying on others? Third, we knew she had a teacher informant and knew who it was. I told you this woman was a nincompoop.

The same Ms. Patterson encouraged teachers to bring her topics that needed discussing at staff meetings. Well good for her, right? I took her up on the offer one day and suggested we take up the abhorrent behavior that students were displaying in the hallways between classes. Her response? “We’ve already talked about that.” In other words if a problem you’ve talked about continues — oh well. Already discussed so nothing more we can do.

Here’s another gem about Patterson. One morning she managed to get to school before classes started (this was a rarity, on top of her other sins she was lazy, when we say she worked 24/7 we meant 24 hours a week 7 months a year). So anyway she was standing there as students headed to class with her thumb squarely up her bum when the school secretary approached and said that the people scheduled to meet her (Patterson) were in her office. Patterson responded: “tell ‘em they’ll have to wait, I have to get these students to class.” It was remarkable that she could get students to class without so much as uttering a word or moving a muscle but somehow I guess she was doing it. How they got to class that 95% of the time she meandered on campus late was anybody’s guess.

I can’t stop with the Patterson stories. Here’s another: One day during lunch I asked if anyone had heard that one of our vice principals was leaving us at the end of the school year. My own missus had reported hearing this from a school parent. My question got back to the principal who called me to her office. She proceeded to light into me for repeating rumors. I tried to convince this lunatic that asking a question did not equate to spreading a rumor but she could not see the distinction. I was to retract the rumor I had spread and do so via email. I did so but as you may have guessed was quite sarcastic about it. But let’s assume for a moment that my asking the question was tantamount to spreading a rumor. What was the original source of this rumor? I found out. The parent who told my wife had heard it at a meeting and it was spoken by none other than Ms. Patterson herself. Yes that rumor monger. By the way, the vice principal did leave at the end of the year just as he said he would.

Let’s focus on another principal. One day he observed my class for purposes of my evaluation. He witnessed a teaching tactic that he did not approve of and made quite a point of it in my evaluation (I had given a short lecture to students sans overheard or notes on the board in order to prepare them for what would sometimes happen in high school). During our subsequent meeting I objected to this being written up so negatively, especially since it was a one time occurrence. He responded that he had been in my class three times and had seen it once so in his mind I did it happened one third of the time. Seriously. Imagine a prospective parent visiting the school three times and on the third visit a student pulls a fire alarm. How would the principal react if the parent said: as far as I’m concerned this happens every third day.

Several administrators had the habit of seeing teachers do something to which they objected but not mentioning it at the time, instead saving it up for their evaluation meeting. I have three examples. Once an administrator called me out for leaving campus during my prep period. By this time I’d been teaching for over 15 years and it was the first and only time I heard that you couldn't leave campus during your free period (and in fact no such rule exists). But the point is he didn't mention to me the day of the “incident” but weeks later during my evaluation. Similarly a principal sited me in my eval meeting for reading a newspaper during a district wide meeting day when breakout groups were meeting. There’s no way I was doing this but it was difficult to speak to because it happened three months before. The third and final case was with the moron — I mean principal — who assailed me during my eval meeting for not exerting enough discipline with a class — two months before. First of all, how could I speak to an incident that happened that long ago that probably faded from memory the next day and secondly if discipline is so crucial at a middle school (and it is) why on Earth would you wait months to address it? What’s more important, zapping a teacher in his eval or addressing a disciplinary issue in a classroom? Call me crazy (many have) but I would have spoken to the teacher on the spot. Then again I actually care about students.

One more. There was an incident in my classroom one day that required me sending a student to the office with a note detailing his actions. Not surprisingly the miscreant was suspended. However, as is generally the case, he had to wait for someone to pick him up from home. Evidently it was rather crowded in the office so -- and this had never been done before -- he was sent back to my class. My lesson was thus interrupted by his return and the many questions students posed to him about whether he had been suspended and for how long. I wrote an email to the vice principal who handled the matter suggesting that suspended students should not be sent back to the class where their misdeeds had only recently been committed. His response: "If teachers are providing an engaging enough lesson then students will not act out in such a way as to require suspending in the first place." In other words it was all my fault. My response (written but never sent) was: thank you very much and by that I mean fuck you very much.

Like I said public school administrators say some crazy ass shit and I've just given you a few of the lowlights.

(It may be suggested that in describing administrators I have "painted with a pretty broad brush" -- I get that a lot -- to that I would reply: you're welcome.)

06 May 2015

The Return of the Beat Writer -or- The Old Man on the Bus

He sat toward the front swirling and twirling around looking out the window from this angle and that. Head twisting here then there. A solemn faced old gent on the other side of 80. His skin darkened by decades in the sun, hands weathered hard and cruel. His face a mass of heavily lined wrinkles. What was once likely a thick shock of handsome hair is but a few strands, white, sparse and laden with hair cream. The old man had kept his shape, no bulging belly, shoulders still broad and strong.

This was the occasion of his return to San Francisco after a 55-year absence. The changes. Such changes. He couldn't believe it. It shouldn't have been a surprise what with all that'd gone on in the world. Hell the hippies and all that craziness didn't come along until after he left town in ’60. He was 30 then and went by the name of Malik Larson. Yeah the beat writer and poet long thought dead. That's the old man on the bus, although I didn't know it when I first laid eyes on him sitting next to me on the number 30 bus.

He up and left in 1960 just when his writing had been recognized and hailed and celebrated. He went to work on ranches in Montana having changed his name to Ron Golding. No one in Montana seemed to pay much mind to who he might have been before or even if there was a before. He just sort of appeared. Proved to be a hard worker. Quiet, steady and pleasant. He told no stories, they asked no questions.

Malik was born as Melvin Larson in Iowa City, Iowa in February 1930. He came out to California after finishing college in the early Fifties and decided that he was going to be the next great American novelist and poet. He changed his first name to Malik, the name of a sailor from Africa he met in a bar one night. Malik started working odd jobs, mostly tending bar or waiting tables and used most every minute of his spare time to write. Eventually Malik had some short stories and non fiction pieces published in magazines and got a job at the San Francisco Examiner as a reporter at the city desk.

He settled in the North Beach section of San Francisco and before long became acquainted with other aspiring writers. Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were among his friends. And yes he was at the famous Ginsberg reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in October of ’55. He even read some of his poems that night. Kerouac and Malik were frequent drinking buddies. Him and Ginsberg talked about poetry and philosophy for hours on end.

