a time of large and small adventure

ya_be

what is this geologic crawl
but a time of large and small adventure
a time to “do” things.
Right?
something the dinosaurs couldn’t manage
in their 140 million-year “dominion”
why all that excited Cambrian hustle
an efflorescence so sudden and bizarre
it made Darwin a stammering dyspeptic
whence the animating spirit
flatter the fuck out of the trilobite
then walk away?
don’t mean to pry.
Brontosaurus. what’s that shit about.
treetop-eating bore
flintstone burger. oil company emblem.
huge tooth gouged out of the hillside by the interstate.
Trilobite’s like; seriously?

chair in a room, lights out
door closed, closed till it latches
we are all asleep
all around the house
behind the door
inanimate chair in the inanimate dark
something must disturb the air around the chair.
that’s the intuition.
not nothing. something.
if nothing, then there is your horror
we can’t intuit nothing
that’s been a longstanding problem
Dear Jesus take this from me
take away my jughead childhood reverie
a chair in a dark closed room
the door latched
dark air undisturbed
for as long as you care to imagine.

I reach across the coffee table
yeah yeah yeah
lever the pizza to my expectant face
yeah yeah yeah
take some care not to let the granular salt
roll off the surface of the pizza slice
that’s how much I salted;
grains are layered and unstable
they may roll off
it’s a lot of salt
I read a comic when I was 10
some ships discovered mid-ocean salt mountains
later a princess said
“this is the best meat I have ever tasted!”

there go the eons.
asteroid? come sailing in
our eager telemetry means you can’t surprise us
but we’ll still get the torn clouds and the sound
and that will surprise us.
a spielberg boy will pause mid-pitch
track your progress across the sky
his hand raised to shade his eyes
though he’ll be wearing a baseball cap.
stir the laundry on the laundry line
give us our Rockwell closure.
you shall be as a fragrant spring breeze
or the metal joy-smell of sprinkler water
on the hottest day of the year.

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The Taking of North Hall

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photo courtesy UCSB

At 6am on an otherwise dull Monday morning in 1968, a group of 12 black students strolled without ceremony into UCSB’s Computer Center in North Hall and proceeded to make history by barricading themselves inside. They did it the old fashioned way, with stacked chairs and heavy furniture pushed against locked doors, with chains run through push bars. First, though, they’d had to clear the building. They’d surprised a handful of computer techs there and politely asked them to leave, to which the understandably uptight Guardians of the Nascent Age of Intel replied “Uh, yeah, right!”

One imagines the scene with wonder. The contrasting haircuts alone signified a coming tectonic shift in the zeitgeist.

But the horn-rimmed and outnumbered Spartans were hesitant to abandon their million-dollar baby to the black activists. UCSB’s vaunted IBM360/65 Mainframe was the pride of modern computing, a research machine that also was the keeper of student records and other invaluable data without which the campus would be sunk. The burnished, button-festooned beast featured a sweeping 1MB of memory and in photographs looks like an enormously complicated washing machine. Never mind that UCSB computing was associated with the storied ARPANET, forerunner of today’s internet, whose DNA does indeed trace straight back to UCSB. The computer scientists were, in the later words of reputed student ringleader, today’s Murad Rahman, “absolutely astounded by what was going on. They must have thought it was something out of a comic book.” Later accounts described the black student activists as comparatively polite and accommodating, even as they bounced on the balls of their feet and tried to hurry things along. But the black students did make one thing clear. Any attempt to forcibly dislodge them would result in a broken computer.  In a markedly postmodern threat, one of the students reportedly issued these words of caution.

“Look, leave us alone and we’ll leave the computer alone. We have your mechanical brain. Give us justice.” One official report typed up in the immediate wake of the takeover describes “…some of the students crouched in front of the computers armed with heavy hammers and large wrenches…”

The threat cast a chill on the proceedings. UCSB’s Chancellor Cheadle, whose previously elusive attention was the object of the students’ ire, briefly considered having the black students ejected by force. In his later written record of the day Cheadle explained the humane calculus that informed his decision to hear the black students out.

”The first option was to…persuade the occupants to leave the building peaceably. The second was to clear the building by force, an option involving predictable and unwelcome consequences. First, the substantial destruction of computer equipment valued at approximately two million dollars…second, personal injury….”

Yeah, the occupiers knew their audience.

UCSB: A History of Silence

UCSB is today a world-renowned research university, consistently ranked at or near the top of many of those cryptic “World’s Best Universities” lists that celebrate both academic firepower and actual contribution to human culture. UCSB’s campus has an almost unseemly number of clustered Nobel Laureates. You can easily spot them because they go everywhere with their medals on. There are but a handful of globally respected Institutions of Higher Learning whose topographical largesse allows the student to come in from the breakers and minutes later take a seat in a lecture hall where a medal-wearing Nobel Laureate is dispensing arcane, graduate-level brain food. Seriously.

But UCSB wasn’t always the enlightened bastion of liberal munificence it is today. The twelve black students who took North Hall and the Computer Center on the morning of October 14th, 1968 (namely Jim Johnson, Maurice Rainey, Arnold Ellis, Tom Crenshaw, Dalton Nezy, Ernest Sherman, Booker Banks, Mike Harris, Vallejo Kennedy, Stan Lee, Don Pearson, and Randy Stewart) were all members of the freshly-minted Black Student Union, which had itself evolved from an earlier black student organization begun in 1967, called Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together”). Both these groups had been formed as a reflexive bulwark against what the few black students on UCSB’s campus found to be an institutionalized racism.  This wasn’t the ugly, hothouse racism of hooded, spelling-challenged Master Race morons on horseback setting crosses alight on people’s front lawns, beating and murdering with impunity. This was the quieter, happy-go-lucky racism whose infected perpetrators aren’t always aware they’re carriers of the illness, white college kids in blackface strolling down the street at UCSB’s 1966 Homecoming Parade in white top hat and tails and waving giddily at the camera, or taking up shoe polish and a fiddle to effect a bracing, good-humored antebellum jig. As recently as a couple years ago a yoga studio in town hosted a “ghetto fabulous class” replete with inner city garb and costume bling. N.W.A. they called it: Namaste with Attitude. Yes, even the Enlightened stumble. These people of course don’t regard themselves as racist and surely wouldn’t self-identify as a members of a Master Race. But racism isn’t always a belief system. It’s not always about what you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s just about what you’re doing. UCSB had a problem.

A Bulletproof Coach Under Fire

The proximal cause of the takeover of North Hall’s computer center that year was rising frustration with the rumored passive-aggressive racism of UCSB’s deified Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice,  whose unrivaled record of UCSB football wins, inconquerable passing game, and central role in UCSB’s football program achieving NCAA Division I status made him a living bronze statue around which the campus establishment gathered and covertly knelt. Complaints lodged against Coach Curtice by the black athletes in his charge fell on deaf ears, or elicited vague promises of investigation which never came to pass.  The complaints described a litany of slights that aggregated to something less than the strutting racism that could be called out by school authorities but which made the experience of the black athlete at UCSB feel like something less than the thrill of victory. One typical grievance was that of an athlete who was tired of being served his meals after the white athletes on his team had eaten. Black athletes’ luggage would be lost on trips away, the black athletes would be refused service in hotels with no recourse and no backup from coach Curtice. Black athletes complained of being called “boys”. In early October of that year the BSU had issued a petition signed by 22 black athletes accusing the athletic department of racism, charges which were quickly dismissed by the Intercollegiate Athletic Commission, frustrating the campus black population further. UCSB’s athletic program fleetingly became the actionable nexus of a subsurface campus racism that was a nagging, unsung feature of everyday life for black students there. By the time of the occupation of North Hall’s computer center, the 40 or so black students on campus (out of a total student population at that time of around 13,000) had futilely gathered the signatures of 4000 sympathizers who agreed that something was amiss, and that UCSB as a campus was maybe due for a change.

