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

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Personal Space: The Final Frontier

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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

A Reluctant Astronaut

A Reluctant Astronaut

Howard Dean…Howard Dean. Oh, I know! Didn’t he play Andy Griffith’s kid in that Mayberry show way back when? You know, the one with the small-town sheriff, his bug-eyed deputy, and that harrowing barber who never moved his left arm? The show had a whistled theme song, and as you listened every week you’d watch scenes depicting small town life, the sheriff and his kid walking by some pine trees with fishing poles, then the kid skipping a rock across a country pond in a badly edited instance of “This Spoiled Hollywood Brat Can’t Even Skip his own Rock Across a Pond.”

No, wait. I’m thinking of Ron Howard, who went from Andy Griffith to Happy Days to Explosive Onset Pattern Baldness and thence to great success as a Hollywood Director. (Once you have the bald pate and shame-covering cause célèbre baseball cap, you’re just a hop and a skip away from those movie-set headphones and the director’s chair). Howard Dean was the 2004 presidential candidate whose disastrous, un-presidential troop-rallying yell at a political gathering utterly derailed his Presidential chances. What on Earth was he thinking, yelling like that on t.v.?! LOL. And I repeat: LOL! Dean’s poor showing in the Iowa caucuses that election season had inspired him to a post-Iowa attempt at inspiration-speak, and he let fly with a brief “forward march” monologue that concluded with a ragged little victory yell. It was the sort of pitiable yell someone’s dad might bark out in an attempt to appear simpatico with the young concertgoers surrounding he and his soon-to-be ostracized son in the DeadMau5 pit. Well. You know how voters can be. Or how they used to be, rather.

Your Footnote, Sir

By the next day, our blue-chip media, ever in pursuit of Cereal-Selling, were all over Dean with that drily-delivered smarm they hustle out on these occasions. Of course our highly conditioned B.F. Skinner electorate obediently walked its blank figure eight, right on command—followed the media’s signal as certain goldfish will follow a moving flame held near their entrapping little bowl. Within several days, Dean’s televised battle cry had been successfully blown up as a Disastrous Media Gaffe, and the “rinse and repeat” news cycle kept the phony controversy alive until Dean had been thoroughly drubbed out of the race.

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this shit’ll get you fired around here

We like our Presidential candidates to be…Presidential? Anything less and there’s gonna be a dogpile. And that is why the little-known name “Howard Dean” today comes with a footnote. Yeah, he…ran for President, I guess? Oh wait! But how’s about that funny yell, man? Oh gawd. The Dean Scream? LOL!!!

Fortunately, it takes quite a bit more to discomfit We the Weebles these days. We are a rough-and-tumble electorate now. A candidate happily hollering on t.v.? It’ll take more than that to give us pause. A helluva lot more. At this historical juncture it is unclear what exactly will give us pause. Back in January, then-candidate Trump said this: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And he said it in Iowa. We didn’t even tap the brakes.

Yeah, this most recent campaign season has been one for the ages, our current President Elect having comported himself like an elephant plowing at top speed through a carefully arranged display of Swarovski crystal. So we showed him the door. The door to the oval office. Take THAT Howard Dean. When in mid-January we look at any real-time orbital video of Earth, Real Estate Investor Donald Trump will be the most powerful human being on that large blue ball in the middle of the frame. Embrace the fact.

Chastened

At this writing, our newly anointed President-elect of the United States has emerged from the traditional pre-inauguration field trip to the White House, where he was shown around the nutty-looking mansion and (presumably) given the briefest glimpse of the bored and captive alien they keep in some sort of pen down near the Situation Room. Whatever Trump saw and heard during his private time with Obama, he seems to have been made thoughtful by the experience. And who wouldn’t be? Video of the President-Elect sitting uncomfortably in an armchair next to President Obama had the surreal gravitas of prisoner footage smuggled out of an undisclosed location.


If a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer.