All the beats knew Malik Larson. Of course they did, he was one of them. Before Kerouac made it big with On the Road, most people assumed that Malik would be the one in their circle who would become famous. Everyone was sharing their writing back then and most people felt that Malik’s voice was as unique and powerful as anyone else's, hell maybe more unique and powerful.

Malik also had a reputation as a swinger. He could and would drink and smoke grass all night and seemingly bed a different person every night — of either gender. In his own words Malik was 100 per cent bi sexual. In ’58 he finally settled down with one person, a recent Japanese emigre named Sayaka. Sayaka was a tall beautiful young woman who all the men were crazy about. No one was surprised that Malik was the one to win her. He was charismatic, handsome and brilliant.  By the time Malik and Sayaka married he’d had his first book of poetry, “Lending Ears” published and his first novel, “Dawn of Lovers” was just weeks away from publication. Malik was also busy on another novel, as yet untitled, that his editor — a veteran of book publishing, Adam Newhouse — thought was the best writing he’d ever read.

Malik was happy, successful, and looking at a very bright future. Two years later he disappeared. It was a shockingly sudden descent.

First there was Sayaka. She had cured Malik of his nocturnal ramblings. He barely even looked at other women and would never have dreamed of cheating on her. But Sayaka had fallen out of love with Malik about as quickly as she fell in love with him. She realized within weeks of the wedding that she had given in to an infatuation with the first American she’d gone to bed with. It was understandable, Malik was charming, viral and exciting. Sayaka also missed Japan. San Francisco had been fun but it wasn’t home. She was only 20 and not ready to settle in a new country.

Three months after they married Sayaka flew back to Japan. She left without telling Malik, only leaving behind a note and some of her possessions. Malik was crushed. In the coming weeks he rarely left his apartment and when he did it was to sit in a bar, usually alone, and drink bourbon. He avoided all his old friends, they reminded him of Sayaka. “Dawn of Lovers” had been released and received complimentary reviews but not the raves everyone expected. Sales of the book never took off.

Somehow Malik pulled himself together enough to finish his second novel. It’s brilliant beginnings faded, Newhouse was disappointed at how ordinary and cliched the second half of it was. By the end of the year Malik had managed to get over his unsuccessful first marriage and was dating again. He was back to his old self. But when pressed to do re-writes on his novel he couldn’t improve on it. A fire had gone out. None of his new poetry was interesting anyone either. Friends were stunned at how, age 29, his writing had deteriorated. Malik was the first to admit that he his writing had lost its spark. Malik was at a loss to fix the problem. He tried everything to reinvigorate but to no avail. The light was out.

The failure of Malik’s writing hit his soul hard. He became impotent with women and uninterested in sleeping with men. His health suffered and his drinking increased. He was maudlin. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs were all great success and Malik Larson was languishing. They were traveling the world, he was stuck in San Francisco, pissing away his money.

 By 1960 Malik had had enough. Morbidly depressed he left without a goodbye to anyone and hitch hiked to Montana. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do there but when he saw an ad on telephone pole for a job as a ranch hand, well that was all he needed. He spent the next 35 years working on ranches. His only recreation was fishing trips and reading and occasional assignations with whores.

When he turned 65, long since living as Ron Golding, he quit ranching and bought a small house —  just a shack, really — outside of Bozeman. For company he had some chickens in the backyard. He bought his first ever TV and watched movies all night. During the day he fished or went for long walks. He never tried to write another word.

No one knew who he had been and no one in Ron Golding’s previous life knew where the hell he was. It was assumed he’d died. The second novel wasn’t published and has long since been lost. Ron kept nothing of his writing. Not even his old notebooks.

It was on the occasion of Melvin/Malik/Ron's 85th birthday that he finally got the notion that he'd like to take a trip. Other than some fishing trips that took him into Wyoming or Idaho, he hadn't left Montana since he arrived. He hadn't thought a lot about his past in San Francisco, usually when he looked back at all it was to his childhood or college days in Iowa. But some mysterious force was calling him back to San Francisco. Ron reckoned that he had ignored those San Francisco days for too long too hard. He'd gone overboard in trying to forget it all. Ron was filled with regret for just up an abandoning Frisco so completely. Maybe it was time, he thought, to see Malik's old stomping grounds again.

Like I said I was sitting next to him on the bus. It was the number 30 and it was heading towards Chinatown and then North Beach, the area where Malik Larson had enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame.
"Scuse me sir," he said to me. "Can you tell me where I get off this bus to go to City Lights Bookstore?" Of course City Lights is famous as a regular haunt of many of the Beats and its owner and founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was the man who published Howl and many other Beat poets.

"I sure can, because I'm getting off at the stop and in fact going to City Lights."

"Is that a fact? Mind showing me the way?"

"Be my pleasure."

"Name's Ron Golding." And he offered his hand and with it gave me a firm handshake.

"Carl Hardel, pleasure to meet you. You visiting our fair city for the first time?"

And with that Ron Golding opened up. Very much to his own surprise -- as he later admitted -- Ron revealed that he was really Melvin although he'd spent some time under another name and that time was spent right here in San Fran many decades ago.

When we got off the bus Melvin asked if I cared for a cup of coffee. I was, for some reason I couldn't put a finger on, intrigued and told him I'd like that very much. It was over coffee that Melvin/Malik/Ron admitted that he had a story he needed to tell and would I mind listening. I said that would be fine. The story he told was what I just recounted.

It's perhaps a coincidence that I am a longtime Beat aficionado and have not only read Kerouac, Ginsberg et al but am familiar with the only published novel and one book of poetry by Malik Larson. I've read accounts of him during the Fifties in Beat Anthologies and non fiction books and even read a novel called "Whatever Became of Malik Larson?" by an obscure writer named Lance Frigate. The book was a work of historical fiction up to the time of Larson's disappearance at which point it becomes pure fiction. Frigate had Larson moving to Japan, finding Sayaka and living a strict buddhist existence with her in the Japanese countryside.

Melvin Larson was totally unaware of this novel. He also had no clue as to what he must be owed in royalties for his two published books. "And I don't care, neither," he said bluntly.