It Was Not a Very Good Year

1968 was a “year of change”, as is said euphemistically by those who have never been shot at or beaten up or chased across the quad by a phalanx of upset National Guardsmen. The conflagrations that year were large and small, characterized both by the fiery, deafening explosions of the watershed Battle of Khe Sanh In Viet Nam (which would see American troops ditch a besieged base for the first time in that war), and the brief lethal whisper of a.30-06 Springfield bullet crossing a parking lot to break a minister’s jaw on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis. In the wake of Dr. King’s death a visibly broken Bobby Kennedy calmed a surging, anguished crowd of hundreds in downtown Indianapolis with an extemporaneous speech and plea for unity that is now considered a classic of unrehearsed truth-telling. The crowd dispersed peacefully, and two months later Robert Kennedy was shot in the head while speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.  In May of that year radicalized French students swarmed through the streets of Paris in a spasm of disgust with capitalism and the established order, in time bringing that country to the brink of collapse, and the Tlatelolco massacre would see the Mexican army gun down 300 gathered student protestors. 1968 had the character of a denouement, an almost stage-written wrapping up of a decade that would see the global Establishment take a flurry of finalizing body-blows and be laid to rest ringside, supine in its grey flannel suit.

Wild-Eyed Radicals Read Out Their Wholly Unreasonable Demands

Within hours of “seizing” North Hall (as nearly every newspaper that day described the event, though the students had actually just breezed in and rousted those inside), the black student occupiers of the Computer Center issued their demands in classic revolutionary style; from high windows above a gathering crowd of onlookers, through megaphones. As the hours passed and word got out that some actual revolutionary drama was afoot on UCSB’s sunstruck campus (or as the October 17, 1968 edition of UC Irvine’s student paper put it: “Santa Barbara? The campus of parties and keggers and TGIF’s? The campus where more students learn surfing than calculus, where more money is spent on booze than books? Yes, friends, demonstrations have spread to that academic playground by the sea…”), a crowd of onlookers naturally began to gather around North Hall, skeptical and restive at first, then grudgingly supportive, and finally offering themselves as a massed 1000-strong bodyguard for the black activists should the state make good on its threat to send in forces to enter the building and bring the thing to a conclusion. There was one instance of disaffection as an apparent faculty member in the mid-afternoon couldn’t take the standoff any longer and with an unsuccessful rallying cry of “C’mon!” forced his lonely way into the building, his righteous fever quickly doused by a black undergrad with a fire extinguisher.

The occupiers had 8 demands whose sum expression was the desire for increased minority enrollment at UCSB, an end to institutional and academic racism on campus, and the expansion of minority-based studies in UCSB’s curriculum. A year later, UCSB’s Black Studies dept. would spread its fledgling wings and take off on a journey that has to date been characterized by constant change and interdisciplinary outgrowth. Chancellor Cheadle, who had so successfully dodged the black students’ athletic concerns in the months-long run-up to the occupation of North Hall, capitulated so completely in the end, it stunned everyone. Once the activists had secured the beleaguered Chancellor’s accession to their revolutionary demands, making campus history and setting paradigm-changing institutions in motion – they more timidly asked for one more favor. Could they please not be disciplined for this little dustup? Cheadle agreed, offering them a collective “suspended suspension”, a whimsical little disciplinary flourish that was the equivalent of the dad-like “It’s okay this time, but one more of these and you’re grounded!”

This further incensed critics of the blacks’ brazen lawbreaking and Cheadle’s enabling. The Chancellor’s acquiescence would royally piss off then-Governor Reagan, whose battles with UC Berkeley and Clark Kerr (whose namesake building is coincidentally right next to North Hall on the UCSB Campus) would soon enough prompt the Governor to angrily invent tuition (heard of it?) and begin the country-clubbing of university education. But Cheadle didn’t completely stand down. He did refuse one of the group’s demands – that of the firing of odious but indispensable Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice. Agreeing to reasonably mitigate the academic hegemony of Eurocentrism on the college campus is one thing. But you simply don’t screw with a successful passing game.  I mean, c’mon.

The Fruits of Determined Activism

Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, Chair of UCSB’s Black Studies Department, is about 8 feet tall and has the shambling gait of the “beloved outlier professor” who is always crossing swords with admin in those 60s movies about life-changing educators and the stiffs who run them down. Not to put too fine a point on it. When he speaks it is with the easy, laconic manner of a guy with all the time in the world, but as he talks his eyes fix you with a scholarly glare. In 2012 black students on campus again drew up a series of demands for the Chancellor (Dr. Henry Yang this time), with the result that Stewart was asked to oversee an installation at North Hall that today commemorates the events of that October day in 1968. He refers to North Hall as “sacred space”.

“The idea was to create something so that black visiting students could see that they had a presence, and were making a real contribution here.” Chancellor Yang asked Dr. Stewart to work with admin and students to make it happen. His team was comprised of  Director of UCSB’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum (ADA) Bruce Robertson, ADA Exhibition Designer Mehmet Dogu, and UCSB Facilities kingpin Mark Fisher, and together they helped make the students’ dream a reality. Former Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas was a booster of the project and even authorized Dr. Stewart’s course in Curatorial Methods that would train the determined students in the mounting of an exhibit of this kind. Dr. Lucas’ successor, EVC David Marshall, likewise supported the installation.

With the help of Stewart’s team the students put the thing together, and it is a sterling example of the power of the image. The series of larger-than-life photo panels that line the breezeway of North Hall are eye-opening. One panel shows the excited black students draping the handwritten “Malcolm X Hall” out the second story window, while another features the inevitable black and white child looking at each other with that bewildered “what the hell is the problem?” expression that for ages has caused shame-faced adults to look at the floor.

“The research shows that right after the takeover you begin immediately to get more courses in the black experience, in sociology, in history, in English, in education,” Stewart explains. “Later, Chancellor Cheadle authorized a feasibility study and the Black Studies department was announced in ’69.” For the record, the Black Studies department had its budget slashed by $10k in the 70s, another story. Dr. Stewart continues, “Immediately after the North Hall takeover, there were courses offered in the urban experience, black literature –  suddenly you had the option of taking courses in black culture. Right away.” The atmosphere engendered by the episode opened conversations that led to UCSB’s Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Department of Asian-American Studies (the first such department in the U.S. to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian-American Studies), the Department of Feminist Studies – a culturally and politically varied menu of mind-opening disciplinary departments that may also be considered the fruit of the North Hall occupation.  Could the young occupiers of October 14, 1968 have really foreseen the culture-opening shock wave their passion play would set in motion? What if things had gone the other way, if Chancellor Cheadle has called in the troops? Ringleader and head event planner of the takeover, Murad Rahman answers this way.

