29 June 2015

Not a Normal Norman My Great Childhood and Teenage Friend the Unforgettable Mark Norman

That's Mark on the left and Mooney on the right.
(Sprinkled throughout this post are excerpts from a quite lengthy letter I received from Mark in 1973. They are in italics.)

He was the president of the Norman Nut Club. I in turn was that club’s vice president and the president of the Hourula Tramp Club with him serving as my vice president. We boasted no other members to either organization. His name was Mark Norman and for my most of my childhood he was my best friend.

Mark was older than me by exactly four days. We met while in kindergarten and instantly became friends. A little over ten years later we were taking LSD together. We were also teammates on a soccer team that won the California State Championship for 16 years and under teams.

By the way, did I tell you Mooney died? Good old anus-liver Mooney snuck out and died. Now he's in paradise (as the Bible says) having a good time, I'm stuck on Earth.)

I have always been a — let us say — unconventional person and this includes when I was mere lad. If anything Mark was more unconventional than I was. We were precocious in our skepticism and defiance of authority. Some of this was likely born of our being quite intelligent but we also viewed the world as if it was slightly off kilter. And as if we were too. We were questioning modern conventions as second graders. We also looked at our classmates as hopelessly out of it. They were conforming and fast tracking to adulthood. Mark and I were headed in other directions. It's no wonder we later took to drugs, we needed a vehicle for our journey.

Once we threw dirt clods and rocks into a mailbox. A cop spotted us. Once we staged a fake fight on someone’s front yard, a resident came out to stop us. We refused to join the school's traffic patrol because it was hopelessly square.

We fell in love with The Beatles at the same time. We’d play their music and I’d pretend to be Paul and he’d be Ringo. We played war board games. Mark was much better than me. I trained him to be a goalie and he ended up being quite good and joined my team. In our mid and later teens we looked at our teammates as stereotypical jocks and viewed ourselves as enlightened beings. We weren't really arrogant, it's more we thought ourselves blessed with the gift of uniqueness. Not better, just different.

We were both massive underachievers throughout school, although Mark took it to an extreme and dropped out of high school while I went on to college and hatful of degrees and certificates. I dropped acid about half a dozen times. Mark dropped one hundred times. He did not believe in half measures.

Jesus freaks don't know what Jesus was. He was telepathic, clairvoyant, could levitate himself and was from another world. He was well acquainted with spaceships.

We often had crushes on the same girls but were both too shy to act on them. I start dated and lost my virginity. I don’t know that Mark ever did. Once while very high Mark said: “I want to ball a dude someday.” I don’t know that he ever did. I kind of doubt it.

Mark liked Star Trek and I preferred sit coms. Mark read fantasy novels and sci fi, I read Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. But we liked the same kind of music and movies. We saw a lot of films together. From Jerry Lewis movies when we were little to If...(1968) as teenagers.

I started reading Rampa books, then became telepathic and then spent 1 to 1 1/2 years cutting my drug intake to zero.

I was always short and Mark was always tall. We were both blonde. I was (and am) 100% Finnish. Mark was 25% Finnish. I spoke the language but he didn’t. When we were young his family had a black maid. His mother was young. His dad looked like the father in the Dennis the Menace TV show. His parents divorced and his mother quickly remarried. His step father’s name was Marvin. I think Mark and his younger siblings (a brother and a sister) were a little scared of Marvin. Although he did ride a Harley which they thought was pretty cool.

Mark lived in a big house that was fun to play in but for some reason we spent 90% at my place. My family got used to Mark being around. They probably thought he was weird but harmless.

Cats are superior to humans all animals know more than humans about truth and life. We work machines, have false religions, and think animals are dumb. Shit, we're the dumb ones.

We were once playing tackle football and Mark broke Georges Bouldin’s arm. He didn't know his own strength. I'm not sure he knew his own intellect which was at least the equal of mine.

The whole time we knew each other Mark and I talked constantly. We understood each other and he could see through me when I was bullshitting him. It was hard for me to lie to Mark for this reason, not that I had much cause to. He was also more even tempered and rational than me.

I scored the winning goal in the state championship. Mark was in goal. I ran to him and we grabbed hands and he said “you did it.” Other teammates hugged me. Mark was not into it. I doubt we ever embraced. Besides soccer glory we also went to anti war demonstrations and were tear gassed. Mark took many more risks than I did and gleefully joined those who through rocks at cops. I don't know that it was so much a matter of political conviction for him as a sense that all structures were inherently corrupt and the police were the personification of that corruption.

It may seem to you to be cliched but mountain wandering is indeed paradise on Earth.
That's all I think about...mountains to come...what life on Earth really is...physical pain (apprehensively)...How poorly I'm doing...Drug damage (horrible)...Death, (ahh how I await that sweet door)...how dumb humans are (me too)....War...how good it is to be telepathic.

As teenagers we added another friend named Mike Mooney. Mike was smart and funny but tragic. He was the one person we both got along with well enough to make our duo into a trio. We would drop acid with Mike and wander around Tilden Park. We also would hang out in a shack behind Mike’s house. His parents had exiled him there. Mike would go out into the neighborhood and burglarize houses taking only liquor. He never touched cash. Mark and I would wait in the shack and then partake with Mooney when he got back.

Mooney and I had an up and down relationship but Mark would affect reconciliations. One Saturday after our team won a big match Mark and I and Mooney took some stolen booze into the woods and commenced to guzzling, mixing all variety of the hard stuff. My future as an alcoholic was on full display. I soon vomited profusely then passed out and was literally blind drunk. Mooney and Mark had to lead me home. Mark later told me that while I was passed out Mooney and he had agreed that if the three of us were stranded on an island I would be the first to die. Two years later Mooney died of an overdose and Mark, by his own admission was in the process of frying his brains on drugs.

I talk to dead people all the time they insult me and I wish I were up there with them gawking at the shadow people on Earth.

Once I went off to college that was the end of my relationship with Mark. There were letters exchanged but I never saw him again. I got the letter excerpted here from him two years after last seeing him. (I hadn't seen it in decades until a couple of days ago.) Eight years after the letter I talked to him on the phone. He sounded way, way out there. He wanted to get together but he sounded so fucking strange that I couldn’t stand the thought. His brother had gone into the army and his sister had a brief career as a professional tennis player. I don't know what happened with his folks.