I took Melvin to City Lights books. The location was familiar to him but the inside of the store was "completely different, hardly recognize it, disappointing." Still it clearly brought back memories because I noted a wetness forming at the bottom of his eyes. Both his books were there. I offered to buy him a copy of each. To my surprise Melvin said, "that's okay buddy, I'll buy 'em myself." From the way he'd talked about his past I fully expected that he wouldn't be interested in so much as looking at them. "I haven't read any of my writing since I left in '60."

From there we went down the street to The Beat Museum. Melvin took so long to study the memorabilia and photos that I had to go take a seat. I noted how long he stared a photo of him, Kerouac and Neal Cassady standing in front of a coffee shop. I asked Melvin if he'd like me to introduce him the proprietor. "No, that would raise too many questions. I don't feel like talkin'' about it. It's just been too long. I enjoyed talkin' to you, I needed to. But I let too much time go. It's just not worth it to stir things up."

It was nearly 6:00 and I had a dinner engagement so it was time to part company with the former Malik Larson. "What are your plans?" I asked him.

"Maybe I'll go visit a few other old haunts. Then I guess I'll go back to Montana. But do me a favor if you think you can. Wait until I'm dead before you tell anyone my story." I promised I would.

We exchanged addresses and he promised to write. Before we parted Melvin took my hand and shook it firmly and repeatedly thanked me for listening to his story. I, in turn, thanked him for sharing it.

A few weeks later I got a letter from Melvin who was back in Montana. He told me that he had in fact visited some of the places in San Francisco that he used to frequent. "I'm sure glad I visited but I'm sorry as hell it took me 55 years to do it."

I got another letter a month after that from Montana. This was from a man who identified himself as Tom Dorsett, Ron Golding's best buddy in Bozeman. He said that Ron had died peacefully in his sleep. He'd left a letter with Dorsett a week before to be opened at the time of his death. Among his instructions was that Dorsett should send notification of Ron's death to me.

What I'll remember most about Melvin/Malik/Ron was when I asked him why. Why had he just up and left and changed his name and never contacted anyone from his past, not even family back in Iowa. We were in the coffee shop at the time. He just stared into his cup for the longest time and said in a whisper: "I'd been so damn up in the clouds and ready to conquer the world, then when I got a taste of defeat, when the wife left and my writing fell off, I just....I just wanted to be someone else. I couldn't take it, the sense of defeat. I wasn't strong enough or brave enough to carry on. I gave the hell up is what I did."

I'd told my wife about Malik and when I shared Dorsett's letter she pointed out that the 85 year old man I described meeting had been in good health. "What happened that he should die less than two months later?" This was an excellent point and one I considered for quite awhile. Maybe he was just ready. The return to San Francisco had allowed him some sort of closure. I shared this with the wife and she asked if I thought Melvin died happy. Well I don't think he did. He realized he gave up on his life at one point. He wore that and accepted it. Melvin Larson died satisfied that he knew himself but not happy about who he was or had been. Seems a tragedy to me.

02 May 2015

Dos and Don'ts if You're Suffering From Depression, Panic Attacks or Other Emotional Distress

This is what is called in 12 step programs sharing your experience, strength and hope. This means that I am only an authority insofar as I have been through the mill. While I hope this will help someone, anyone, remember I am not an expert. However I have experience -- lots of it -- and want to pass on what I have come to understand.

Do exercise. If you normally do then don’t break your routine, if anything exercise more. If you don’t exercise, this would be a good time to start. If nothing else go for walks. Long walks are therapeutic and can be a good supplement to exercise.

Don’t use a lot of alcohol or drugs. Especially if you don’t normally get high. If anything cut back — way back.

Do eat normally. Don’t eat less and don’t overeat. Either one can and will worsen depression.

Don’t listen to anyone who tries to minimize your suffering. There are plenty of people who will tell you that what you’re going through or what has happened is not as big of a deal as you’re making it out to be. Don’t engage with these people. If a person wants to be sympathetic or share their own experience, that’s fine. It’s best to be careful about who you share with.

Do see a healthcare professional it's also good to explore alternative methods of treatment and you should do your own research. Not all doctors are experts and not all of them are quacks, but it's better to listen to them than is to listen to Hal over in accounting.

Do remember you will feel better. Maybe there’s no evidence of that right now so perhaps you don’t believe it, but its true.

Don’t give in to despair. Remember you are not alone. Not by a long shot. Don’t sit alone in your home. Talk to people. Even if it’s just online. If you are a member of 12 step group that's a great place to start.

Do meditate. If you already medicate, do it longer.

Don't be afraid to see a psychiatrist or counselor or anyone else who has experience dealing with people suffering from depression. Particular types of therapists may not appeal to you but that's no reason to give up on the idea. There are all kinds of people who can help. Keep looking until you find someone who's right for you.

Do go to a nearby body of water. Oceans are best but rivers and lakes will do just fine. Water is very soothing for a lot of people and is even  proven to have menial health benefits. Hills, mountains and forests are good too.

Don't hesitate to go out. See a movie. Have dinner with a friend. Meet someone for coffee. Go to a museum or a sports event. It's good to distract your pain with positive experiences.

Do take panic and severe anxiety attacks seriously. They can reoccur and make a person feel depressed and vulnerable. Attacks are terribly misunderstood and you will get bad advice from well meaning people about them. Consult a healthcare expert and not a know-it-all.

Do laugh. Laughter may not be the best medicine in the long run but it is really good for you in the short run. Watch a funny TV show or movie, check out favorite comics on You Tube.

Don't do anything that can never be reversed. You may feel awful now and maybe you suffered a bad experience, but this is not your new normal. Hang in there. It really can be darkest before the dawn.

Do take your feelings and experiences seriously. People will sometimes try to discredit their own experience and because their malady is not physical will not seek treatment. Emotional pain is just as important to deal with as physical pain.

Don't be ashamed. Many of the world's most successful and famous people have suffered from depression and other emotional upsets. You are in very good company.

01 May 2015

Haskell Tries to Clean Up

Haskell wasn’t even sure what he was on anymore. He’d snorted, shot, dropped, smoked and drank so much different stuff over the past few months that he couldn’t remember what he had taken recently. Didn’t matter, it all mixed together. Right now he was sitting in — was it his apartment? He kind of thought so but there was some doubt. This was definitely a sofa underneath him and there was a TV on showing maybe Gilligan’s Island. The coffee table in front of him looked familiar. Yeah this was his place.