“We were highly aware of the risks and  possible consequences of our actions if we failed to carry out our mission with skill and precision. We did not want to make mistakes or jeopardize the success of the operation. The consequences of failure would have been disastrous for those coming after us as well as African Americans in general.” As for Cheadle…

“Personally,” Mr. Rahman says today, “I was astounded by his graciousness and willingness to negotiate with a bunch of what he probably considered to be wild and crazy misfits who didn’t belong on his pristine campus. I will always remember him as a man for whom I will always hold the highest level of honor and respect. He could have ordered us to be forcibly removed from the building, which was in fact our expectation. The Chancellor took the high ground, which I believe was the most vexatious but prudent decision he could have made. May God and history reward him for that.” The Establishment, in the form of Vernon Cheadle and the finally sympathetic crowds who gathered, seem to have seen a glimpse of the light that day.

“To me that’s part of what ’68 is about,” Dr. Stewart says. “In ’68 though they did have, you know, black power, black students; it’s not just about black subjectivity, though, it’s about an inter-subjectivity. Look at the page of El Gaucho where they cover the North Hall takeover. That page also has a piece about ‘Berkeley going on strike against grapes’ – then over in the corner Eugene McCarthy coming to campus on an anti-Vietman War mission. All these things were in conversation with each other.”

The North Hall breezeway installation tells the tale of a group of sixties students taking over a university building at a time when boldness was the default and young people would leverage any opportunity to right a wrong. Truth and beauty aren’t phony ideals. Even cinderblock can be made new. Dr. Stewart has a final thought about the commemorative North Hall installation. “I always was interested in the aesthetics of this thing, as well as the history,” he says, then breaks into laughter. “And that space looks a lot better than it did before!”

But were Rahman and his activist pals really prepared to wreck the storied mainframe computer that day? A gee-whiz reporter wants to know. Mr. Rahman’s answer is brief.

“What do YOU think?!”

SB Sentinel – Volume 4, Issue 29, Oct 10 – 24, 2015

Personal Space: The Final Frontier

melkweg

And one other thing; how to walk down the main street of one’s home town without blanching in horror at glimpsed scenes of seemingly ordinary people getting pedicures? Pedicures? Leave aside the timeworn First World/Third World shame reflex. “I mean, in some parts of the world people have no FOOD and here we are managing our CUTICLES and having our shins DEPILATED.” Listen, I’ll see your filthy limbless beggar in Calcutta and raise you one bored, well-off, recumbent shopping maven having her calves massaged as she flips stone-faced through the latest issue of Tipsy Showbiz Toddler. Limbless Beggar; take me away from here!

And yet…and yet. We’re fascinated by grotesquerie, aren’t we? Mesmerized by the morbid? Compelled by the creepy, hesitantly hippity-hopping in the vicinity of the hideous? I’m drawn inexorably to the pedicure mystery, like a fly is drawn to a really good-looking other fly. In awe of the toenail-centric rituals whose imaginings torment my waking hours, I’m sometimes able to work up the courage to sneak a peek through the doorway of one of these pedicure ‘establishments’ as I pass by at a nervous trot. What I have seen, people! As William Shatner demonstrated in the classic ‘Horror at 37,000 Feet’ (not to be confused with his Twilight Zone episode at a mere 20,000 feet some 10 years earlier), a spiritual abyss merely glimpsed is sometimes sufficient to paralyze the visage in a silent but otherwise powerfully over-acted scream.

What I have seen, I say! My brave investigative forays have revealed to me such scenes of spirit-breaking horror as one expects when gazing on the flaming canyons of the damned. Sound the Mission bells! Fetch the holy water and give me a quick shot! Bring me some rotary beads or whatever those things are called! I have seen row upon row of the penitent; supine, eyes closed, pants and skirts hitched up, feet trapped in whirring little machines while throngs of smallish chattering foot-folk hover busily about the lower legs, fussing and plucking and kneading, kneading KNEADING; a Personal Space Blitzkrieg that beggars the imagination YES!

Um, yes. I have intimacy issues. Yes yes yes. I would rather have a fulsome bee beard go angrily wrong than suffer a stranger placing his/her/its hands on my body for purposes of rubbing, knuckling, or doing that two-handed chopping thing I saw once on the Bob Newhart show. Begone professional comfort-wielder with your portable metal table, chipper demeanor and slightly botched dreamcatcher tattoo. Hit the road, foot-handling hellion. And you, muumuu-filling Earth Woman friend of a friend, who at the dinner party approaches in a cloud of patchouli and would massage my temples if only I would stop making like a terrified weasel with the wide eyes and pursed, scream-suppressing lips. Healer, your touch catalyzes in me the shrinkage of many parts and appendages. You want to relax me? You want to repair my troubled soul? Go over there. Way over there. Little further. Okay, that’s good. Now fold up your lil’ aluminum ping-pong table and get out.

I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m unenlightened. A Californian in name only. I’m unnerved by your Groovy Empath friend and his de rigueur 4 minute hug. Why are his eyes squeezed shut like that? And when I release, shouldn’t he? And huggers who solemnly flutter their eyelids and say “C’mere”, or “C’mere, you” while gesturing you closer with waggling, ringed fingers? Huh uh. On the other hand I’m totally cool with an orgy as long as nobody looks at me or touches me or cracks wise about my argyle tube sock. I get enough grief about the argyle from my wife, so lay off. I have rules – too many rules, some would say. “Why the sock? Always the sock!” My wife says. Oh yeah? What of it! That’s what…..of it.

The pedicure may be the nadir of legally-sanctioned, comfort-seeking personal zone annulment, but here’s a close second; those massage places that roll out the face-down padded chair and invite sidewalk passerby to press their frontsides into maroon vinyl and be molested in broad daylight while visiting Japanese and Belgian tourists stare in slack-faced wonder. You sir? The hipster masseuse pivots, points to me; my viscera twist like a wet towel. Me? Oh, please, yes! This’ll be great! Shall I just lie down and press my face into this padded vinyl hemorrhoid donut? Right here? Is this good? Can you touch enough of me? Is enough of my back available to your invasive stranger hands? Can everyone see? Gather round, good people! Gather round, I say! Don’t be shy. Take a close look! You’ll like this, because in about 90 seconds I’m going to turn completely inside out in a fit of otherworldly revulsion. Like an inkfish. Woo Hoo! Massage THAT, soul-patch guy.

We’re desperate for comfort in this town, and in our cash-soaked Western World generally. I mean, desperate! Acupuncture, Rolfing, our collective glad surrender to occasional woodland episodes of extraterrestrial anal probing – these are the signs of socio-structural stress. Santa Barbara alone sports dozens of pleasure domes and they run the gamut from Evan’s Relaxing Station to the thrillingly named Center for Lymphatic Health. Why? Where’s the stress? What was the tipping point? Was it the closure of the Stanley Kubrick Macaroon Shop and its brilliantly overlit single smocked attendant? Earthquake jitters? The fear that your neighbor may own a nicer 100-year-drought shower-bucket? Let’s relax, people. If we stop offering these flesh-and-foot-grabbers our patronage they will likely gather up their sapphire files, pumice mittens and vibrating love bullets and head on to the next little town willing to buy their outlandish snake oil. Go ahead, fools. Step right up and let them rub your shoulders, your arms! Let these charlatans rub the back of your fool necks! Sure, that’ll make you feel better. Oh a little deep tissue massage oughta feel pretty good. Oh, for goodness sake!