Since the advent of the internet I’ve tried to track Mark down a few times. The closest I came was yesterday. It seems he’s living in San Juan Capistranto. That’s as much as I could discover. I suddenly find that I want to contact him, speak to him or exchange emails. We were massive influences on one another. We grew up together and whatever we became is owed in small part to each other. I don’t know that we were soul mates but certainly blood brothers.

Here is more! I wonder how you'll take this letter? (like a disease) Norris and I are going to go crazy in the Mountains. We'll even get to 14,496 feet if we don't murder each other earlier (I'm bringing a knife just in case)

I hope that he’s had an enjoyable, productive life and that drug usage didn’t actually do permanent damage. For all I know he had less of problem with drugs and booze than I did, which would be saying a lot because my story is a long one.

Weird and wonderful as he was, Mark kept me on an even keel. If I went off the deep end with opinions or stories or plans he could bring me back to reality. Well maybe not exactly reality, but closer to whatever truth was. He was also damn fun to be with. Mark had a zest for life an enthusiasm for tackling it and seeing what it was all about. There’s no question but that he was a very intelligent person. Most of all he had a spirit. Damn I was lucky to know him.

Anwyay, (again) come by some day, but remember I am a heroin addict so I may be incoherent, but don't worry, I sure don't smoke dope anymore. I just hang around, milling about, looking for the riot that'll never come, hoping that I can get some dough for my Summer trip passing out occasionally from the sheer excitement of living and waiting forlornly for a space ship to pick me up and put me somewhere else. Yes, yes it sure is fun.
Well, I think I'll go back to sleep.

24 June 2015

Stupid Mustard! Observations, Complaints, Comments and Memories

I just discovered a mustard stain on my shirt. One that only just came back from the cleaners last week. Mustard stains are unforgiving. Others you can wash right out with some cold water but mustard just sits there mocking you. It is upsetting but I will recover from this. Although right now the pain is barely bearable. (Barely bearable?) The missus will take matters into her own hands and smite the stain. I love her and not just for her capacity to make food/clothing disasters disappear. She is a wonder of nature. I am more a blunder of nature. But there it is.

Ya know what I'm getting sick of? (Besides mustard stains.) The following questions and its variations: "will there be anything else?" No. No, there will not be anything else. If there was going to be anything else I would have brought it up here with my other purchases or already ordered it. When I'm getting ready to pay I never think, wait, there's something else I want. And if I did, I would say it. Why this question? Who decided that people working counters and check outs should ask it? I totally get: "can I help you find something?" I get it and sometimes appreciate it. Although truth be told that question rarely is asked when in fact I do need help finding something. Usually when I need help there isn't a sole for miles. When I don't need help I tend to be surrounded by armies of store employees begging to help.

Some people tell you that they are "more than happy" to help. You're ecstatic about helping me? C'mon no one is buying that. Glad to help is plausible. Happy to help, well maybe. But more than happy? Please.

This statement is often proffered by the same folks who say: "don't hesitate to ask." Why? What the hell is so wrong with hesitating? I may hesitate because I'm wondering if this is the right person to ask or if this is the right time or if its really that important. I could be doing you a big favor by hesitating to ask. No harm is ever done by hesitating to ask. Harm can be done by not hesitating and asking.

I know, I notice a lot of silly stuff that people say and make a big frickin' deal out of it. Whattaya want I've been around for awhile, I'm sensitive and I have an enduring romance with language and an abiding hatred of its abuse.  Like it drives me crazy when people say: "these ones." How about just saying "these." (I know I've brought this up before.) I also wonder how "often times" is any different than just "often." I used to try to get my dad to stop saying "noon time" and just say "noon" but to no avail. That's rather odd because he was pretty good about heeding my suggestions about language. He realized that he was born in rural Finland and came to English as an adult and that I was born here and got myself an education. He was already fluent by the time I was a little kid. Self taught. Was quite literate too. He was really annoyed by his fellow Finns who would come over here and not be able to or not even try to pick up the lingo. (Now there's a word you don't hear much anymore: lingo.)

A memory of my dad that has always stayed with me was when as a kid I once mentioned his accent to him. He angrily, and with a thick accent, said, "I don't have an accent." This was strange for two reasons. My father had a really long slow fuse, especially when I was a tyke. I could count the number of times I saw him angry. The other reason is, of course, that he didn't recognize his own accent. Today I teach a class called Pronunciation and Conversation and accent reduction has become something of a speciality of mine in the ESL world. My father could have used my class. (Just sayin' Dad, relax).

My poor children have had to put up with me and crankiness and melancholia their whole lives yet somehow seem to think I've been a good father. Who am I to argue? They even gave me the iPhone 6 for Father's Day. I love my daughters and being a dad has been one of the great joys of my life. If not the greatest. I recently heard two childless adult co-workers talk about how they'd never want children, they both agreed that raising children was "a lot of work." Wow. Humans must be the only species that think of bringing up their offspring as "work." I have no problem with people who do not want to have children. Such people should definitely refrain from doing so. But to call it "work" is missing the experience entirely. I've found it to be a pure pleasure, even when it wasn't. This reminds me of something I sometimes said when teaching middle school: "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." Other teachers knew what the hell I was saying. I sometimes do make sense. Even to myself.

Can I get you anything else?

18 June 2015

These Will Likely Never be Referred to as The Good Old Days

Prayer vigil for Charleston victim
You'd think that at some point we'd become a bit numb to all of this. These mass killings. These -- what's the world the politicians always trot out? -- "senseless" acts. But the latest in Charleston, South Carolina really hits home for a lot of us. Nine people killed in a church by someone who pronounces that he is there "to kill black people." Anyone who tells you that we live in a post racial America is a frickin' idiot. But then there are a lot of idiots spouting utter rot today -- as in most days -- and they serve to aggravate our country's problems.

Speaking of idiots, Fox News. Some of those morons have averred that this was not a racial crime but an attack on religion, specifically christianity. Which is contradicted by his stated intention to "kill black people." He further said, "You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go." Think he was talking about African Americans or christians? The claim is further contradicted by what we know about this scumbag. He was a virulent racist who on his Facebook page wore flags representing apartheid era South Africa and the former white supremacist nation of Rhodesia. There seems to be nothing anti-christian in his background. But the blithering idiots at Fox will never miss an opportunity to cloak themselves in the martyrdom of the persecuted christian. Yes, poor christians have it rough in this country.