For some reason Haskell’s neck hurt. Liked he’d slept funny for a long long time or had pulled a muscle. Had he been asleep or was he just becoming conscious or what? Haskell was alone, or he thought he was until he heard some soft snoring coming from behind the sofa. Someone asleep on the floor. No clue who it was but that mystery was for another time. There was light coming through the window so it was daytime. Somehow Haskell figured out from the angle of the light coming in that it was mid morning. He guessed it was a Wednesday but really that was a guess, he was pretty confident that it was a weekday.

The phone rang. My god it sounded loud and faraway and weird and disturbing. It was sitting right there on the coffee table so Haskell picked it up.

“Hey Haskell, that you, man?” It totally freaked Haskell out that there was a voice coming out of this thing in his hand. Then he remembered it was a telephone and that’s how this shit works. It took him awhile to remember he was supposed to say something back.

“Yeah. It’s me, dude. Who’s this?”

“Who’s this? You kidding me man? It’s Jaimie. How fucking loaded are you, dude?”

Haskell didn’t understand the question but he remembered that Jaimie was someone he knew and was in fact a pretty good friend, although he couldn’t picture Jaimie worth shit.

“Hey Haskell, you still there, man? God last time I saw you you were totally zonked.”

Haskell wasn’t sure what any of Jaimie had said meant. So he just said, “whatever.”

“Listen man, can I borrow your car today? I gotta help my sister move out of her house. She had a big hassle with her boyfriend and he got all violent and shit. So is it cool? I mean if I borrow your car?”

Haskell’s mind was clearing up a little bit although at the same time he saw a bunch of colors on the wall that didn’t belong and the curtains were doing some weird shit. But he decided to tell Jaimie he could borrow the car.

“Thanks, man, I’ll be right over.” Jaimie hung up. Now Haskell had a million questions for Jaimie like “where am I?” and “what day is this?” and “what should I be doing?” There was so much he didn't know didn't understand.

Haskell slumped backwards in defeat. Life had kicked the shit out of him and he didn’t know what to do. For the first time in his life Haskell was sick of being high. He’d had it. Getting high had been the be all and end all of Haskell’s existence since his first glass of wine at age 13. Now he was 26 and sitting in his apartment not sure of what day it was or much of anything else. He couldn’t control his mind. It used to be entertaining to have his brain dance and swirl around and take him places but enough was enough. When it takes you awhile to remember who you are and where you are, it's a bad scene. And there was someone laying on the floor behind his sofa snoring.

He wasn’t sure who. At least this he could investigate. Haskell stood. His legs were wobbly, he was dizzy and felt weak as a kitten. But he managed to peer over the sofa.

There was, of all things, a naked woman asleep on the floor. Haskell had two quick thoughts back-to-back: this woman was young and pretty was one and the other was that he had no freaking idea who she was.

Haskell decided to take control. He stepped around the sofa and shook her. She mumbled and groaned and finally her eyes opened. She blinked a few times, looked up at Haskell and said: “Eddie!”

It came back to Haskell, this chick thought it was funny to call him Eddie because of his last name, as in Eddie Haskell of Leave it to Beaver. “I told you my name is Ryan.”

She giggled. “Sorry Ryan.” The young woman stood up. “I gotta pee, don’t go anywhere.” She skipped to the bathroom and Haskell was left trying to remember her name and anything else about her, although he did note with satisfaction that she had a cute bouncy ass.

Haskell sat down at the kitchen table and tried to clear his head. Everything he thought about was fuzzy, including whether he had slept recently or not. The woman emerged from the bathroom. “So Ryan, we never did it last night cause you were so high. Feeling ‘up to it’ now?” and she giggled.

Haskell did indeed feel up to it, at least physically. But whether this was a good time to be making love to a veritable stranger was another matter entirely.

“Um, look, I’d really love to, but for one thing and I just gotta be honest here, I don’t even remember your name.”

“Wow, Ryan you were high last night.” The woman seem disappointed but quickly rallied. “I’m Lisa, silly. You were high last night. Look if you want me to split —“

“No, not it’s cool, we can hang out, maybe get some food.” Haskell didn’t feel like being alone, waves of depression were washing over him, and the thought of being alone was terrifying. Also he wasn’t about to let such a cutie get away. “I mean if you can forgive a dude for forgetting your name. I know we had a really good time last night.” This was pure conjecture on Haskell’s part.

“Cool, I’d love to hang out. What shall we do first? Or do we need to get like reacquainted? I mean if you forgot my name, you probably forget everything else.”

“No it’s all coming back,” Haskell lied. “A friend’s coming by to borrow my car. After he leaves maybe we can get some breakfast and go from there.”

“Awesome,” Lisa said, then gave Haskell a kiss on the forehead.

Lisa dressed. Haskell got in the shower. The water was warm and comforting but at the same time freaked him out. First he felt like he was the water, then it was like he was watching himself shower. His body alternated between feeling emaciated and powerful. The big bar of white soap looked beautiful in Haskell's hand. He thought for a moment of taking a bite out of it but instead rubbed it all over his body. He was surprised to realize that this in fact was what one was supposed to do with soap. Haskell's head swayed to and fro and this wonderful high gave him a feeling of euphoria followed instantly by stark raving terror. Haskell wondered again just what drugs he had taken most recently. It seemed pretty clear that the mescaline he bought a few days ago was one of them. He also could be pretty sure that he'd smoked a fair amount of that primo grass that Hodges had scored. There was usually cocaine and booze in the mix and maybe some ecstasy. Haskell started to dry off and as he did was overcome with laughter. He rolled on the floor laughing. No way could he have told you what he was laughing about. It was especially weird because a little while ago he was totally depressed. Then the depression came back. Then it left. Fuck this, thought Haskell.

Haskell got dressed in his room and had just finished when there was a knock at the front door. He thought: it's mom, it's the cops, it's Jaimie, it's some dude selling something, it's that chick's boyfriend, it's some fucking crazy monster type thing with a giant switch blade for an arm. What the hell, Haskell thought, might as well go open the door and find out, everybody dies sometime. Haskell walked by Lisa who was now perched on the sofa watching MTV. It was Jaimie at the door. Haskell gave Jaimie the car key. Jaimie said a quick hi to Lisa a thanks to Haskell and was gone in a flash.