I must conclude with a true and horrific story of Personal Space Invasion. For a time I was writing sporadically for a magazine called Healing Retreats and Spas. Incredibly, my gig was going to day spas, receiving the treatments offered and reviewing the experience for the magazine. How I managed this I’m not sure, but it was a writing job and that was everything. That is, until the day I was sent into the Spa Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, in the L.A. area. When I arrived and introductions seen to, I gestured carelessly at a menu item, began with a bracing swim and segued into a hot sauna. Finally I was shown to a plain, unadorned room, where a fastidious little man in Cambodian casual bade me remove my towel and lie down. Ever the professional, I did as I was told. It was then he produced a large metal pitcher and poured hot milk slowly over my body, from toes to scalp, and proceeded to massage my quickly mummifying carapace. Any curious security camera shooting from directly above would have recorded a stock-still, mortified nude man with the pin-eyed panic-face and fluttering thorax of a hard-breathing gecko making its fight-or-flight preparations, his lithe and quick-moving tormentor scuttling around him with arthropod fussiness and working the victim/client as a crab might its recent catch.

After an eternity of whole-milk drenched mortification and the not inconsiderable kneading of the expressionless little guy in his white button-up Phnom-Pen blouse, I was released to shower, dress and interview my hosts in a stunned murmur. When I finally made my way out to the parking lot and my car I concentrated fiercely on not breaking into a run. It was then I spotted my masseuse. He was sitting at the edge of the lot in a lawn chair under a shade tree, smoking a cigarette, regarding me carefully through narrowed eyes. I’m sure I needn’t add the whole episode was incredibly relaxing.

Milk. It doesn’t always do a body good. You have been warned.

 

*Jeff  writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where an ineptly edited print version of this particular piece can be found this week.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 18/Sept 6-20. Page 33

Content: It’s Not Just for Therapeutic Pillows Anymore (Toward a New Content Aesthetic)

Content: It’s Not Just for Therapeutic Pillows Anymore (Toward a New Content Aesthetic)

“Content”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? This powerfully sterile noun has long since been adopted by a business universe that ought to know better. “Content”, after all, suggests something that is extruded from a pipe, lopped off in the needed quantity and hurriedly shunted into its prescribed space. “Content” is not writing. And despite the culture’s love affair with the term (even recently used to describe journalism [!] ), neither is “content” typically crafted to compel in the reader an emotional response, be it consumerist in nature or something more.

“Content” speaks to something provided in bulk, a bland and utilitarian commodity—beef, oil, lumber, flax seed, natural gas, polyester microbeads, copper, rap songs about bootie. Why do we call it “Content”? I mean…it is writing, isn’t it?

[Nope.]

Okay. What is “Writing” then, Mr. Semantic-Pants?

[Please don’t call me Mr. Semantic-Pants].

***

In the olden days, when men still wore hats and tweeting was something done by birds at sunrise, businesses hired “writers” in order that their products be extolled in language that touched the subsurface instincts of the consumer. Yes, these “writers” “wrote”. Their output was called “writing”—a term burdened with perhaps more promising luggage than a word-count driven workday can bear anymore. 

In the benighted days before creepy robotic spiders skittered all over the internet in search of optimized word clumps, the almighty Search Engine was known more colloquially as an Eyeball, and was much more discriminating than the algorithmic sonar used today. People looked for copy that seemed to speak to them, to single them out. Commercial writing at that time was a hand-painted message designed to stirringly convey an idea. “Stirringly?” Yeah, stirringly. Can you imagine?

Content is lightly colorized wallpaper. Writing is an invitation to the dance, where the “dance” is a colorful conversation on a topic that interests, and stands to benefit, both reader and writer.

Today, “stirring” the reader is more important than ever. Given the numbing blizzard of internet chaff your reader needs to walk through on a daily basis just to find your front door, your lil’ message will have to shine like a beacon just to be seen, let alone remembered. Imagine a lost traveler on foot in a gale at midnight, leaning for hours into the rain, staring ahead for some sign, any sign, of refuge. You seeing it?

Okay, now imagine the pinprick of light in the distance that signals shelter, warmth, and, just possibly, companionship. That life-promising glow in the distance is your message. This is what Actual Writing can offer the beleaguered internet traveler. Because whether you’re writing about API, ERP, CRAP, or a puddle of spilled ketchup, verbiage that immerses and enfolds the reader on some level is writing that offers shelter—”a clean, well-lighted place” as a literary language star once wrote.

 The Emperor’s New Lexicon

Content flows into the CMS and helpfully occupies a space. Oh, and it says a little something, but that’s almost secondary. Much content is shameless space-filling expansion foam pretending to have weight and caloric payoff. Even the word “Content” is a sheepish confession, our harried commerce culture’s acknowledgement that there is time for naught but the daily extrusion of pumped word-matter to be delivered into its proper slot.

What’s worse, our inexorable downward spiral as a reading, discourse-enlivened culture increasingly confuses nitwit click bait and beige internet copy for news and information. “7 Reasons Your Boss Should Let You Wear Slippers to Work. Number Seven Will Flip Your Wig!” This is killing us, slowly. It is an Emperor’s New Lexicon situation. What do I mean by that?

Just as in the tale of the vain and naked emperor whose entourage was too cowed to do anything but pretend they saw his beautiful new clothes, we all consensually agree to treat “content”, even poorly cobbled-together junk, like it has weight and mass and meaning. This pretense is insidious and wounding. Our volume-driven content is sanding the edges off discourse itself. We are basically pumping Novocain into a constituency it is in our interest to enliven.

As our ‘content’ becomes as worn and shiny as an ancient pair of corduroy pants, the “messages” we’ve always pretended to be “crafting” will be less and less effective. Never mind the fact that we are also squandering endless opportunities to Authentically Engage our fellows. Yes, with a capital E.

Dark Matter, Writing, and Mom

Who hasn’t had the experience of clicking eagerly on an author or businessperson’s braying article link [or worse, offering your contact info as toll to precious gated content], only to find when you get in there that the content itself is an ineptly teased-up pile of empty meringue? Content is the dark matter of the internet; provably there, necessarily omnipresent—and often nearly invisible when you try to look directly at it. Why is this?

Because word count is the coin of the internet realm. Because message viability and marketing success are still measured in clicks and trackable “engagement” (lower case “e”). Precisely because content tends chiefly to be a volumizing commodity, its quality tends to run a distant second to its mere availability. 

Content writers (and yeah, I’m one) are lauded for being able to “gin up” (to use a charming old expression) business writing so that it appears to be something more than blank verse with a deadline. Because the hiring pool is aswim with self-identifying and earnest People Who Write, too often you get content with distractingly Martian grammar, middle-school apostrophizing (“gets” does not require an apostrophe, for instance), and other crimes against Mother English; just when you need Mom at her most persuasive and endearing.

We want need a Content Culture that once more sees value in Writing, one that understands that language is not just a tool. It’s a way of seeing, and of being seen.

“I Got You These Sparklers!”

In the right hands, written language is a fistful of sparklers, proffered to the reader like a Spring bouquet on a first date. Content is lightly colorized wallpaper. Writing is an invitation to the dance, where the “dance” is a colorful conversation on a topic that interests, and stands to benefit, both reader and writer. So, what should be a first step on this new journey to the center of the sun (so to speak)?

That’s easy.

Write as if you’re writing to an individual, not to a professional designation or SIC Code-informed biological unit. As a for instance – we think we’re on the right track when we post an article about our software’s new Accounting module, and fill the piece (“1200 words, please”) with all the accounting argot we can lay hands on.

News flash: your reader is not primarily an accountant.