Presidential candidate Rand Paul said that we should not look to the government for help in these types of situations. In other words a President Paul would say: "say folks that's a shame, well you're on your own, good luck with that, huh?" I don't suppose a Paul government would want to waste precious government resource on tackling "problems" especially when they don't concern the elite.

It is also predictable that the gun lobby has pointed the blame squarely where it belongs. I'm kidding of course. They hold gun free zones responsible. There should have been someone there, they argue, with a gun. In their minds (they do have them, don't they?) we need more people with guns in more places at more times. What could possibly go wrong? We're most of us responsible citizens who are well trained in firearm use and are only to happy to shoot a wrong doer on the spot. For example, the alleged Charleston killer owned a gun, legally. Wait, that's a bad argument. Anyway if pastors toted shootin' irons they could mow down anyone who interrupts a prayer service with their weapon. Arm everyone, except potential mass murderers. Easy peasy.

It has also been duly noted that most mass murderers are young white males. This goes back at least to Charlie Whitman who killed 16 people and wounded 32 others from a Texas tower in 1964. The list of white mass murderers in the last few years alone is nearly all white. Also, as President Obama pointed out, this is a peculiarly American problem. The young white American, not so much a menace to society as lethal killing machine.

Memorial set up in Berkeley near balcony collapse. Photo by me today.
Earlier in the week Berkeley made the news as six young people fell to their deaths when the balcony they were on collapsed. Five of them were Irish nationals here on student visas.  It was a horrible tragedy. The next morning I walked by the site of the calamity, a solemn experience indeed. In the face of this tragedy I was struck by some of the comments on Berkeleyside a website which provides local news. Berkeleyside is very good at covering local stories, be they about restaurant openings, murders, new high school principals or local theater. However for some reason an appalling number of the comments on their stories are made by malicious cretins who seem to hate humanity as a whole and local institutions in particular. Reading the comments section one would think that Berkeley is a post apocalyptic cesspool run by mutant fiddler crabs. I weep for humanity whenever I read the comments which is why I generally avoid them. But I was drawn to them during Berkeleyside's excellent coverage of the balcony collapse. (I'll never make that mistake again.) Here is some of what I learned from the depraved malcontents who commented: the police were at fault for not responding to a complaint of excessive noise shortly before the collapse; the Irish are rowdy drunks so what does one expect? (what, this is 1903?); the Irish tend to cram themselves in to small places; the Irish come to the United States merely to party; this was really a tale of alcohol abuse; being asked to be respectful of the recently deceased is an abridgment of free speech; and the following which I quote: "Most kids today are nearly savages when outside their homes the result is car crashes, fights murders, shootings, bullying, unwanted pregnancies, and general dissipation resulting in loss of personal respect, and in the end overweight and complete failure." (One supposes the writer longs for the days of white picket fence America where children were well-behaved and attended church socials or stopped at the malt shop.)

If you have any interest in the fair community of Berkeley, California I can heartily recommend bookmarking the Berkelyside website. I also strongly urge you to avoid the comments following its stories, they are not for the faint of heart -- or the intelligent.

I close with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." 

13 June 2015

Can Comedy Even Be Funny Anymore?

"It's always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it's just hilarious." - - Bill Hicks

Groucho Marx, George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce are spinning in their graves. These guys knew from jokes. Their targets were anyone and everyone and they not only made you laugh but helped you think. They said what was on their minds -- and such wonderful minds -- and didn't worry if it hurt anyone's sensibilities. In fact, they kind of hoped it would. They'd have a rough go of it today as our culture in some ways is sliding backwards.

Some of my friends on the left -- actually they're no friends of mine -- are ripping into Jerry Seinfeld for saying he's been warned by other comics to stay away from doing shows at college campuses because the college climate has become to "sensitive" for comics. These days most anything can be taken as politically incorrect or offensive or certainly both. It seems the one complaint conservatives get correct about the left is that there is a tendency among liberals to make so much speech not free to speak. It was the left that started the free speech movement on campuses and now it's the left that's killing it.

What's interesting is how people have attacked Seinfeld. Actually what's interesting is that they have attacked him at all rather than engaging in a discussion. One female comedian wrote a popular tweet about how the bigger issue is that he's not funny anymore. Let's assume for a second he isn't. What the hell does that have to do with his expressing his concern about college campuses? Nothing. It's just an ad hominem attack. This same person assails those complainers for being white middle class men who want to maintain their privileged position. Interesting considering that one of the comics who warned Seinfeld was that noted non white person Chris Rock.

It's great that we live in a world in which it is no longer acceptable to make derogatory jokes about Black people. Jokes about people with physical and mental infirmities are finally off limits. No one jokes -- or should -- about rape or molestation. There are finally limits. But we also live in a culture in which one cry of "I'm offended" translates into "it was offensive." There is a difference. Also in our culture there are far too many strictures on humor. The pendulum has swung too far. Satire is dying. It's time we became very careful about who and what we censure for what they say.

Comedy shouldn't be watered down. It should be raw, real and come from the heart. It should speak to a truth, at least the truth of that comedian. And if you don't like it, move on. You can't like and approve of 100% of what anyone says. Hell, I disagree with myself half the time.

If a comic does a 60 minute act and during one minute of it there is a joke that offends 20% of the audience all you'll hear about the next day is that one  joke. If 100% of people don't approve of 100% of what you say, you get slammed.

I refer you to this article in which ten famous comedians bemoan the manner in which political correctness is killing comedy.

I now quote the great Dick Cavett from a column of his dated April 15, 2011:

I’ve never quite understood why this word — “offended” — is so horrifying. What doesn’t offend somebody? And who wants to see, read or write anything that is simon-pure in its inability to offend those dreaded “someones”?

“What could be more offensive than an offense-free show?” I sincerely inquired of the network suit.

That was considered offensive.

Anyone working in the media can tell you that there seems to be an always-ready-to-explode segment of the populace for whom offense is a fate worse than anything imaginable. You’d think offense is one of the most calamitous things that could happen to a human being; right up there with the loss of a limb, or just missing a parking space.