Haskell's brain was calming down. He was still high, very high in fact, but felt like he could control his thought process. Moods were a different thing, they were all over the fucking map. He stared at Lisa who was sitting cross legged. She had on stressed jeans, a loose thin turquoise top and no shoes, though a pair of sandals were on the floor in front of her. Haskell still had no recollection of meeting her or any of the time they spent together but he was pleased, very pleased, that this super cute blonde chick was sitting in his apartment and had already expressed a willingness to fuck. The only thing bothering him was her age. She looked young. Goddamn if she were under 18 he'd have to get rid of her -- fast.

Lisa finally glanced over and caught his stare. She smiled. "Hey handsome, you wanna go for breakfast?"

Over breakfast Haskell talked a mile a minute. The whole life story. All conference tennis player in high school. Degree in Anthropology from Penn. An older and younger sister. Dad a lawyer, mom a pediatrician. Been living off a trust fund. No job in a year. Broke up a year ago with girlfriend who he'd been with for four years. Favorite trip was to Amsterdam. Liked to get high and party -- obviously. Was going to get shit together and find a career -- eventually. Liked to paint and write poems.

Lisa seemed impressed. She thought Haskell was handsome and funny and a lot of fun and pretty intelligent. She was a freshman at the local community college and almost 19 -- much to Haskell's relief. She worked part time as a waitress and shared an apartment with two other girls. Haskell admitted to being fuzzy about their meeting and Lisa told him it was in a party at some guy named Doug's house. Haskell remembered that Doug was a friend of Jaimie's brother.

By the time they finished eating Haskell was coming down from whatever combination of drugs that were in his system. He felt like drinking a beer and firing a doobie but vowed to stay sober for the rest of the day. Hell, maybe even that night, who knows -- right? In any case Haskell was going to clean up his act.

They went back to Haskell's place and made love. Haskell had been with a few chicks since breaking up with Celeste a year ago, but none had been serious and none for more than a couple of dates. He really really liked Lisa. She was the cutest girl he'd ever gone to bed with -- Celeste included -- and even though she wasn't yet 19, Lisa seemed pretty together and maybe even a little smart. Plus it seemed like she really liked him.

Lisa had a boyfriend for a couple of years in high school but he went to the other side of the country for college and they decided not to try to maintain a long distance relationship. Haskell -- Ryan, to her -- was the oldest guy she'd ever been with and -- even though he was kind of goofy -- the most mature. She was willing to let things ride with him for awhile.

Lisa went off to class in the early afternoon and Haskell was left alone at last, although they were going to hook up in the evening when she got through waitressing. Haskell decided to try and sketch Lisa from memory. Then he decided that first he'd write a poem about her. He scratched out a few lines but they sucked. Maybe just one joint wouldn't hurt and would for sure get him going. Haskell lit one. Pot made him thirsty so he grabbed a beer. After the first slug he thought maybe he should have gone with something non alcoholic but it was too late now. You can't really write or paint while you're sipping a beer so Haskell turned on the TV -- just for a minute. Jurassic Park was just starting. He loved that movie.

Half way through Jurassic Park Jaimie showed up with Haskell's car key. It had been a stressful day for him what with moving his sister out of a shitty situation, so Haskell suggested he might want to fire up a blunt. They smoked it together. They they had a beer. Jaimie had brought over a six pack of Heineken as way of thanking Haskell for the use of the wheels. They finished it off and then polished off the last two bottles of Becks in the fridge. Haskell had now had five beers and smoked a joint and half of really strong weed. Jaimie said: "you want to go over to Rocky's house? He's got some E."

It seemed to Haskell that Rocky always had E, so that was nothing new, it also seemed to him that he had made a promise to himself to stay sober that night. That plan was fucked but at least he could taper off and not be totally shit faced when he met Lisa at 9:00. Haskell said to Jaimie: "no thanks, man, I gotta date with that chick you saw this morning. You go and have a good time."

"Hey man, that chick was hot. You already bone her?"

By way of answer Haskell laughed and playfully punched Jaimie in the arm. "Dude, what do you think? She was righteous."

Jaimie left ten minutes later. It was 6:30 and Haskell intended to spend the next two and half hours not getting high.

There was no beer in the house and only a little bit of weed so Haskell thought he had a good chance of making it to 9:00. Plus he intended to spend a chunk of the time taking a nap and in fact he felt into a deep dead sleep right there on the sofa. He woke up in a panic not sure what day it was let alone what time and wondering immediately if he'd blown the date with Lisa. But to Haskell's relief it was only 8:15. Plenty of time to shower and change. The thing was, though, Haskell was feeling really groggy, all the recent drugs he'd been using had taken a toll. Cutting down was definitely in order. But that didn't help Haskell now. Then he remembered he had still had some blow somewhere. A few lines would perk him right up and he'd be good to go.

It took awhile but Haskell finally found the coke in a baggie in a jacket pocket. He was only going to do two lines but he had enough for four so what the hell, might as well finish it off so it wouldn't be a temptation in the future.

Haskell made it to the restaurant where Lisa worked just at 9:00. She was wearing a top that totally revealed like half her breasts and Haskell was instantly turned on. They immediately decided on pizza and decided to take it to her apartment which was nearby. Her roommates weren't home, one was spending the night with her boyfriend and the other was off at some party. Lisa's fridge was well stocked with beer, plus she had some tequila. The two new lovers had just a little bit of pizza but a lot of booze. Haskell wasn't going to drink but Lisa seemed to want to and he wasn't going to let some chick he was with drink alone. No way.

Haskell loved being with Lisa. Not only was she hot and sexy but she was a lot of fun and could hold her liquor -- unlike Celeste and most other girls Haskell had ever been with. They'd already made love and gotten out of bed to watch some TV when Lisa's roommate Ashley came home from the party. She had some dude with her named Cody and Cody had a shitload of coke. At first Haskell thought he shouldn't indulge then decided it was probably what Lisa wanted. It wasn't long before Haskell had paid a fair price for some of the coke and they were all tooting. The party lasted until the sun came up when Lisa dragged Haskell into her bed.