Your reader is a fellow human animal with hopes, fears, favorite sauces, and a predilection for deliciously awful monster movies. Her work is in Accounting, yeah. She comes home from the office, slides her briefcase into a corner of the entryway with the exaggerated flourish of a pro bowler, puts on some Candy Butchers or Blossom Dearie or Vulfpeck or Stars and becomes herself again. Write to HER

Even if she loves being an accountant (and she very likely does), she is not thrilled to be constantly talking and reading about accounting. Duh? Your readers are a schooled, sometimes intensely schooled, professional class. Your accountant did not come into this world with accounting built into the rungs of her DNA. Accounting is what she does, not who she IS. She has a life. And this is where you come in.

That’s No Accountant, You Well-Meaning Fool

When writing your Accountant-directed Content (for lack of a more Shakespearean way to label it), if you just pour out competently written Accounting stuff, you’re taking your place in a long line of accountancy blabbermouths vying for her already accounting-barraged attentions.

And you’re missing an opportunity.

Signal through the writing that you grok her industry concerns and have come to the rescue, and demonstrate your wherewithal in the stuff you say. But say it like an interesting pal would say it. Despite all kinds of byzantine tech innovations in the marketing game in recent years, WORD OF MOUTH remains the kingpin of product or service marketing.

Bring that unassailable humanity to bear on your new relationship. Addressing your new acquaintance in the unbuttoned language of a confidant. The warm (and genuine) “humanspeak” will startle and please your reader, opening doors, lightening up the fraught “speaker/listener” relationship, and just incidentally giving you, the Writer, an opportunity to do what you do best—interpersonally touch someone with the gift of information. When your new friend responds, there will be an exchange of gifts.

Daily Life. Let it Inhabit Your Writing

Interpersonal mojo is the coin of this new realm. It’s a little realm called Daily Life. Heard of it? Business communication does not take place in a vacuum, outside of Daily Life; it runs right down the middle of this Daily Life thing. This isn’t literature, it’s much more vital than that. This is communication. We’ve come a long way on its riches. 

So, yeah. There is an ill-advised firewall between “business writing” and writing that is actually designed to enthrall. Let’s make that firewall a bit more permeable. Let your writing, your “content”, swing a little. Your reader will fall right in. Isn’t that the idea? The business blogging world doesn’t have to remain flat. But that’s up to you.

###

And the Bland Played On

And the Bland Played On

Nordie boycotters, Prancing “Patriots”, Freedom Fakes, Primacy of the Individual Phonies and Constitutional Amendment Scholars; your Russia loving, Kristen-Stewart-obsessed comb-over experiment is not a change agent—he is a world-sized diaper filled to the brim with publicly steaming crap. In six short weeks your diarrheic lightweight has already stunk up your beloved country so badly we’re going to have to tear out the carpets to get the smell out. At this writing our chronically squinty Pres is massively expanding his deportation mechanism in order to keep America safe. But who will protect us from Trump? Nobody. This has stopped being funny. This isn’t despotism, isn’t machiavellianism, isn’t even runaway narcissism. It’s plain Amateurism on a Godzilla scale that challenges descriptive language.

Peece in Our Time

I went to a speaking event at Campbell Hall this week where a couple of scholarly heavyweights, David Makovsky & Ghaith al-Omari, had a public discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process in light of signals coming out of the Trump White House. These guys have each been on their respective negotiating teams since the 90s; they have granular knowledge of the process and the U.S.’s history as a broker.

They are also dear friends and articulate, witty spokespersons for the nuances of their respective sides of that seemingly endless process. They were both at pains to describe, in non-inflammatory terms, the vacuum of direction coming out of the White House, and Trump’s public remarks. They both referred fleetingly (and with faces bowed) to Trump’s apparent determination to put his son-in-law at the head of the negotiating table in future talks and—oh, wait…hang on, here comes Danny Kaye.

I’m looking at One State and Two State, and..I like the one that both parties like,”

Yea, Verily, Yea. President Trump actually said that. He’s done his homework, you gotta give him that. No contemptible pointy-headed intellectualism evident in this humanoid twine doll.

Paging Dr. Kozinski. You’re Needed in the Oval Office, Dr. Kozinski

Trump’s dry-drunk press conferences, indecipherable pronouncements, impulsive and cavalier covert operations, middle-school lexicon, frank, blinding stupidity and unexplained Russophilia  are more than a problem for columnists to gab about at the National Watercooler. The guy is an unfolding national and historical tragedy.

Though there is very very slow-moving evidence that the country is beginning to see into the maw of our common abyss, we’re still approaching the matter of our new “Leader”as if he is a Bad President in the standard mold. If only. He is as global and sobering a disaster as a tsunami on Christmas Day.

The NY Times, the WSJ—all the venerables, really—while continuing with their austere, clipped mockery of this eye-poppingly inept thumbelina, still parsed his ‘Israel Statement’ for clues to his approach to Mideast peace. What are we all doing, pretending this way? He can’t find Israel on a map or his ass with both hands. He doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to learn anything. He’s going to smash the place up and not even know it. There is no malice. There is no anything.

The optimistic view is that Trump is merely an intellectual gnome and can be guided. It’s becoming clear, though, that he is in fact either damaged, drug-blunted, or suffering from some sort of chronic mental deficit. Honestly. And he waves off guidance. Can we all begin calling him out? He is not a conservative, not a racist, not a white supremacist, not an anti-semite, not a containable bad guy. He’s an extraordinary empty suit on roller skates with two machine guns. Maybe earning billions by putting up skyscrapers in Dubai isn’t that hard? Who knew?

Wanton Moron Gets a Press Pass

I personally believe Trump is deranged along some DSM continuum, and that this is an unfolding historical emergency. Meanwhile we snicker angrily at his “cabinet” appointments, bitch about his “racism”, “misogyny” and “anti-semitism”, feel only garden-variety embarrassment about his 5th Grade Class Treasurer statesmanship. The whole media mechanism is stunned into bland repose.

Trump is an historical accident so huge and tragic and ruinous we can scarcely bring ourselves to face and discuss him in those terms.

“Bill Maher Just Made a Very Serious Point about the Trump Circus”. There’s a screaming headline. Here’s one from the ever-reliable bait ‘n switch HuffPost. “McCain Unleashes!” What does McCain say in the piece? “…in many respects this administration is in disarray and they’ve got a lot of work to do.” Settle down, former tortured prisoner of the communist NVA. What happened to you, John? Whatever it was, you’ve forgotten it. Your President is on the side of your tormentors. At least until he gets a better real estate deal from the ARVN.

Will you and the other spotted ‘I-forget-what-I-signed-up-for’ jackasses SAVE YOUR COUNTRY? Congress, which famously does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, has an historic opportunity to haul a deranged Tourette’s wrecking ball out of the oval office for the common good. Our legislators will never have been so heroic as the day they cross party lines and drag this shit-for-brains out of the White House before he does lasting damage to the U.S., or worse.

Left-Haters Turn Sharply Left

Yes, the Repubs wanted “ANYTHING BUT HILLARY”. She’s a harpy!  Nobody likes her! Too left-leaning! Her party’s programs are too socialist! She likes too much government! Gotta keep the Pinko Left out of power at any cost!

Hey Tortoise McConnell, Hare Ryan, and all the rest of you a-historical asswipes: your guy is in bed with Russia, Bitch.  Have you lost your minds? Or at least your McCarthy-Lite Decoder Rings? What do you have to say about Trump’s warm feelings toward the President of Russia?! That is, have you closeted everything you used to value? Or is this more of the Republican Heisenberg Principle?