What is our obligation to the offendees? To help them limit their suffering by avoiding all offense? With what advice?

You could stay in the house, watch no TV, read nothing of any kind including potentially upsetting snail mail or e-mail, and you just might manage to glide through an offense-free day. No surly neighbor, no near-misses by unpunished, demented, sidewalk-riding cyclists, no cab driver letting other cabs in ahead of yours while distractedly nattering on his phone in no known language. Stay cocooned and you will risk no insults from rude waiters, no pain from gruff clerks, no snarls from any employees of United Airlines.

11 June 2015

A Friday Night Gathering in Berkeley, 1968

Sixties. Someone in a living room cross legged on the floor playing the guitar and singing. Others pass around a jug of wine. In another room a joint is lit. There is a TV in the room, it is a small black and white set. There is a poster for a Janis Joplin concert at Fillmore West on the wall.

After the guitar player finishes, a few people clap and a woman says, “far out.” The guitar player gets up and announces he needs to take a whiz. He has long dark hair that rests on his shoulders. His bangs, like the hair on his shoulders, ends in a curl. His name is Ron. He has a boyish face that makes him look younger than his 22 years. Everyone likes Ron. Most of the women in the house that night want to have sex with him. Besides his good looks, Ron is charming and funny and has a nice singing voice. But he has a girlfriend, Kristen. She is a tall, slender blonde. She is standing in the kitchen talking to a straight guy with a short hair cut who looks like a solider on leave. Kristen’s hair hangs well down to her rear. It is so blonde that it veritably shines. She has on headband and a long colorful dress that reaches the tops of her bare feet. The man she is talking to you is the cousin of a person who lives in the house. His name is Kyle and he is from Texas, he's visiting Berkeley and San Francisco to, “check out the scene.”

When Ron comes back from the bathroom he starts talking to Phillip. He is Kyle’s cousin and shares the house with three other people including his girlfriend, Gretchen. Phillip is telling Ron that he should borrow his copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. He is unaware of the fact that despite Ron’s other gifts, he is not an accomplished reader who could not get through the Richard Brautigan novel someone recently lent him and he'd have no chance with Hesse.

Several other people in the house are talking about the Vietnam war and the images of combat they saw on the news earlier in evening. Everyone agrees it is important to maintain the momentum of the anti-war movement and keep the demonstrations going. However Gretchen and a guy named Warren are differing on whether the time has come to abandon peaceful demonstrations and use violence. “We’ve got to show the pigs we mean business,” Warren insists. Gretchen shakes her head in the negative.

Tina, who also lives in the house, decides to play a record. She takes a Jefferson Airplane album out of its sleeve and places it on the turntable. As soon as the music starts Tina starts spinning around. Tina is quite stoned and a little bit drunk. No one seems to mind, as Starman (that’s the nickname of another housemate) said a little bit earlier: “its good to get your head in another space for awhile using grass or wine or whatever. Plus, man, it makes you more sociable and cool.”

Starman is chatting up Leslie, a high school chick who is way mature for age (17). She's the youngest person at the party by about four years. Leslie is Phillip’s sister and hangs out at the house a lot. Starman knows that Leslie isn’t a virgin, so figures it's cool to seduce her, if he can manage it. He knows that a chick like her won’t be easy. For one thing she's super smart. Leslie thinks Starman is interesting to talk to because he's about 30 and had been in the Peace Corps and traveled Europe and by his own admission had dropped acid like 25 times. But Leslie also thinks that Starman is in desperate need of a shower which precludes even thinking about sleeping with him, not that she’d ever go to bed with a guy so much older than she is.

Tina finally plunks down on some guy’s lap. She isn’t sure who it is until he says, “you’re little ass is welcome in my lap anytime, honey bunch.” It was Carl, who was Tina’s on and off boyfriend. They used to live together but neither could be faithful to the other and Tina said, “it was too much of a hassle” to always be coming across each other’s one night stands. Tina turns and plants a big kiss on Carl’s heavily bearded cheek. Carl is about as large as Tina is small and has huge appetites for food and liquor and for that matter sex too.

Kristen and Kyle’s conversation has a momentary lull and so Kristen decides to check on Ron. Kristen would never admit it to anyone, not even herself, but she is a very jealous person and knows that other women are just as attracted to Ron as she is. So she's always checking on Ron. Kristen has found Kyle to be interesting, it's unusual to meet someone from a small Texas town. He's like a foreigner here, but is also very open-minded and curious. She respects that. Kyle thinks Kristen is beautiful and in fact one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. She also seems so exotic and open and honest. Kyle is especially polite to her but he knows that she has a boyfriend and wouldn’t be interested in a guy like him anyway. Talking to Kristen had made Kyle feel more relaxed and welcome. He knows that with his short haircut and regular clothes he kind of stands out among all these guys with really long hair and loose hanging outfits. Most of them even have beards. Kyle warily re-enters the living room filling his glass of wine on the way.

Phillip and Ron had moved on from discussing Hesse — which had really been a one way conversation anyway — to talking music. Here is a topic that Ron is comfortable with. Ron acknowledges Dylan and The Beatles as kings and major inspirations of modern music. He also acknowledges the importance of the Stones and Joplin and Hendrix. “But you’ve really got to give a lot of credit to the folk singers of like ten years ago and more. They might sound square today but they’ve had an impact and influence on today’s music. Just like R&B has had.”

Phillip nods in agreement and says, “today’s musicians have just taken it to another level.” Warren rarely defers to anyone on any subject. If he could be faulted for anything it would be arrogance. Warren had been getting his master's in American Literature when he dropped out because he "was sick of the system." He tells people that the "system tries to mold you into the corporate image of a consumer and a yes man who won't hesitate to be fodder in war or buy whatever the hot new product is."

Ron likes Phillip because everyone respects him so much and although Phillip can be aloof around other people, he is always nice to him. Ron figures that Phillip sees him as a cool, smart guy. But the truth is Phillip just respects Ron's musical talents. As arrogant as Phillip is he's wracked with insecurities, many stemming from the fact that he's a homosexual. This is something he has been unable to admit to himself, let alone Gretchen or the rest of the world. In point of fact, Phillip is attracted to Ron, although that attraction lives very deep in his subconscious.