As a graying, relaxed-looking Obama said his stuff about his and Trump’s reportedly productive and “wide-ranging” private conversation, the unbroken squall of 60 press cameras in burst mode almost drowned out what the two guys were saying. And Trump wasn’t saying much. The seated mogul’s “I really gotta go to the bathroom” body language said a lot, though. The Donald’s manner was that of a chastened scaredy-cat; his long arms hung forward, his dimpled hands variously clasped and drooping, his squinting, sleepless-looking eyes casting about the room beseechingly with a mild vibe of “oh, shit”. Trump and his staff had reportedly been wowed by the scope of the administrative nightmare that is simply Running the White House, not to mention Obama’s Cliff Notes summary of Free World-Leading. There was a lot for Trump to take in. You could see it in his face.

Flaunting tradition, he’d flown to the transition meeting in his private jet, the better to flip the media the bird. The press traditionally accompanies the President-Elect on this jaunt to the transition thingy, chumming it up in-flight, laughing good-naturedly and providing lots of gladdened “behind the scenes” clips of our Fourth Estate appearing human and relaxed with a future President who, once he assumes office, will become their steak tartare, and the brightly shining object of their ratings-fueled henpecking. Well, Trump had been henpecked puh-lenty already, and took the millionaire opportunity to avail himself of his own private jet, thanks. He left the honestly bewildered media folk on the figurative tarmac, choking on expensive jet exhaust, blinking confusedly and fingering their lil’ press pass lanyards.

Sticks and Stones and Puppy Dog Tails

As for what got us to this pass – a lot was said this election cycle that I’m sure the candidates wish they could take back, if only to replace those earlier barbs with the crueler, more bitterly savage screaming they regret having holstered. Trump’s difficulty with extemporaneous speaking, though, meant that his wildly unmeasured broadsides often sounded like escaped brain flatus. From his early adoption and rabid championing of the birther bullsh*t to his flatly stated opinion that “…President Obama has been the most ignorant president in our history”, The Donald’s unmediated, majestically bar-lowering jibberjabber may finally have gone to ground. His stunned expression on transition day suggested as much.

As a nation, we wanted “change”. Why we don’t just dig it out of the sofa like all the other starved losers is anybody’s guess. And as usual, our inability to articulate beyond the Pavlovian election-year sloganeering came to no good. When the “change” mantra gets going we are known to lustily toss the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and the deed to the house right out the freaking window. Blue districts go all red, people seem to change stripes overnight, and our cheap, lazy desire to feign engagement undoes the brutally hard work of those few in D.C. who actually toil.

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Jesus, a camel, and a needle’s eye. This picture says a lot,brah.

Yeah, we received the election results with all the freewheeling drama you expect from a well-off First World citizenry. A woman on the Staten Island Ferry hollered shrilly at the news camera and shook her hair. “Hillary deserves to go to jail! I want to see Hillary in Jail!” Somewhere between her work for the Children’s Defense Fund and her having beaten Vince Foster to death with a shovel, Hillary lost this voter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scattered crowd of Hillary supporters, garishly lit by the news camera lamps, were seen tearily shuffling out of Hil’s election night Glass Ceiling HQ like the outcast damned. Which about fits.

Trump’s hot mic “locker room talk” about assaulting women those years ago may have been only that; talk. But if a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer. And Hillary’s stirring final remarks to all the “little girls”, exhorting them basically to not feel bound to the current “Grabbing Crotches is Power” ennui—it brought home the fact that we want and need leaders who seem like us, but a little bigger.