Trump isn’t a troubling bump in the road we have to ride out. He’s a blood-borne illness that we in our Sea-to-Shining-Sea laziness and torpor have self-injected, just to see what happens. The Trump infection could hobble us for a generation, or cost us a limb. Trump is an historical accident so huge and tragic and ruinous we can scarcely bring ourselves to face and discuss him in those terms. He needs to be called out. He is a damaged man and he has the power and raw stupidity and momentum to fuck up the Republic.

Burning Down Your Own Tree House

Shame on our elected furniture on the Hill — “The Right”, the “Conservatives”, or whatever they uselessly call themselves anymore. In the wake of Obama’s term (which thanks to you deafened clods looks more like Camelot with every passing hour, THANK YOU) you angrily sold your souls to get “Any Not a Democrat” into the hen house. Congrats!! Some of you people have worked your entire lives for your ideologically defensible idea of what makes the U.S. a great place. What. Happened.

All your deeply held political philosophy, your veneration of the Individual, of Liberty, of the country’s founding charter – and of Reagan’s facing down the communists across the Berlin Wall—all that party majesty inheres in Donald Trump? You idiots have given away the farm to a shitheel who can’t spell f-a-r-m, and whose bestie is named Vladimir. That’s how desperate you were to have a “Republican” in “Power”?

Save Our Ship

Dear Bland Bastards/Would-Be Leaders—both “Left” and “Right”. Please – FOR ONCE – want something more for the United States of America than simply winning your decades-long ninny argument with the other side of the “aisle”. Please – FOR ONCE – want something more for the United States of America than your useless re-election.

Repubs, if you would really rather have this dumpster fire in office than literally any Democrat, you’ve forgotten everything you’ve ever stood for, everything your country yet stands for, and you need to go home. You are doing harm.

Dumbocrats. PLEASE DO SOMETHING REAL, YOU INCONSEQUENTIAL VAPOR. If there was ever a time that called on you to do something with repercussions beyond your re-election, this is that time.

CONGRESS: PLEASE PLEASE STAND UP. TOGETHER. There won’t be another opportunity like this one to actually find common cause in the salvation of something you love. Storm this barricade and gift us the sea change Trump’s radioactive ascension demands. Reset the whole game. This is that moment. What more do you need as a catalyst?!? An approaching asteroid? You’ve got one! Do the Michael Bey thing and make some history. You’ll save us from a real-time accident of epic proportions while earning the awed respect of an electorate that has grown accustomed to Congress doing ZIP. Write this ticket. This guy is no “Republican” and you know it. This isn’t about politics. At all.

Armadillo Days

Armadillo Days

The Patty Duke theme says it best: “Meet Cathy, whose lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights—what a crazy pair!” How beautiful and true. Human beings, in all their full spectrum variety, are herd animals (at least that‘s my takeaway from the Patty Duke theme).

Yes, we’ve walked on the moon and invented words like “autoclave” and “ideation”, but these startling “top-of-food-chain” magic tricks do not change the essential truth of our species; we all need to do and wear and say the same stuff lest we become vulnerable and exposed. This somewhat poignant state of being is almost surely the result of our anthropological hard-wiring.

The human race has attained a truly bossy and sometimes benevolent dominion over all the realms of the Earth—the “…houseplants and barnyard fowl and pets, the creeping things and beasts that hop and shout,” as the book of Genesis so movingly phrases it. Our species has reached the top of the Chuck Darwin step ladder due in part to our individualized instinct for vanishing into the warm center of our roaming herd as it plies the tundra. When the wolves come loping relaxedly out of the woods, descend on us with bored wolf expressions and begin picking us off from the edges of the herd, does it profit one to be an outlier? Yes, if you consider being torn asunder without anesthesia a plus.

HIPness = Life Itself

In modern sociological terms what we’re talking about is a Herding Instinct Proclivity (HIP). It’s everything in the game of survival. Your public school has long infected your child with the toxic message that there is some majestic humanist value to being as individual as a snowflake, but all that really gets you is devoured. It’s time we told the kids the truth, and modeled it for their edification. We all need to be as anonymous and indistinguishable from each other as possible as we all make our way down the aptly named evolutionary Plain. Are light brown polyester pantsuits all the the rage? Well, we may be the paragon of animals, but this month the paragons are in light brown polyester. And so on. Let’s look at a couple of familiar instances of HIP; 1. Our species-wide adoption of the flimsy, ridged down jacket, and 2. The habit among young men of spitting something out of the mouth in a gesture of salivary insouciance.

Lightweight Ridged Salvation

You can’t fearfully raise your eyes from the sidewalk these days without seeing an immediate dozen or so people walking unself-consciously around in the same ridged jacket. These jackets are everywhere. The stunning ubiquity of this ridged outerwear would be amusing if it wasn’t so central to protecting our viscera from toothy predation. The ridged jacket is lightweight and supple, and comes in sleeveless and sleevy varieties. Its horizontal ridges are closely spaced, such that the wearer somewhat resembles a bi-pedal armadillo. And it is mostly available in black and navy blue.

Those who incompletely adopt the current HIP, acquiring the ridged jacket in red, say, are quickly plucked from the periphery of the herd and noisily devoured. One day you will see, among the placid sea of pedestrians in their ridged black and navy blue jackets, a few clueless outliers in red or purple ridges. How did these doomed snowflakes not get the memo, you wonder. It doesn’t matter. Within several days they will have been removed from the general population. That is the nature of Nature. Is nature cruel? No, nature is but a mindless, autonomically self-improving machine, a Blind Watchmaker, as soft-spoken Creationism Complainant Richard Dawkins calls it. That the Blind Watchmaker hates red or purple-ridged jackets is inexplicable, and can be chalked up as another of the infrequently entertaining Mysteries of Evolution.

Sputum Cuties

At the other end of the HIP spectrum—the less benevolent end—is the haunting phenomenon of the Sputum Cutie. All the males are doing it this year, and it is maddening. You’ve seen this guy walking our streets and sidewalks in his pricey blue jeans and shades. His hands are in his pockets and he is staring straight ahead with a studied nonchalance as he strides, Starsky-like, down the street. Without warning a strangely coherent wad of goomba loops balletically from his unmoving yap and falls to earth in a tiny ballistic arc. This deadpan fashion-spitting is all the rage. Still, one is compelled to ask; what and why are you spitting, spit men? May I approach you and ask that very question without you pushing me down to the ground with a hand on my startled face? “You there! What the hell did you just spit out?! Why are you people spitting all the time? By g*d, I’ve got to know!”

You see, our herd’s evolutionary perch atop all the Earth’s dominions and stuff—it has come with a price tag. Our opposable thumbs and Darwin-approved tool making have driven us into a cul-de-sac. Combine our reckless ingenuity with our desire to all do the same thing and you’ve got a looming extinction event. These are the days a person can go to his or her death while typing behind the wheel of a moving car, for instance. Typically the driver’s last message to the world is something like “I’m typing and I’m driving”. This is the future. Even you missed it, Nostradamus, and who can blame you?

Mourning is Broken

There is, anymore, a helpful sameness to our grief, too. In the wake of these fiery text-based crashes, the heartbroken are known to express their unspeakable grief through social media. A little cartoon of a bawling face with cartoon water splashing out of the eyes is today’s most typical gesture of consolation. Sometimes we are shocked by a loved one’s “heartbreaking tweet” and are obliged to reach out with a little yellow face contorted with sorrow and flying water. “Oh my God…the love of my life just died…” Concerned and stricken friends of the bereaved will have the unpleasant task of selecting the perfect little yellow cartoon face to represent their sympathy and support.