Gretchen loves Phillip even though he is a disappointing lover. They've been together for four years. She has a substantial trust fund that allows her and Phillip to devote all their time to causes, principally the anti-war movement. Gretchen is tall and quite overweight but she has a beautiful face which always features a broad smile. Gretchen is endlessly cheerful. Right now she is talking to Emil who is a reporter for the Berkeley Barb. He's there with his new girlfriend Kathryn. Emil is telling her about the investigating he's been doing into the university's investments in "the war machine." Emil is a recent graduate of Cal's school of journalism and turned down opportunities to work for big city papers to write for the alternative media. Kathryn is the Barb's business manager. Her and Emil have been together for six months and are planning on moving in together, although how she'll explain the arrangement to her fundamentalist christian parents is vexing her.

Leslie has managed to slip away from Starman and is sharing a joint with Linda who is Tina's cousin visiting from LA. Alexis is a junior in high school. She is a straight A student despite her love of parties, boys and political activism. Leslie lost her virginity just over a year ago and as much as she likes sex is very particular about who she goes to bed with and when. Leslie may be a women's libber but she does not want a reputation as being easy. Linda is a 23 year old pre med student who "is down" with the anti war movement and is "cool" with getting high, but mainly wants to focus on becoming a doctor.  Linda finds it hard to believe that Leslie is only 17 because she is so articulate and knowledgable about current events. Right now they're talking about how Starman has hit on them and how they are totally disinterested. Warren comes over and talks to them for a little while. He's a hard core political activist who some people feel is too intense and serious. Warren finished an engineering degree last semester but has put off finding a job so that he can devote full energy "to the movement." Linda finds that she likes Warren because he "doesn't play games or bullshit."

It's about 11:00 and someone turns the music up. Everyone is dancing. Even Kyle although he feels weird "dancing like a hippie." No one really has a partner, they're just spinning and wheeling around, only occasionally making eye contact with anyone else. Everyone is high, some more so than others. The dancing will go on for an hour with pretty much everyone taking a break ago some point to sit or go pee or smoke or drink. It's around 12:30 when Gretchen and Tina cook up a huge batch of scrambled eggs as several people have the munchies. Gradually things start to get mellow. The music is turned down and no one dances anymore. Everyone is sitting around talking. Ron plays the guitar again and sings.

Emil and Kathryn are the first to leave. Leslie gets a ride home from them. Kyle ends up in bed with Tina. Both are very high but manage a vigorous night of sex. Kyle can't believe that he has "scored with a hippie chick." Ron and Kristen walk home, it's only a few blocks. Gretchen and Phillip collapse in bed around 2:30 and both fall straight to sleep. Warren and Linda end up sleeping together but are both "too zonked" to make love. Starman is very frustrated not to have scored. It's unusual for him on "a party night." He works off his frustration by walking around the block a few times.

The next day brings a huge rainstorm and everyone who was at the party takes it easy.

09 June 2015

The Time I Saw the Devil's Horns, An Absolutely True Story

Not sure but I think I was about four or five years old when I saw the Devil. I was playing by myself  in the backyard. It was something to do with dirt and it might have included army men (which is what I called my toy soldiers) or digging or pretending to be a pirate or maybe I was building a house like my dad who was a carpenter. As a kid I loved the dirt and I grew to love mud and puddles. In my teen years my friends and I would play tackle football on the day after a good steady rain when the field would be muddy. As a soccer player I never felt I had played until my legs and uniform were smeared with dirt or mud. One of my coaches noted how I always found the puddles during soccer practice and received passes and took shots from them.  I didn’t need to be a soccer player to constantly have scrapes and bruises on my legs although playing the sport kept the tradition going for me into my 20s. I was in many respects a typical kid, especially when I was about five when this story takes place.

So anyway there I was a mere lad playing in, and perhaps with, the soil when I came face to face with the Great Satan. Or so I was convinced. What I found myself looking at was the two horns of Beelzebub sticking up out of the ground. They had to be his, they were red and it was common knowledge that the Devil was red from head to toe (as were my favorite college team's bitter rivals) I was already learned enough to know that the Devil resided in a place called Hell and its location was in the bowels of the Earth. So of course the embodiment of evil would have to rise through the ground to pay us humans a visit. My broad understanding of the netherworld and its denizens came from that perfect of all combinations for a youngster: Christian Sunday School and cartoons.

I quite clearly recall feeling two things: terror, because I was soon to be looking square in the eye of the Prince of Darkness, and dead certainty that all this was quite real. There was no denying what my eyes were seeing. I took the only course possible: I hightailed into the house to notify the family that Mephistopheles was in our backyard. For all I knew he was going to get into Mom’s garden, or Dad’s toolshed or big brother and my tree fort.

Much to my surprise and chagrin no one took my warning seriously. This was really frustrating. I was no clown, I was the messenger of incredible tidings that should either send panic through the household or, more likely, inspire someone to take action. I had but little doubt that my father could beat the snot out of the Devil. In my mind dad was invincible. He had, after all, fought in a war and survived being on a ship that was torpedoed and traveled all about the world, plus he was stronger than any man who lived and nicer than anyone else too.

Finally my father relented and came to investigate this invader from Hades. When we got to the sight of the Devil’s horns there was one missing. How could it be, I wondered, that El Diablo had retracted a horn? And why? In any case I pointed out the one remaining horn to my father so he could prepare to slay it. But instead of taking an axe, or even a hoe, to Satan, my father pulled the horn out of the Earth and informed me that far from being a horn of the Devil, it was a worm. The worm wriggled in Dad’s hand as if to emphasize the point. I was overcome with the twin feelings of relief and disappointment. As a future journalist I already knew a big story when I saw one and having the Devil in your backyard is infinitely more interesting than a stupid worm. On the other hand my soul was safe for another day.

I believe my father returned to the house at this point and I resumed whatever game I was playing or just as likely started a new one. I did, however, reflect on the improbability of two worms appearing seemingly simultaneously just a few feet apart. It was as if they were a couple scoping out the neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me at the time, coincidences do occur in our world and the fact of them is far more real than most of the supernatural mumbo jumbo that a lot of people swallow whole.