November Surprise

Trump now just seems surprised. At everything. The nation’s urban outpouring of protest scorn seems to jar him, and the spike in cracker incidents in the wake of his election drew from a visibly shaken Trump the Rodney King-like “Stop it. Just stop it.” Why is he surprised? Because Trump is not a racist, misogynist bigot, is not a deeply tactical Machiavellian despot, rubbing his power-paws and chomping at the bit to assume the throne and eat his enemies.

reluctant

pre-presidential id

He is neither Hitler nor Mussolini. All this cracker activity genuinely surprises him because he is just your ostentatiously wealthy, boorish neighbor who speaks instead of thinks: ”I’m scared of Syrians! Where is Syria? I love to grab women! Oooh, I’m so mad I’m gonna punch ISIS! That Obama is crummy at being President, really crummy! Hillary, you are going to jail, baby!!” Anyone listening even cursorily to the Donald’s 4th grade-caliber pronouncements will know straightaway that he is just a 70 year-old crank in a vacuum with shitty handlers. Oh, and hair like an irradiated rooster. That’s all. He’s not a “nationalist”, “isolationist”, or even a “conservative”. He doesn’t know what those things mean. He’s just a blustering loudmouthed everyman who hated being told he couldn’t do this one thing, and now he’s trapped.

In the fab 60s Don Knotts vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut, an everyman ride-operator from a theme park gets launched in an actual space capsule. After a whole reel of Knott’s particular brand of glandular panic, he manages to commandeer the space capsule safely back to Earth by reverting to his theme park persona, and so losing himself in the astronaut fantasy he becomes a Momentary Astronaut. May the same thing happen to our Donald, who seems awestruck that the thing is really happening. Whether or not he ever wanted the job, we need him to succeed. “We do want to win this. We do want to win it,” he notably murmured with downcast eyes as he and Melania cast their show-votes on election night. He looked pretty darned glum, and later as frankly stunned as the rest of us. So we may have some common ground after all. Let us pray.

A Lib Confesses

A Lib Confesses

I’m an NPR guy, okay? Yeah, I got beat up by the bike rack in 7th grade, earned my stripes like the rest of my lot – by being ill-advisedly sympathetic at the wrong time (see Homebuilders Association of Northern California versus the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp). The bully, who I’ll here call JK, had kicked poor little big-butt Tony Matthews so hard in the ass during a soccer game in PE, the force had actually lifted Tony off the ground. I’d reacted spontaneously and unwisely, earning my adolescent “Bleeding-Heart-Soy-Based-Bonehead’ creds by briskly hollering at JK and eliciting from him a promise he would meet me after school. “Naw, we don’t hafta meet,” I’d actually said in those first panicked seconds of sobriety, attempting to de-escalate. Think that worked?

Stingray in the Stingray Day

When after last period I went to retrieve my Stingray with its sparkly banana seat and faux-wood-knobbed 3-speed stick shift (litigiously positioned to bludgeon my groin in the event of even the most minor biking mishap), JK was there grasping the handlebars of my beloved. This weasel-faced bully was about half my size and so homely I found myself actually pitying him (see?!) in the seconds before his surprisingly practiced fist introduced itself to my left cheekbone. Could I have taken him? Yeah. I could have taken him for a short run by fleeing like a panicked rag doll. But I knew he and his two minions would quickly catch and thrash me with renewed vigor. That’s right, he was backed up by henchmen, or henchmiddleschoolkids, more precisely, though to me at that moment they looked like grown bruisers with police records. While the two assistants stood in the background smirking with their arms crossed, JK struck me in the head once, twice, Three Times a Lady. There was no ceremony, no verbiage, just a dreamlike minute whose sweep-second hand took its sweet time rounding the face of my cheap ‘takes a licking’ Timex. POW! two three. POW! two three four five six seven……hoo boy glad that’s over the future pessimist exulted…..POW!!!