They made love again although Haskell was so high he wasn't at his best. Lisa didn't mind so much as she was exhausted and fell asleep with a limp Haskell right on top of her. Haskell had had way too much coke to be able to sleep. He done three lines to every one that Lisa or Cody or Ashley had done.  He climbed off Lisa and went back to the living room, forgetting to put his clothes back on. Cody and Ashley had gone to bed anyway. Haskell picked up the bottle of tequila and chugged. This was it. After today he was seriously going to cut back. He was going to get a job. He was going to really work on his paintings and his poetry and start playing tennis again. For right now though Haskell was already totally loaded and there was no point not finishing off the tequila. He did.

It looked like it was going to be a sunny day. The weather had been overcast the past few days and Haskell could do with some sun. He opened the sliding door to a little balcony and stood there, still naked. Fuck it. If someone sees me, Haskell thought, that's there good luck. The apartment was on the 12th floor so Haskell had a view of much of the city.

"It's weird because, well it's weird for sure, because. Something is weird anyway." Haskell was talking aloud. "Goddamn man I feel so fucking old all of sudden. It's like man I'm young I've got a whole life ahead of me to live but I feel like 80 for some reason. It's gotta be all this shit I've been putting into me. I must be fucking crazy to be putting all this poison in me. Shit lissun to me, man, my voice is so slurred. I can't talk worth shit. This is ridiculous."

"Hey!" Haskell shouted at the city. Then he mumbled, "don't wanna talk to anyone anyway anyhow anytime any many penny whennie..." and he started to giggle. The giggle turned into a full throated laugh. Tears streamed from Haskell's eyes. When Haskell stopped laughing he realized his chest hurt. Hurt like hell. "Fuck this, man," he said loudly. "Don't want no pain on the membrane on the brain in my refrain. See? I am a fucking poet and I really do know it!"

Haskell heard a kitten in the balcony below meowing. He leaned over the railing saying "here kitty kitty kitty, here kitty kitty kitty," and laughing like hell. "Fuck it I want to pet that cat." Haskell leaned forward to try to grab the cat which was actually about 10 feet below. As he leaned forward and stretched his arm Haskell realized that what he was doing was not just fruitless but downright dangerous. Then he fell. Twelve floors to the sidewalk.

Haskell was killed on impact.

There was initially some sentiment that he might have committed suicide but the official judgment was, given how much alcohol and cocaine were in his system, that Ryan Haskell age 26 of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania died due to an accidental fall.

One witness to his fall said that Haskell screamed like a banshee the whole way.

30 April 2015

The Mysterious Contents of the Burlap Sack

It was a cold winter morning in 1963 I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Faulkner and looking out the window at the fog and wet streets. It had rained the night before and more looked to be coming. That suited me fine. I was wearing a warm wool sweater and khakis. My loafers were not ideal for wet weather but they'd do. Other than all I had with me was the book, an umbrella and in my pockets my wallet, keys, loose change and a comb.

I had a girl named Charlene who was part of a folk music trio. She had long black hair, that hung down to her ass, a slender figure and beautiful green eyes. She was taller me than me by a good two inches. I was thinking that Charlene may have had a thing for one of the guy's in the trio, Larry McKinnon. He was two inches taller than Charlene, the opposite of me, and was a charming guy and  talented musician. The third member of the trio was a scrawny fella called Doug Speer, it was widely known that he was queer. 

Charlene's trio was called the Wanderers and they were playing a few gigs in the valley that week. This meant that Charlene was off with Larry McKinnon and I was stuck in Berkeley feeling melancholy. On the other hand I had a lot to do. I was trying to earn my PHd in Literature at the University of California and as you might expect had ton of reading to do. Actually the Faulkner book wasn't even on my reading list. I'm such a book junkie that I was actually reading a novel for fun while I had about half a dozen I needed to finish in a few weeks for school. 

The bleak weather suited me. I've always liked it grey and wet I've never been one for outdoor activities except for walks, which I don't need the sun shining to do. The only sport I'd ever played was basketball which I stunk at. I was too much of a loner to be any good at sports anyway.

My mother had died from cancer the previous Summer and my dad was struggling to keep his record store open, especially since he was depressed about losing Mom who he had been married to for 30 years. My little sister, Evie, was no help. She was screwing up royally in school and spent most of her time chasing boys. It was even money she wouldn't graduate high school with her class that Spring. But they were all up in Tacoma, Washington which is where I was born and raised. They might as well have been on the moon. Out of sight out of mind.

My dog Rufus was tied up outside and it seemed he was becoming aware of the fact that I was taking my sweet time. I'd heard a few tentative howls and he'd gotten on his hind legs a few times to peer through a window. If he spotted me, the howling would triple in volume and frequency very quickly. Rufus could stand to be tied up outside for only so long before he got antsy.

I decided to finish the coffee and take Rufus home. The rain could start again any second and Rufus wasn't big on walking in so much as a drizzle. I left a half a buck on my table which covered the coffee the refill and a tip. I headed out. My name is Whitney Peterson, although some people call me Whit. Dad, Evie and Charlene all called me Whitney and some other people do when they first meet me, but mostly people assume that Whit is okay. Doesn't matter to me. I was 25 years old at the time.

Anyway this is a story about the time my pretty ordinary life became pretty interesting -- for a short time. It's taken awhile but I figure its worth telling. You can decide whether I'm right.

The part about being in the coffee shop reading Faulkner isn't so germane to the story but I remember it so vividly and it happened just before things got interesting so I decided to include it. Also let's be clear, I'm a life long student of English literature and an avid reader but I'm nobody's idea of a great writer and I admit that right off. So remember that I may read Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I don't claim to write like any of them. Not even close.

After the coffee I'd taken Rufus for a walk in the park and repaired to the room I had in the Tofelson's backyard. Abe and Leona Tofelson were a retired couple who had converted their garage into sort of cottage to rent out to college students. It was perfect for me because it meant I could keep Rufus. He had the run of the backyard, although he spent nights inside with me, usually nestled at the foot of my bed. Rufus was all mutt, a big wire haired dog with gray, white and black fur.

My living quarters were what you would call cozy. Plenty of room for a bed, chair, desk, hotplate and all my books. There was even a half bath with a toilet. I had to go into the Tofelson's house for showers but I had pre-arranged times so as not to surprise or disturb them. Best of all the rent was dirt cheap.  They even invited me over for dinner some nights and Leona Tofelson was one helluva cook. I'd been living there for two and half years at the time of this story. They liked me because I was quiet and paid the rent on time. The Tofelsons didn't even mind Charlene occasionally spending the night with me.