All these decades later I still recall the feelings I had that day and marvel at the fact that two worms emerged from the ground together. Of course the event owes a lot to my vivid imagination which kept my mind occupied throughout my childhood (hell, who am I kidding, it still does). A wild imagination is a wonderful thing for a child or anyone else. Sure there are pitfalls. For much of my childhood I was convinced that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln lived in bedroom closet and so kept the door to it shut tight at bedtime. Today in our bedroom we have a walk-in closet (well, you could walk in if we didn’t have so much damn junk on the floor) and I still make a practice of shutting its doors before retiring in the evening. No, I don’t think Honest Abe’s ghost lives in it anymore than I think there is a Devil. Then again, why take chances?

07 June 2015

You Sometimes Find Out the Damnedest and Saddest Things When You Google A Former Acquaintance -- Remembering Justin

A photo I found on the internet that Justin took.
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
-- From The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell

The first person I ever babysat is dead. I googled Justin the other day for the first time only to discover that he died last December.

In the mid Seventies I was living with Becky in Chico. I was 21 and she was 19. We moved in together less than a week after meeting. Our relationship lasted almost exactly a year. About the only things we had in common were hearty appetites for sex and alcohol which we enjoyed indulging together. I’m embarrassed to say that she left me and not the other way. Becky did not possess a towering intellect or indeed any intellect at all. We clearly had no future together and I was the last person to recognize that.

I was going to college and she was working at a fast food restaurant. Becky got friendly with one of her co-workers a married woman named Robin. She was married to Bill and they had a three year old named Justin.

We babysat Justin a few times. He was a cute, precocious kid and I enjoyed his company. The feeling seemed mutual. When Becky split I remained friends with Bill, Robin and Justin. Bill and I had a fair amount in common and although Robin seemed a bit snooty she was okay. Justin I liked a lot as I mentioned before.

I ended up — as we said in those days — crashing at their apartment for a Summer so naturally we all grew close. The downside to this was that they were born again Christians. It was odd because fundamentalist Christianity didn’t seem to mesh with their personalities or lifestyle. Bill regularly attended the Assembly of God church and church related functions. It will foreshadow future events to say that Robin was more about talking the talk than walking the walk when it came to the church. For about a month or so I got caught up in the whole Jesus saves deal as I detailed in an earlier blog post. This was actually quite funny because I was an all star sinner at the time and thus my brief flirtation with religion was unmitigated hypocrisy.

Another thing going on with Bill and Robin was that they were perpetually broke. They would regularly write bad checks to buy groceries. Of course they were convinced that the power of prayer would rescue them from poverty. I had plenty of drinking and smoking money but nothing else to spare so was of little help. A good friend of Robin’s once visited from Ohio and gave them a loan and later my brother did too. My brother and Bill met in Berkeley when the two of us came down for a visit and because fast friends owing to their mutual friendship with Jesus.

Eventually I became involved in the school newspaper and then its transition into an independent paper and also with finishing my degree and also with chasing women and drinking and using drugs. I had little time for Bill and Robin and Justin. Anyway Robin was becoming increasingly aloof and her disapproval of me was obvious. I could do without her false piety.

I didn’t see much of them for about a year when I heard somehow that Bill had managed to send Robin on a European vacation. Alone. I mentioned this in passing to my brother and he hit the roof. Bill had never repaid the loan he gave and here he was sending his wife on an expensive vacation. My brother wrote a letter and trusted me to give it to Bill. I never peaked it but was quite certain he let Bill have it.

I tracked Bill down and found that he was working at a cemetery. I gave him my brother’s letter. He read it as if he fully agreed with my brother’s sentiments. I always knew Bill to be an honorable fellow despite his less than forthright financial dealings. I always liked him too.

It was then that Bill told me about Robin. She had met a man on some sort of cruise during her European vacation, a rich older chap, and they had fallen in love and she was going to divorce Bill and marry this rich guy. I was shocked but not surprised. I had always doubted Robin’s integrity. As I noted earlier she talked a good game but couldn’t back at it up by so much as going to church on Sundays.

Bill seemed more angry than anything else. He had spent some time with Robin after she came back and lowered the boom. He said that for that short time “they were never closer.” Which I took to mean there was some pretty serious sex between them. Bill met the guy who cuckolded him too. He had told Bill that he knew it was true love between himself in Robin because he “could see it in her eyes.” Bill repeated this and scoffed. He clearly thought it was a load of bullshit.

Anyway he had Justin who was about five by now and was not letting Robin get her mitts on him.

It was another two years before I saw Bill and Justin again. Bill had a very pretty girlfriend and seemed quite happy. Justin was still very cute and was clearly going to grow into handsome young man. Bill said that Robin had tried a couple of time to have Justin visit her but Bill didn’t trust that he’d ever see his son again if that happened and thus refused. Bill was a good dad.

That was 1980 and I haven’t seen nor heard from Bill since. I googled him but his name is too common. Justin I managed to find and there he was just a few months deceased.

There were scant details. He lived in Hawaii where services were held. I know it was him because his father was listed as William and his mother as Robin. Bill lived in San Diego and Robin in Switzerland. There was nothing about cause of death. Somehow this was extremely frustrating to me. It makes a big difference to me whether a person died of drug overdose, or cancer, or in a car accident or suicide, or heart attack.

Justin was 42 years old married and had a daughter. Among those who survived him were a brother in California who must have been another child of Bill’s and a sister from Switzerland who must have been Robin’s.

I couldn’t find a whole lot about him other than that he took some very nice photos like the one above. There were a few hints about Justin but not enough to form a clear picture of who he had been, what kind of life he led. I sure hope Justin enjoyed his 42 years.

Justin did have a twitter account. For his bio he had just written: “Beautiful family, living in paradise, with good friends, good food, good beer...what else is there?”

05 June 2015

The Mystery of Fenwick's Suicide

My neighbor Fenwick blew his brains out yesterday. I can’t figure this one out and am not sure anyone else can.

His name was Myron Fenwick but everyone called him by his last name, he preferred it that way. Fenwick was 80 years old. He neither looked nor acted his age. He was the most active person I ever met. Even at the end of a long, busy day when he sat on his porch sipping a lemonade or a hot cup of tea -- depending on the weather -- he seemed in perpetual motion. Standing and gesticulating to make a point, shifting positions to get comfortable, remonstrating about this or that, why you could just tell his mind was going a mile a minute pondering this or that.