The blows fell with a stunning blunt force that to my utter surprise did not mimic the slappy-sounding, easy-to-shake-off punches one saw on TV all the time. I vividly remember thinking, as the punctuated jabs landed with the sickening sound of skin smashing into skin; “Shit! This is nothing like I imagined!” From that moment on I understood that were I recipient of a Kojak or Mannix-quality beating in real life I would likely not survive it, let alone straighten my collar and make out with a beautiful woman afterwards. Huh UH. The next day I walked into Ms. Stone’s math class with a face so swollen my cheek stood out in my peripheral vision, a nagging omnipresent reminder of my humiliation the previous day. “Hey, what happened to your face, Wing?” JK chided when I walked in, and from the back of the classroom Tony Matthews giggled with the rest. An early dose of The Bitter Medicine. I looked shamefacedly at Ms. Stone and the concern in her beautiful eyes made me love her anew. But that’s another column.

Mug of a Carpenter

Later that same emotionally misbegotten lifetime, I of course became a member of NPR; the broadcast maypole around which we mercy-dispensing Libs delightedly prance in our forest-green tights. I love NPR. My ex-girlfriend (read: wife) and I pledge to them semi-regularly, and in pitiable dollar amounts insufficient to earn us the coveted NPR Grail, or mug, as it’s known to the unwashed. I depend on NPR’s deep reporting, interestingly unpredictable interviews, and frontline real-time dispatches to help augment my world view, which is informed by the twin lights of mercy and fairness.

Having said that, I can tell you that when I turned on my car radio the other day and the NPR team were murmuring soporifically about salad or human rights or some such, I reflexively punched the AM button for escape. Sometimes the radiant self-congratulation of the NPR gang makes me want to go out and shoot an endangered Snail Darter in the legs. There, I said it.

The Left! Look at us! (those of you who are sick of looking at us, look away) No wonder JK beat me senseless by my newish Schwinn! Was it this quality of mercy that so strained the Romans that they simply HAD to beat up our Guy? Oh, and speaking of Christ, how did the ‘Left’, whose goofy public policy positions actually reflect New Testament teaching, lose Christ to a Conservative movement that has not only armed the Lord with a machine gun, but seems to crap on His less-advantaged sheep with impunity? I’ll tell you how. It’s a little something called Freedom; a much-maligned and tactically abused concept. Freedom is a cult here, I would suggest. It is safe to say the U.S. is beholden to a cult. Do we need deprogramming?

How May I Help You?

My friend David, with whom I discuss much, once asked me out of the blue, “Do you think the Socialist experiment in Europe has been a success?” It’s one of those Great Questions whose discursive answer-seeking can sum up so much. As I said to David that day, “…it depends”. What does our race want? What are people for (all thanks to Vonnegut) and how shall we address this exalted animal? How shall we comport ourselves in this dumb, brutish life, whose pageantry includes both creme brulee and slow beheadings? Shall we build elaborate systems to ensure that no individual goes unfed, unsheltered? Arguably, yes. In the U.S. , where Modern American Liberalism is practiced (vs Classic Liberalism), a microcosmic outcome of this seemingly sensible and Christ-like philosophical practice is the awarding of a little tin trophy to every kid on the losing soccer team. Yes, some of us see a merit-based reward system as barbaric, or at least unnecessarily hurtful to the little boob who can’t kick a ball when it’s right in front him, and should be taught that ineptitude can also be rewarded, and handsomely. Or should the goal of our species be individual excellence? To be superb, a roman candle fulfilling in absolute terms as much of ones human potential as possible in the time allotted, whatever that may be? Arguably, also yes.

What else are we gonna do with our idiot’s eyeblink of a life down here on this meaning-starved wet rock in the middle of literal nowhere? I mean, we got the overcomplicated neural firings, the opposable thumbs, the inexplicable qualia. It’s not like we’re simply very expensive dogs. Having been handed all this largesse by the Big Bang/Giant Bearded Man in a Terrycloth Robe (to summarize the two most popular hypotheses), are we really just supposed to stand down and shade each other from the sun? That’s it? Are we self-actualized, pinnacle-seeking animals, or cosmic social workers adrift in a poetic vacuum, placed here against indescribably remote odds to be at rest, absorb the moments, and see that no one starves? Your answer will depend largely on whether you live in a cardboard box or in a three bedroom house with a mortgage.