I was laying in bed reading -- this time it was an assigned work of Sinclair Lewis -- when I dozed off. This was not unusual for me. I often fell asleep reading then woke up and just picked right back up where I left off. I was dreaming about flying. Not in an airplane, just as if I were a bird. I was flying across San Francisco Bay towards the Golden Gate Bridge when a loud thud against my door woke me up. It took a second to confirm to myself that this was not part of my dream and an investigation was in order. Tentatively I opened the door. There was a large burlap sack with something heavy in it on the ground beside my the door. I looked to the left, to the right, straight ahead and even straight up. I saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary except the sack. Two instincts were in direct competition: one was to pick the damn sack up and see what was inside; the other was to have someone else do the dirty work, perhaps Mr. Tofelson. But I noticed that his truck wasn't in the driveway so it was either going to be up to me to have a peak or I could just leave it. Option two  seemed out of the question. My curiosity had gotten the better of me.

First I bent down and looked at the bag hoping that its shape might reveal something, perhaps there was some tell tale bulges. My conclusion was that the whatever was in the bag was in the shape of a human head. I found this idea to be most disturbing indeed. I picked up the bag and noted that it was quite heavy. Too heavy, I thought, to hold a regulation human head, save one that had been hollowed out and filled with cement. It was nearly a minute of holding the damn bag before I felt brave enough to look inside.

I had no idea what I was looking at. It was round and metal and had what appeared to be minutely carved incisions in patterns. I turned it around like you would when looking at the other side of the world on a globe. It looked like there were two eyes, actually it was hollow where these oval shaped eyes were. There were no other markings on this side. I remember looking at it and actually saying out loud: "what the hell are you?" I also wondered where it came from, I mean who chucked it against my door. Was I selected or was it at random?

Rufus finally came out. I put the object down and he went over and sniffed it. I was surprised at how much sniffing he did and how interested he was in it. I mean for crying out loud it wasn't organic so what kind of smell could it have had? I sure didn't smell anything. But Rufus was fascinated. When the mutt was done sniffing he sat down and just stared at it. This was spooky.

It was past 1:00 and I had to be on campus in an hour for a seminar. I decided to head out their early and see if someone could help me sort out what this metal head actually was. But who?

I finally settled on a friend named Harry Fillmore who was a grad student in psychics. Harry would almost certainly be working at the department office or doing research in the same building, which was LeConte Hall. I'd be glad just to get rid of the damn thing. After wolfing down a sandwich and glass of milk I set off on the 20 minute walk to campus lugging the bag with me. I'd find Harry, give him the whatever the hell it was and make it to my seminar in plenty of time.

Sure enough Harry was holding the fort in the office.

"Got something for you," I said by way of greeting, then without further ado, handed him the sack.

"What is it?"

"See for yourself."

Harry took a long look into the bag and then said: "So I repeat: what is it?"

"Beats me. That's why I brought to you. I can't make heads nor tails out of it. Thought maybe you could. Weird thing is that spooked Rufus. He was sniffing away at it and then sat in stared at it."

"Where'd it come from?"

"That's another weird thing. Someone tossed it against my door. Woke me up from a nap."


"No clue, Harry. Mind if I palm it off on you? I couldn't think what the hell to do with the damn thing but thought you'd either figure something out or be able to pass it along to someone who could."

"Sure I'll take it off your hands. I like a good mystery. I'd say that based on these markings it seemed something for the archeology department but given the shine of it and whatever its composed of it may be up our alley."

"So you've got no clue what we've got here just looking at it."

"Hell, Whit if I had to guess I'd say its from outer space."

"You're ribbing me, right?"

"Well, kind of but the truth is that seems a good a guess as any. I'll take a closer look, check with one of my profs and then maybe we'll figure out what we're dealing with. Or we'll go mad trying."

"I've got to head to class. Thanks for taking it and when you find out what it is lemme know."

"Sure thing. And if someone tosses anything else of interest against your door, just bring it on by."

"I promise."

I liked Harry. We'd been roommates my sophomore year at Cal. We had different interests academically but shared the same sardonic sense of humor and had some great chats over spaghetti dinners and bottles of wine. Harry was also on his way to a Phd and there was no question that he was destined for big things. He was the darling of the department. Harry had a fiancé named Kate who was probably the world's prettiest librarian. Charlene and I sometimes double dated with them

I headed to my seminar and forgot all about the stupid bag and the mysterious metal head.


It was about two days later that I finally thought about the mystery bag. Charlene was back in town. The first thing we had done was get between the sheets and become reacquainted with one another's bodies. We were laying there after chatting when I remembered about the bag and told the story. Naturally Charlene asked if I'd followed up with Harry. It wasn't unusual for me to get absorbed in my studies and forget about most everything so it didn't surprise Charlene that I hadn't. It was just then that there was a gentle knock on the door, it was Mrs. Tofelson telling me I had a phone call. I rarely got calls but when I did they came to the Tofelsons. They didn't mind seeing as how I got so few.

I hastily dressed and dashed through the Tofelson's back porch and into their kitchen where their old fashioned wall phone was off the hook waiting for me. It was Harry and he was excited.

"Whit, I've got some news. That head you brought in has been analyzed and no one can figure out what the heck it is. More than that whatever its made from is a total mystery. One prof said the only thing that he could figure was that it came another planet."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I absolutely am not. Course no one is taking that idea seriously, except me. I swear to you Whit there is something really strange about this and its creeping people out."

"Where's it now?"

"Oh I don't have it. Looks like I'm out. Someone in geology is looking at it now. I've been promised that I'll be kept in the loop so I'll let you know when I learn anything new."

"Thanks I appreciate it. How you been, by the way?"

"Me, I'm fine. Better question is how you been? I'm sorry to hear about Charlene...."

"What about her?"

"Come on, Whit, everyone knows she's been keeping real close company with what's-his-name the guitarist. Sleeping together on tour and registering like husband and wife at motels. You'll find someone better. How'd she put it to you anyway?"

"She didn't"


"I gotta go. Thanks for the latest dope. Stay in touch."