Mostly Fenwick was on his feet. He had a garden to tend to and was never satisfied with it. In the front yard there were his prize roses and in the backyard he grew vegetables. Fenwick and his pruning shears seemed damn near inseparable except when he had a hoe or some other instrument in his hand. If it wasn’t his garden he was fixing something in or on the outside of his house. If nothing needed fixing than you could be damn sure he was cleaning.

Of course Fenwick wasn’t always at home. He took long hearty walks in the morning. He’d get up with the sun and be off.  I once saw him a good two miles along striding purposefully as if he had important business to get to. Then after dinner he’d take an evening walk — rain or shine. “I’ve got a goddmaned umbrella!” he’d say when someone questioned the wisdom of Fenwick walking in the rain.

Fenwick didn’t have a car but he did own a truck which he’d only ever use to go the grocery or hardware store and almost without exception he only went to the store on Tuesdays. I never thought to ask him why.

Fenwick was a reader too. Boy was he ever. He’d read every American, British, French, German and Spanish writer I could ever think of. “Took up the habit of reading when I was eight and haven’t stopped since,” he once told me. The man devoured books and held strong opinions on every one of them and on every author too. He also read the newspaper front to back and could hold forth on topics of the day as if he’d been briefed by the White House.

“My daddy was a New Deal Democrat who voted for FDR all four times and I’m following in his footsteps,” Fenwick would say. We guessed the footsteps were his dad’s and not FDR’s but who knows.

Fenwick was born on the first day of the calendar year in 1925 in Buffalo, New York. He settled here in California after World War II with his wife Gloria. Fenwick fought in the Battle of the Bulge but only spoke vaguely about his experiences. He also didn’t speak much of Gloria who died in 1967 in a car accident. Fenwick never remarried. He once said, “Gloria was all I ever wanted in a woman and I couldn’t ever replace her and it would be foolish to try. I had my great love and that’s that.”

Fenwick had one son named Albert — always called Allie — who was 17 when his mother died. He went to Harvard  and ultimately earned a Phd and became a History Professor at Dartmouth — a fact which Fenwick was quite humble about. Allie faithfully visited his dad every Christmas, wife and children (there were three) in tow. Fenwick in turn visited every Spring for a week and occasionally in the Summer.

Money was never a problem for Fenwick. He’d been a building contractor during the post war construction boom. He also made some shrewd real estate investments and was able to comfortably retire at the age of 58. Over the years he’d made a lot of friends ranging from those who worked for him like carpetenters and electricians and plumbers, to those he built houses for to those he got to know through his many charitable activities and from his work for the local Democratic Party. He was forever being invited to dinner here or meeting for lunch there. Plus everyone in the neighborhood knew and liked him. It seemed he didn’t have an enemy in the world.

Fenwick was, as you may have gathered, a hale and healthy man who never seemed to have so much as a cold. Once he complained about a sore ankle and another time about a bruised knee (both as a consequence of his labors around the house) but that was the extent of his complaints that I ever heard. Most other people never heard that much.

All this gets us back to the mystery of why the man would have shot himself in the head. I saw Fenwick two days ago and he seemed fine, just like always. Of course he was still complaining about “that idiot Bush” being re-elected even though that was six months ago. Fenwick said he’d seen some crazy things in politics but to his mind nothing matched the lunacy of Bush’s being given a second term. “The clown blundered us into a stupid, senseless, illegal war and keeps his job. Is there no justice?” he asked. But that was what a few of us called “standard Fenwick.” He seemed to half enjoy bitching about the Republicans, although he was much more comfortable discussing political issues of the day in a sober, rational manner which revealed a mind that understood the intricacies and nuances of politics. Bush just got under his skin. “How could someone so obviously dumb be the president of this country?” he wondered aloud. It genuinely vexed him. Be that as it may Fenwick’s ranting about Bush the last time I saw him was fully in character. And there was no sign of dementia. I was asked that but I, like those who knew him best, never saw a hint that his mind was any less sharp than it ever was. And I had been his next door neighbor for 31 years. (Fenwick had already lived there for 20 years when I moved into the neighborhood.)

It was around 6:30 in the morning. I was getting dressed, I’m a semi-retired lawyer and was due in court in a couple of hours and wanted to get to the office to check some files I’d left there. The loud sound was unmistakably a gunshot. I couldn’t tell for the life of me where it came from and didn’t initially guess it originated from Fenwick's. I hastily finished dressing and went outside. There was — it seemed — not a sound to be heard. The quiet was eery. Then Mrs. Wallace who lives on the other side of Fenwick emerged. “You hear that?” she asked “What was it?”

“I sure did and it sure sounded like a gunshot,” I told her.

“Well I thought so too and I called the police,” said Bill Holloway who lived across the street. I hadn’t noticed him making his way across the street. I asked if he had any idea where it came from.

“I think from Fenwick’s,” he said.

“Oh god,” I thought and suddenly had an inexplicable sense that something terrible had happened in Fenwick’s house.

“Oh god,” said Mrs. Wallace.

“What should we do?” Mr. Holloway wanted to know.

I suggested we wait for the police to show up. We did and they arrived a few minutes later. We told the officer of our suspicion that a gunshot may have come from Mr. Fenwick’s house and we were particularly suspicious because he hadn’t emerged.

“Could be on his morning walk,” Mr. Holloway than suggested.

“Let’s hope,” someone said, for by now half the block was out in the street.

The officer knocked on Fenwick’s door. There was no answer. Then I noticed the morning paper was still on his porch. Fenwick always tossed it inside before going on his walk. I told the officer this. After knocking even louder and announcing who he was the policeman tried the door. It was unlocked. He went in.

I felt my shoulders sag. I knew this was bad. Fenwick always looked the door. Less than a minute later the officer emerged ashen faced. “I’m afraid this is bad,” he announced. “I’ll need you all to back away.” We’d crowded around Fenwick’s front yard, careful not to step on any plants. The cop went to his patrol car and made a call.

“What is it?” someone asked pleadingly.