Coming Clean

Okay, I’m gonna come clean, as they say (or used to say – and seeing it in type I understand why they stopped saying it): I get Conservatism. At least, I grasp their once doctrinaire embrace of Freedom as an undervalued social compact whose role in history has been that of a golden thread weaving in and out of a shit-smeared burlap onesie. I do understand the inherent common sense and actual human glory that inheres in the Every man for Himself model. In the heat of an argument I once yelled at my conservative nemesis that the U.S. has a “cult of Freedom”, by which I meant we hold people hostage to the idea of Freedom, and in policy debates consider top-down systemic attempts to alleviate suffering a blow against absolute freedom. What good is this double-edged Freedom if it doesn’t help anyone who is suffering?

Eugene Delacroix-La Liberte guidant le Peuple

Lady Liberty’s wardrobe malfunction scarcely registers as she leads the revolutionary French in Delacroix’s famous painting

True Freedom can be shown to leave people worse off, from a public policy standpoint, when Freedom is invoked to push back against government policies that seek redress for the helpless. Seeing Obamacare’s mandate as a blow against Freedom seems absurdist on its face. Christ in his mercy would surely have forced such an issue in the interest of decreasing suffering. The Lord didn’t give a shit about anything but saving people. But, this Freedom thing; it is the natural state of affairs in the universe, like gravity, the weak nuclear force, and so on. Does it exist apart from or somehow loftily above our questions about suffering? Is it a Golden Thread?

 

Bible-Thumping Darwinists

It’s a fact, oft-noted, that the Conservative aspirational model that posits a human life as a pinnacle-seeking enterprise is simple Darwinism (tactical Bible-thumping aside). And that is not to denigrate the term. Still another name for it is Freedom (yawn). Does an animal in the wild give up his taxi to the wheezing guy next to him when it’s pissing down rain? Nope. Is that a bad thing? Only if you’re the wheezing guy with walking pneumonia. Contrary to the religious posturing that is anymore an essential amino acid in the GOP’s political DNA, the party that champions individual accountability and liberty (within the party’s own curious limits, it must be said – wombs and pills still fall under the Heisenbergian “both wave and particle” purview of Freedom’s High Priests) is the party that favors the Shaggy Ol’ Laws of Nature as a design for living. And they don’t even like animals as much as we snuggly Libs do! Can you imagine a platoon of Republican PETA militants angrily breaking into a cosmetics lab and liberating the helpless test beasties? If you ever see that happen you can bet the rescued Maybelline rabbits will make their next appearance on a rotisserie being brushed with clarified butter.

Libs are philosophically the opposite and apposite. They want to lend a hand to the poor, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed; a decidedly anti-nature way to go about things. Animals in the wild are as free as freedom gets, and they screw and eat each other with thrilling/disgusting abandon (respectively). So it’s a little odd how feverishly Liberals venerate the natural world given their total abandonment of that model when attempting to retool civil society as a Play-Doh equality factory.

The Paragon of Animals

Big Bill Shakespeare described a human being as “The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” We are probably that. Oughtn’t we, then, encourage one another to stand and fight with all our exalting means, and not succumb? I’ve taken my shots at Conservatism, have gotten hot under the collar just looking at the way their chins interact with THEIR collars. And they are a fat, slow-moving target at a glance. But I think I do understand that the heart of TRUE and unpolluted conservatism is not contempt for the poor and the downtrodden, but contempt for a culture that doesn’t see them as the Paragon of Animals but as lost ninny children who will never find their way.

A Conservative can be the most ardent humanist you’ll ever meet in this regard. And I get it. Homelessness and hopelessness and poverty and the desecration of the human spirit – these are real, misery-sowing, ongoing diseases that need a dose of burning disinfectant. But awakening the latent immune system inside a human individual, arousing the army of antibodies placed in us to overwrite our weaker nature and to buttress our better one – surely this is part of the cure, if only a small part. Yeah, we’re only animals. We’re not beings of light, but we have a strange capacity for renewal that isn’t explicable in the Darwinian model. We have the ability to incandesce.