If we had half a mind left as a culture, the very phrase ‘heartbreaking tweet’ would give us pause. Alas we do not have half a mind as a culture, and neither has this Gilded Age of witless advances managed to stamp out world hunger or eradicate poverty. Just sayin’. On the other hand, our laudable tendency to mass sameness makes it easier to suffer this foolishness.

So do practice your fashion-spitting. It’s got to look very natural, not like Jack Elam or some other grizzled cowboy actor theatrically squirting mouth juice into a spittoon. It’s gotta look cool. If you are wearing a lightweight black or navy blue ridged jacket while casually spitting into the Queen Anne Palms along State Street, all the better. Remember, these jackets come in sleeved and sleeve-free versions. Either one will cloak you when the wolves come out. Celebrate your uniqueness in absolute quietude or you’re screwed. Tell the kids, too. Again, the Patty Duke theme offers helpful guidance:

“Where Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballet Russes and crepe suzette, our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — what a wild duet! But they’re cousins! Identical cousins!”

Live it. For the good of the species.

Who is Sean Kenney, and Why Isn’t This Man Smiling?

Captains Pike & Kirk

When Spock reports a distress call from Starbase 11, the easily distracted USS Enterprise takes another whimsical warp-speed detour from her 5-Year Mission and hustles over to the troubled Federation outpost, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beaming down in their columns of sparkly stuff to see what the trouble is. The Starbase 11 commander is quizzical. “We didn’t call you guys.” Kirk reaffirms huffily that Spock reported a distress call from Captain Christopher Pike himself. “Impossible,” the base commander says. Pike had been horrifically injured months before in an accident and is now a staring, slack-jawed, radiation-burned mute. As in all good sci-fi, the horror-specifics of Pike’s accident are alluded to in Future Space Injury argot. It seems a ‘baffle plate ruptured’ during his inspection of a Class J vessel, catching Pike and his young charges unawares and coating them with toxic space propulsion junk. The Starfleet folk seem unified in their alarm, and there is an awkward pause. Finally McCoy gives voice to their dread.

“The Delta Rays?” To which the base commander merely nods. When the group enters his room, Pike slowly turns his torso-encasing 25th century wheelchair to face them (and us), and we see the full effect of Delta rays on self-sacrificing Starfleet brass determined to save as many cadets as possible in the face of faulty baffle plates.

“If you remember that scene, I’m facing the window,” Sean Kenney says, “and I have to turn around. And you could turn around fast in that wheelchair thing, because it had a joystick, you know. But at 24 frames a second you have to move 1/10th slower, or it looks too fast on the film. We got it in two takes.”

The camera lavishes great attention on the expressions of pity and horror on Kirk and McCoy as they gaze upon their ruined colleague, the director opting to have the close-ups linger a beat too long. Even Spock’s Vulcanized poker face betrays a little something at the sight of his desiccated former Captain, Kirk’s predecessor. The music swells minutely to a muted, minor chord with piccolos as the camera smoothly closes on the disfigured Pike, staring with lifeless but pleading eyes, his mouth open. Speaking of Spock now, Kenney says of the scene, “I had to look at this guy like I hadn’t seen him in 6 or 7 years. If you watch my eyes in that, Spock is scary to me. Why is he here?”

These are The Voyages of Sean Kenney

331 years (and a couple weeks) earlier, and about 4 miles away, Sean Kenney readies himself for that night’s performance at the Gallery Theater, near Santa Monica Blvd. It’s 1966. A packed house of jostling, coughing theatergoers is settling in for an evening of stirring theater, a play called The Deputy. Kenney is the sound effects guy and has a couple of walk-on roles in the play. For the moment that’s as close as he can get to center stage in the thronged, hothouse atmosphere of L.A. in the early sixties, with Hollywood in the ascendant and aspiring actors from all over the place pouring into southern California like bees into a hive. Kenney can’t know that tonight he will succumb to a “ruptured baffle plate” of his own. The energies that will shortly bathe him, though, are not scarring radioactive poison, but the benevolent rays of a dawning new gig, a new life, really; Kismet rays. Starfleet will reach him this night on a hailing frequency.

Just out of the Air Force, Sean Kenney had been scrambling, but he knew what he wanted. During his last assignment, on an air base outside London, he’d begun to hesitantly dabble in stagecraft, working with a coach who lived near the base, learning how to read from a script during an audition, how to speak written lines. One evening the 21 year-old airman had gone into town and experienced a heart-turning epiphany watching Olivier and Caine tear it up in a London stage production of Ira Levin’s house-of-mirrors story, Sleuth. When some days later his Commanding Officer asked if he wanted to “re-up”, as his obligatory four year enlistment was coming to an end, Kenney respectfully declined.

“No sir. I have to get home.”

“Trouble with family?”

“No sir. I have things I want to do.”

“What do you want to do with your life, airman?”

“ I want to be an actor, sir,” Kenney said.

“An actor? You’re kidding!” the CO said, to which Kenney’s response was a sudden, rhapsodic pouring out of his feelings about Olivier, Caine, the play he’d seen. “It just moved me no end, sir!” Kenney remembers holding his hand to his chest as he spoke. Picture a fresh-faced kid in khakis who has just glimpsed his place in the firmament. After a few minutes the CO waved his hands in surrender. “OKAY, airman, I can see by the way you’re talking and the way you’re feeling you are not going to re-up. I’ll drop it.”

Back in the States Kenney was determined to become an actor but had to earn a living. He and and a girlfriend worked at the San Antonio ranch of FedMart millionaire Morris Jaffe, and through that connection was promised a job at the FedMart corporate office in Covina. Kenney jumped at the chance, which didn’t pan out, though he’d finally made it to California. He worked days as a draftsman designer (the trade he’d learned in the service) and nights doing whatever he could to get into the acting game, finally joining the only theater group in the Los Angeles phone book with an opening, and taking what they had to offer; sound effects and a couple of non-speaking walk-ons in a production of The Deputy at the Gallery Theater.

“I go in, it’s my big shot,” Kenney says now. The house was packed, the lead actor was “out in the desert doing a Gunsmoke episode,” and suddenly the understudy calls in sick. The producers are going to cancel the show, tell the ticketholders to line up for refunds. They’re pulling their hair. Kenney raises his hand. “Hey, uh…I know all the lines.” Heads swivel and they look at the kid, blinking. “Yeah, I know every word, man.” They hurriedly start throwing scene and line references at him in the wings. He knows every word, comma and period. By heart. “I was the sound guy,” he says, laughing. “I knew everyone’s lines!” Flabbergasted and seeing a way out, they rushed him into costume and crossed their fingers. Kenney took the stage and killed it, saving the evening, quelling the producers’ acid reflux, and opening a door.

Fate: The Final Frontier

Unbeknownst to Kenney, a talent agent had sidled into the audience. She’d been scouring the town at Gene Roddenberry’s desperate behest, looking for a young actor with a very particular quality. They’d almost given up, and the fate of a struggling new series hung in the balance. 40 years later Star Trek’s Supervising Producer Bob Justman would tell Sean Kenney, “if we hadn’t found you there wasn’t going to be a next season. When Gene found you he was so elated.” Roddenberry had been looking high and low for a young guy with the face of actor Jeffrey Hunter, whose Captain Pike character in the rejected Star Trek pilot episode The Cage would be Kenney’s role, but as a hideously burned and staring shadow of his former self.