The officer shook his head sadly and all doubt was removed.

We were all stunned when it was revealed that Fenwick took his own life. It just didn’t make sense.

It’s almost exactly ten years to the day since Fenwick’s suicide. I’m 100% retired from my law practice and spend my days in much the same manner that Fenwick did. Difference is my wife Emma is still alive and kicking and she’s a big part of every day for me.

Anyway the mystery of why Fenwick blew his brains out occupied a lot of conversation for a surprisingly long time and never seemed to stop coming up in conversations. No one had a clue why he did it. You never saw a person so full of life as Fenwick.

Allie, of course, flew out here straight away to take care of matters and he was as baffled by his dad’s suicide as the rest of us. He just went around in a fog while he was here, hardly saying anything just a grim look on his face. Poor guy. Eventually he rented the house to a young couple with a baby. Allie sold some of his dad’s stuff, took a few things and stored a bunch in the basement of the house to deal with another time.

Well that other time came last week. The couple had two more kids and the husband got a promotion and they bought their own house in the swanky part of town. So Allie, who just retired, came out to go through all that stuff of his dad’s in the basement with a mind to putting the house up for sale.  I volunteered to help Allie go through the things in the basement him having a bum leg from a bike accident, he gladly accepted. It was then that we maybe solved the mystery of Fenwick’s suicide. Maybe.

There was a lot that was going to go straight to the trash but there was also a lot that Allie wanted to hang on to and even pass on to his kids. This was stuff like medals, letters, mementoes, photos and the like. Allie even found stuff from when he was a kid. But the biggest find was a big box of journals. It seemed that Fenwick had kept a journal from at least the time Allie was born right up until he took his life.

Each journal was in a bound binder with the year written on the front and was preserved in plastic. Each one covered exactly one year. The first was from 1952. “I can’t bear to read these,” Allie said wiping a tear. “I guess I’ll take them, though, leaving them for my kids.”

Then Allie just stared at them for a bit, like he just couldn’t believe they existed. Finally he looked at me and I mean he really seriously looked into my eyes and held his gaze, then asked: “would you mind looking through the last one, the one from 2005, see if there’s any hint of why….” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Well I’ll tell you, never have I been so conflicted. On the hand I was extremely curious and on the other it felt like a violation to read the private thoughts of someone I’d known so well. But the fact was that Allie really wanted me to. I could tell just by the way he stared at me. This was serious to him.

“Sure I’ll do it, Allie, just let me take it upstairs.”

“If you find anything, no matter what, don’t hesitate, tell me.”

I promised I would and took the 2005 journal upstairs where there was good light and comfortable chairs.

Fenwick never missed a day. It seemed like he wrote just before bed because each entry detailed the whole day. He wrote about what he ate, conversations he had, the news, what he was reading and memories of everything from his childhood, through the war, through courting Gloria, Allie’s childhood and work. Some of his reminiscences were really interesting stuff and I thought to suggest to Allie, him having been a historian and all, that a book could be written about Fenwick’s life. His journals alone would be a great source.

Eventually I skipped to the last few weeks of his life. I was simultaneously hoping to find a clue and dreading that I would find a clue. But I did.

Two weeks before his suicide Fenwick included the following at the beginning of his daily entry. “Woke up suddenly from sleep about 3:00 am. Had a dream where I saw Pinky O’Brien get his head blown off. It was awful and it really happened during the Battle of the Bulge. We had taken some Nazi shelling for a good few minutes and waited it out cowering in a foxhole. Finally it got quiet and we stood up and then another shell came flying and I don’t know what all that happened I just remember looking over at Pinky and watching the moment his head was blew clean off his head. One second he was a 20 year old kid as healthy as could be the next his head was gone and he actually took one step forward before dying. The dream was just like it actually happened and I’d managed not to think of it or even remember it happened for 60 years or since right after the war when a hypnotist worked on me. I remember that but had never remembered that the hypnotist helped me forget something, until now. So it’s all back.”

In every subsequent entry from that point on Fenwick wrote about being unable to get the vision of his friend being killed out of his mind. He actually managed well enough during the day but each night he had more and more trouble sleeping. The last few days he didn’t sleep at all. Fenwick was haunted. Was that he why he blew his brains out? Was it enough to drive a person to suicide?

I told Allie what I’d found. He agreed that it was possible that his father had killed himself because a horrible vision had returned after 60 years.

“What’s his very last entry?”

It was from the day before and it was his shortest. “Not a wink of sleep last night. I manage to put on a good face for neighbors and friends but I need sleep bad. All I see when I close my eyes is Pinky. I see him smiling, that big stupid grin of his but I also see him without his head taking a step forward before….And why him? Could have been me just as easily. I had forgot Pinky totally, not just what happened to him, now he’s all I think of. Might try a hot bath before bed tonight and a few drinks of brandy. Something, gee anything. I just don’t know.”

And that was it.

Allie just shook his head and stared at the floor. “Poor guy. One big jolt of survivor’s guilt stored up over six decades. Plus seeing a pal’s head…And that was after 60 years. Maybe that and the lack of sleep was enough to push him over the edge.”

The next day Allie shipped the diaries along with everything else he meant to keep back east. He had everything else hauled to the dumps. Before catching his flight, Allie paid me a call. He thanked me profusely for the help and especially for reading the diary. I told him I wouldn’t tell a sole what I’d read. “That’s okay. I’m going to start working on a book about Dad. I’ve got too much time on my hands anyway. I’ll have plenty of material to work with what with the diaries. I’ll have a grad assistant help me. Maybe two. I’m sure I’ll be back to talk to people around here about dad for the book, including you, if it’s okay.”

“It’d be a pleasure, Allie. Your dad was a great a man.”

“I don’t know what makes a person great but I do know that dad led a good life and touched a lot of people. It’s a damn shame the way it ended, but like Vonnegut sad: ‘so it goes.’”

That was a couple of days ago. I got an email from Allie this morning thanking me again and telling me he was getting straight to work on the book and only regretted it took all this time to think to do it.

Poor Fenwick. What a thing not to live with all those years. I wonder if he’d have been better off without the hypnotist, dealing with what he had seen and experienced. Maybe burying the truth, no matter how awful, is the worst thing you can do. I don’t know.