Freedom Isn’t Boring and May be a Two-Faced Biatch

It does come down to Freedom, I’m afraid; an uber-American noun so laden with baggage it looks like an Eastern Airlines scab on Skycap strike day. Freedom? Haven’t we long since become bored silly by that numbing word, inured to its deeper, almost religious meaning by the stupidity of today’s polarizing shitheel discourse? Today’s Conservatives champion “Freedom” but many of them throw the word around so recklessly it amounts to disrespect for what is a sacred state of being. Take for instance the “Freedom Fries” the House of Representatives cafeteria began serving in place of French Fries when the Gauls had the balls to equivocate at the U.S. decision to lay down a generation-screwing dose of shock and awe on the already massively f****d people of Iraq. I mean, Freedom Fries?!

I don’t know that King John at Runnymede had that kind of semantic b.s. in mind when he momentously (if a little reluctantly) signed that piece of parchment in 1215. Freedom is not an invention, and neither a discovery. It’s like oxygen. But here in the States, where it is as ubiquitous as actual oxygen, “Freedom” has the same spoken narcoleptic firepower as the words “beige” or “Jimmy Fallon”. Freedom is the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and Dr. King’s defiant march from Selma to Montgomery, and is absolutely central to every incandescent quality that makes us unique among the animals, that makes us human. Freedom isn’t an optimizer in a speech. It’s an element of the biosphere the “lower” animals don’t even notice. We’re higher animals, though. We owe it to ourselves to notice.

The Crackers and the Lorax

So, Conservatives? I understand that not many of you are raging bags of homophobic racism, but a few of you are. Dump your crackers in the public square, they’re screwing your mission. And your patriarchal ovum-diddling. WTF? Freedom, right? There is no Half-Freedom. For our part, maybe some day soon we Libs will stop glad-handing the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ mustachioed, forest-defending cuddler that pit family members against each other for a time in the Pacific NW where the demonized logging business put food on many many families tables. Kids were suddenly questioning their parents’ working in the devil’s business, sawing down trees and upsetting the Lorax. I have yet to meet a Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp or laudably ancient tree that merits starving out a hardworking family of human beings. We’re the paragons, not that dumb little cross-eyed shrimp. Time and the universe stretch out forever. The shrimp will be back, as will the tree. Let’s get real.

Final nagging note to Conservatism from a smug Liberal weenie. You’re right – the Freedom of the human being may qualify for Grail status, and all barriers to its hegemony should be thrown aside. But Freedom isn’t curbed by government policy that reaches out to the dispossessed and downtrodden, those imprisoned by circumstances. On the contrary. Policies that alleviate suffering give thinking Hobbesian animals the possible respite they require to avail themselves of the graspable rungs of precious Freedom’s ladder. To put this in awkwardly scriptural terms, the means to grasp Freedom is to Freedom itself as John the Baptist was to the Savior. Just sayin’.

 

not with a bang, but with a bib. yes.

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Some nights I’m possessed of a demon energy and I’ll iron a shirt, or two shirts. Other nights we sprawl and dawdle by lamplight and parse the dumbbell universe, a clear and present accident whose wit is often hidden from us, and whose largely inexplicable machinery has the charm of a tipsy blabbermouth mechanical engineer at the office bowling party. When I’m interested in hearing about Poisson’s Ratio you’ll know it, because I’ll be walking away at speed. But you can’t walk away from the universe. It hovers, a leering omnipresence. It doesn’t seem to know it is but a homely, if enormously complicated, machine. You don’t get magic just by adding more gears. The magic is in the wakey-wakey, and that’s us. But the Divine Milieu (as the howling emptiness of space has been called) is an immeasurably vast gulf of envy, and manages to choreograph our desperately fleeting lives into episodes of spirit-killing flapdoodle. You have the Hubble Deep Field over there, and over here you have a grown man masturbating into a cantaloupe. Same system, same entropic hoo-ha, and so on. How? Reality is a batshit sandwich, that’s how. What majesty we can muster is derived from our being able to eat it without blanching. I’m nowhere close.