Now as Kenney was scraping off his makeup backstage and exulting in the evening, the agent approached him in his dressing room. Would Kenney care to interview with Paramount? She dropped Roddenberry’s name and Kenney had never heard of him, but that didn’t matter. Roddenberry had a show he was trying to put together and she would like to introduce them.

“Yeah! Sure!”

Kenney went to the casting office at Paramount on the appointed day and was shown into Gene Roddenberry’s cozily lit and comfortably furnished office. “It’s like a living room,” Kenney says. There is a little metal starship of some kind on Roddenberry’s desk. “Then it’s, ‘Hi I’m Sean Kenney, hi, I’m Gene Roddenberry’. We shake hands and he starts walking around me, holding my picture. He says, ‘you have a striking resemblance to an actor we are making use of. Do you have any aversion to having your hair dyed?” Kenney says no. Roddenberry has more questions, and Kenney laughs lightly as he tells the story.

“Then he asks me, ‘Are you allergic to latex?’ and I said, ‘uh, no.’ And Roddenberry said, “Well, we might want to dye your hair white and use a little latex on your face. Just wanna make sure you don’t have any allergies.” ‘….Okay’. ‘Also,’ Roddenberry then adds, ‘you might not be able to eat normally during the job, because we’re going to have to tape your mouth down. You might have to eat through a straw during the workday – just liquids.’ And I say “….okay’. When you’re young like that you do not say no! You don’t want any barriers to your career, you know?”

Roddenberry had taken a shine to the young actor. They discovered in conversation they had both served in the same service group, the 8th Air Force, Roddenberry a B-17 pilot. “After we discovered that, we had a real rapport,” Kenney says. After filming Kenney as Pike, Roddenberry would have him back for two more episodes – A Taste of Armageddon and Arena, as the character Lt. DePaul. Within days of the Roddenberry appointment Kenney was on set, being made up as the disfigured Captain Pike.

When NBC rejected Star Trek’s original pilot episode, called The Cage, they ordered Roddenberry to come up with another pilot for the series. In the lost pilot, Jeffrey Hunter had played Captain Christopher Pike, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Kirk’s predecessor as the Big Guy on the bridge. Roddenberry was deeply wounded by NBC’s rejection of the episode. That first pilot would not be seen in its original form until 1988.

“Roddenberry was so hurt by that,” Kenney says. “I mean, really sad.” Roddenberry said to the newly minted young actor, almost as if talking to himself; “That one didn’t go, but this one will.” His idea was to resurrect the lost Captain Pike episode by writing a new episode around it as a framing device. Roddenberry was driven to prove the mettle of the original episode, and in the end The Menagerie did indeed vindicate him – winning a Hugo award and a number of other prestigious writing and production accolades. Today that two-part episode, The Menagerie, is legendary, and Sean Kenney was at the white hot center of television history being made. At the time, he was just wonderstruck to be working in television.

A Menagerie of Personalities

The Menagerie was shot over six days on Stages 4 and 5 at the Desilu Studios. Kenney’s makeup took five and a half hours to apply the first day, and by the last day the makeup artist for the show, Freddie Phillips, who had also lorded over the unnerving makeup effects for The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, had got it down to 3 hours or so. Kenney learned a lot in that time. For one thing, movie magic is sometimes a little more prosaic than the public realizes. When they couldn’t figure out how to render the ghastly dark radiation burn that dominates the right side of Pike’s ruined face, assistant makeup artist Ray Sebastian had a brainstorm, cut out a dogleg-shaped strip of denim from his Levi’s and glued it to Kenney’s face with spirit gum, and that’s what you are looking at onscreen.

For his part, Kenney, in his first big acting breakthrough, had to sit stock still for hours, and then once shooting began had to sit encased to the shoulders in a futuristic prop wheelchair and do all the necessary emoting with his eyes. His role also gave him a privileged fly-on-the-wall position from which to observe the goings on around him, the young acting arriviste staring straight ahead through his latex radiation burns, while his eyes and ears worked overtime to soak up the dynamism of a bunch of disparate personalities working together for 15 hours a day and trying to hold it together. Kenney started to pick up on things. What were the stars of the show like?

I’m a Doctor, Jim. Not Your Stand-In!

“Shatner would bark out his orders and I was just this young guy sitting in a chair, nobody’s going to talk to me, because my character can’t talk, so you become an eavesdropper. You don’t know you are, but you become that. And I knew he was not well liked by anybody. Nobody really liked him at all. It was all ‘me, myself and I’, you know?” He laughs.

“And they’d catch Shatner stealing their light! Check this, man: you’re on the set, you’re up on the bridge, this is when I was dePaul, right? And you turn around and you see Shatner moving to where the light was the best for him, and he would almost body check Jimmy a little bit. So he’d get the best light! And you know, D (DeForest Kelley) would catch it! He’d be saying his lines, you know, “Jim, Jim, we’ve got to get these people to safety…” you know, and then he’d see Shatner moving and he’d say to Jimmy “What the **** is this?”

“And Leonard was very into Spock, and he was a Method actor, and he never broke out of character, even on the set. My mother and his mother got to be good friends, we come from the same town in Massachusetts, and I said once ‘Hey, Leonard; your mom and my mom are shopping together,’ and he looks at me and says, “Oh really. Fascinating.” And he walks away from me (laughs)..”

Some of the cast were a little more approachable, and Kenney treasures the ready friendships that grew on the set.

“Jimmy (James Doohan – Scotty) was fabulous. You know, he showed me his bullet holes. He had 5 of them. He was shot almost to death at Normandy, and I said, since I was in the service, “Hey man, you were there, you got a Purple Heart”, and he was ‘Fuck that stuff,’ just like that. ‘I just was happy to get out of there.’ What a great guy he was. Always laughing. Great.”

“D Kelley, he was so great. You know I came on later as DePaul and he didn’t know I’d played Pike. You know, it’s three weeks later and I’ve got my hair back, I’m 24, 25. And I’m sitting there on the bridge and Jimmy says “D, this is Sean Kenney” and D is like “yeah, how are you? DeForest Kelley.” And Jimmy says “…you know, he played Pike,” and Kelley turns to me and says, “You played Pike? Holy shit, man! They made you up like a Christmas turkey!” (laughs hard) “D was a real guy and Jimmy was a real guy.”

Kenney went on to do television during the arguable last Golden Age (Get Smart, Police Story) and a series of Independent films whose directors today typify the outlier auteur. Today he is a successful celebrity and portrait photographer in the Los Angeles area and continues to make the rounds of the Star Trek conventions, where his role as the disfigured Captain Pike seems to make him more of an attraction and curiosity with every passing year. He has written a book about his Star Trek experience and his other adventures in the acting trade, and it can be found at captainpikefoundalive.com

Sean Kenney marvels at the endless fascination with the Star Trek phenomenon. “There’s a guy named Marc Cushman who has written this thing, a compendium, really. These Are the Voyages, it’s called. Every scribbled liner note, every little factoid. These three books are 1500 pages each. The last word, man. He spent twelve years writing these things!”

Does Sean Kenney he ever sit back and realize that his role in Star Trek puts him squarely in the great and timeless pantheon of iconic television characters? “My wife was showing me this U.S. Post Office catalog that a friend sent us, and I saw myself as a postage stamp. ‘Honey!’ She said. ‘You’re a stamp!’ He sighs and pauses. “And it is starting to hit me now, it’s…..wow.”

For the published print version that includes photos of Sean, visit…

Who Is Sean Kenney? SB Sentinel Vol 4 Issue 8