I was shocked but not surprised. I'd had a feeling for awhile that she was going to take up with this McKinnon guy. What got me the most was that she came back into town and not only didn't level with me but immediately hopped in the sack like everything was normal between us.

"Bad news there?" Mr. Tofelson, pipe in one hand, evening paper in the other, had just come into the kitchen and saw whatever expression was on my face.

"Oh, not really. Just a surprise. Thanks for letting me use the phone again."

"Never a bother. Say you want to come back later for dinner? Leona's making pork chops."

My immediate reaction was to say beg off but given that I was about to send Charlene packing a good family meal might be just what I needed.

"Usual time?"

"'Course. See you then."

The Tofelsons always had dinner at 6:00 except Sundays when it was at 4:30. Don't ask me why. But they were as regular as clockwork about meal times.

Returning to my room Charlene greeted me with the question: "You up for another round, handsome?"

The nerve.

"Word is you've taken up with McKinnon. In fact everyone but me seems to know." I said coldly.

Charlene turned white. She got up and wordlessly dressed. Once she had her clothes on and her purse clutched to her bosom she finally spoke. "I was going to tell you, Whitney, honest I was. I really just wanted one last bout of passion with you."

"So you could compare me with McKinnon?" This was icy cold and mean.

"Goodbye Whitney. I had fun with you. Honestly I did. Maybe we can talk about it sometime."

"Maybe not." Icier yet. Charlene went out the door. A year later she and McKinnon split and the trio was kaput too.

*********************************************************************************It was a week after Harry's call and I hadn't heard from him so being near LeConte Hall I decided to pay a visit. A secretary I kind of knew named Ruth said Harry hadn't been heard from in a few days and no one knew where he was. They'd tried calling his apartment but had gotten no answer. They even called Kate and she didn't know where he'd gone off too. This was troubling because Harry was reliable and consistent. I went from there over to his apartment which was near campus. A lot of knocks on the door weren't answered. His landlady from downstairs finally emerged and told me she hadn't seen Harry since before the weekend. This was a Tuesday.

I went back to the physics department and found a prof that Harry worked with, Dr. Vine. He was as worried as I was, but the strange thing was his reaction when I asked about mysterious metallic head.  Dr. Vine immediately looked down then to his left. He didn't say anything for a several seconds. Finally: "oh that, yeah that was nothing." I didn't believe Dr. Vine. It wasn't just what he said -- which contradicted what Harry had told me -- but the way he said. I didn't figure that questioning further was going to get me anywhere so I split.

My plan was to drop by the Geology Department and see what they knew since when I last spoke to Harry he said they had the bag. But it would have to wait because I had a paper due and needed the rest of the day to work on it. My next few hours were spent in the library. When I finally got home I took Rufus for a walk and then it was lights out.

It was eight the next morning when I was awoken by a solid knock on my door. Something about this knock seemed official. I put on a robe and opened the door. There were two large men in suits and wide brimmed hairs filling the doorway. One asked if I was Whitney Peterson. I said I was and they both immediately flashed badges. "Is this about Harry?" I asked. "Is there bad news or are you guys investigating his disappearance?" I was at once scared and hopeful.

"No Mr. Peterson. We don't know anything about your friend, Fillmore. We're just here to talk to you about something you discovered, a bag with an object in it."

"Yeah, but is this a police matter?" I was curious.

The one who did all the talking ignored the question. "Any idea where it came from? How it happened to be thrown against your door?"

"No. None. I was asleep at the time. I looked around after I saw it but saw nothing or no one nor even any sign of anyone."

"You're sure?"

"Positive. Say what's the big deal? What is it and why are you guys interested? Was there a crime committed? And are you sure you don't anything about Harry?"

The guy who did all the talking took out a notebook and jotted something in it with a stub of a pencil then officiously put the notebook back into his inside coat pocket.

"I'm afraid I'm not liberty to answer your questions. We don't know who this Harry fellow is. I will tell you this: you should lose interest in this case. There's nothing to it that is of any concern of yours. Nothing. We strongly advise you not pursue it. Were the people who live in the house home at the time the bag hit your door?"

I told them no, they thanked me and left.

This was downright bizarre. Why had Professor Vine acted so strange when I asked him about the head? Why had these men warned me off even asking about it and why were the police looking into it anyway? And  what, if anything, did Harry's disappearance have to do with it? Then I realized something. First the cop had referred to Harry as "friend" and by his last name then he claimed not to even know who he was. He was lying, just like Dr. Vine.

I changed my mind about going by the Geology Department, there seemed little chance anyone was going to acknowledge that their had been a heavy head-like object given to them to analyze and anyway the cops had me spooked about making further inquiries.

Believe it or no that's pretty much where the story stands with the exception of an epilogue. You see I never learned anything from anybody about the metal head in the bag. And certainly not why it was thrown against my door. Anyway I was pretty busy with my doctoral program. Harry never showed up. I spent a lot of time comforting his fiancé Kate and two years later she was my fiancé and a year after that we were married. We still are. Rufus is long dead but has been since replaced several times by other mutts. I've loved them all and of course I've loved Kate and the two kids we've had.

The epilogue is this. Five years later Kate and I were in Chicago for the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention, the one where the cops went on a protestor beating frenzy. We were standing in a Lincoln Park early one morning talking with a friend when we saw a rather disheveled looking gent shuffle by. I immediately recognized him to be Harry Fillmore. I nudged Kate. "Harry?" I said. Harry looked at us, his eyes got wide. He tentatively approached us and finally put a hand on my shoulder and looking at Kate said: "I got away from them. Don't tell them you saw me."

"Who?" Kate and I said almost simultaneously.

Harry searched our eyes with his, they moved back and forth. His body was shaking. "I'm not telling. And I'm not telling about the head. They'll kill me if I do." Then quietly, looking down. "You know it wasn't from here." Then he looked up to the sky.

Kate said, pleadingly, "Harry what's wrong, what is it, can't we help you?"

Harry shook his head no and said: "they asked me to sign something saying I'd never talk about the head, never tell what I know. I refused. They made me pay for that refusal. They took me away, you know, but I finally escaped. Some day I'll tell, I'll tell the world what I know. People will believe me." Then Harry ran. Harry was always a good athlete and ran track in high school. There was no way I was going to catch him. He disappeared into the crowd.

We never saw nor heard from him again. I wish this wasn't a true story. But it is.