Dave and I meet one evening at the Famous Fish Warehouse or whatever it’s called, a few blocks up from the beach. It’s one of those enormous restaurant/bars the size of a NASA hangar and tonight it is thronged and seething, the dank air tumescent with excited human congress. The World Series is hollering out of a dozen enormous screens hung about the place, the panicky-sounding, midrange hubbub of the gathered mob in here not unlike that viral Russian recording of the inadvertently-penetrated caverns of hell. Whole families are laughing with mouths full, throwing their heads back so that oral cavities become upturned, toothy vessels of sludge. And we’re supposed to eat around all this eating. Dave strolls ahead to our table, unperturbed.

The scene is alive with the twenty-something species to whom this loudmouth Breugel is a first home. The carefully unshaven young professionals and players lean in their dozens with hunched and easy panache over long glass-littered bars, they jostle and confer and grasp each other, neckties half-undone in front of the bathroom mirror, their short, upswept power hair shifted back on their scalps to show grooveless, Shatnernesque foreheads. They have vivacious but normal-seeming girlfriends and wives for the most part, though once in a while a guy will turn up with a date whose chest looks as startlingly swollen as a new contusion. A lot of the celebrants are wearing backward baseball caps, which on a good day are a thorn. Those that don’t wear backward baseball caps wear those stylish form-fitting club suits that seem carefully arranged to look like unbuttoned after-hours business dress. A few of the guys are sporting the Squashed Insouciant Beanie, the ubiquitous outlier symbol that crushes and droops a little at the apex, suggesting bohemian disarray. The look doesn’t really speak in this environment because everyone knows real Bohemia doesn’t watch televised sports, and so the beanie crowd look like fakes, and they are. The backward-cap guys and after-hours faux-business-dress guys are in their element, though. They make easy eye contact and chit-chat with bartenders and waitresses, and they all look like some version or hue of Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds.

The baseball game has everyone excited. I mean scarily, phenomenally excited. The buzzed young guys and their significant others are wearing the collective ‘fuckyeahtheWorldSeries!’ mask and high-fiving each other, the men jerking their heads around and yelling incoherently every time one of the doughy millionaires onscreen swings a bat or jogs a little across the televised grass. All these wired guys are sporting Establishment tattoos and heroic eyebrows and are laughing loudly. The “I’m here straight from my important job in my unbuttoned suit” guys laugh angrily, like Billy Baldwin or Tom Cruise overplaying drunk because some acting coach somewhere told them that a drunk Young Turk looks at his gathered posse and angrily whips his hilarity-contorted face from friend to friend while laughing. “Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw! haw!haw!haw! oooh shit, man! Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” Their girlfriends or wives could be the nameless and merely competent actresses on endless and interchangeable Law and Shooting shows and limply ironic internet ads; lookalike, neutrally beautiful young ladies with radiant curtain-hair like polished rayon and cackling, nose-wrinkling support laughter accessorized with a possessing paw fastened determinedly on the tattooed forearm of the backward cap.

During this last game of the World Series (all the games of the World Series, really. All baseball games, that is), doughy muscular men, some tallish and paunchy with a mullet-mustache set, throw the little white baseball around and occasionally sprint in expensive panic with their big fannies jumping. When they aren’t called upon to move they can be seen dramatically standing stock still in the outfield, waiting for the little white ball to drop like a speck of cotton from out of the arc lighting. Often the live feed will show a moth or gnat or other innocent fluttering around out there under the lights, unaware of the Moment, and sometimes the wealthy outfielder will drop an incoming ball after having waved away his colleagues, “I got this!”, and when he drops the thing which it is his massively overpaid job simply to catch and hold onto, he’ll chase after it with electric anger, like it’s the ball’s fault, and he’ll pluck it up and throw it towards home plate with all his strength and it’ll usually get about as far as the pitcher who will snag it out of the air and then strut around with angry eyes, clutching the little ball and looking all around. The whole affair is wrought with oddness and ceremony. All the while the “after hours business dress” phonies (there, I said it), and now even the backward-cap gangs in the restaurant are yelling and slapping hands and drinking and laughing and cavorting “haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!”, jerking their angrily laughing faces around to aim and fire their humorless barking at each other. Their potent little drinks have tiny colored straws in them.

Despite my misgivings I find myself wishing I were one of them. As I get older the desire becomes incrementally stronger and, I would suggest, more perverse.  Why didn’t God make me a guy who understands the appeal of sport-spectating and occasional boozing and loudness, a regular guy who can lose himself in this tumult and tribe-think and freeing conviviality, back-slapping with a group of like-minded men and dissolving like a drop in the placid Testosterone Sea? Down another quantum pathway I would’ve played sports in high school and pumped iron, had The Stones on my bedroom wall and not a stylized cartoon poster of big-hipped Elton John peering like an elf from underneath a top hat, I would’ve had one of those thick paperbacks of sports statistics on my bedside table next to my State Championship trophy, and would have followed my dad in his daily brow-furrowed examination of column after column of tiny numbers in the Sports Section, two guys following the stock index. Instead I sat by my Tensor lamp and pored over the beautifully bound and illustrated shiny hardcover of the complete lyrics of Bernie Taupin (thanks, Diana), surrounded by my Revell spaceship models and sketch pads and other such you’ll-never-get-to-first-base folderol. So on nights like this, and they are few, I fall into brief fits of a very potent reverie. Looking around in wonder at the backward baseball caps, I almost say aloud “how did I miss this boat so completely?”

Three guys at the table next to Dave and I are ordering drinks and being handsome and successful with their shaded jawbones and parted hair and general enviability. Enviability is a state, if not a word.  I spy on them in my peripheral vision and occasionally with one of those bold direct glances which, if intercepted, can be quickly reframed as admiration of the exposed duct work and celestially arrayed, dessicated starfish overhead. They’re watching the TVs with interest but no particular fever while they wait for dinner, chatting and laughing normally, holding their hands in Rodin shapes before their mouths as they cant their heads and exchange confidences, as men do in parlors and mahogany-paneled private libraries.

I turn back to Dave and we continue our conversation and about half an hour later I glance over at the guys at the next table and I gasp and I feel my face getting hot. Their dinner has long since arrived, it is lobster, and these three recent exemplars of mellow male reason and coolness are wearing enormous bibs which fasten snugly around the neck and cascade down and over the knees like the drop cloth on a picnic table. In the center of each bib, right over the solar plexus, is a grinning stylized cartoon lobster. I can’t tear my eyes away from these nitwits, and if they’re stupid enough to don gigantic fucking bibs in a mixed gender restaurant, they’re too far gone to notice my staring anyway. Did I not get the memo about the bib thing? I glance around and no one is staring at these vibrant clods.

To my utter amazement the Three Baby Hueys, now tipsy and blinking slowly, their little freak arms reaching with difficulty out from behind their expansive plasticized bibs, begin making time with the black-haired, classily-pierced babe waitress when she comes to check on their inebriated lobster-destroying process. From what should be the genital-shriveling humility of their bib status, they blearily regard her with naked lust and start coming on to her! The guy nearest me actually leans out toward her and struggles to free his bib-ensnared ass-pinching arms. It’s just awful. This is not Robert Pattinson standing around at The Cape in an Alpaca sweater with a hip little bib like a necktie, hoisting a Heineken and laughing at the lobster held aloft in his left hand. This is three grown men made idiotic by their decision to put on enormous castrating bibs. And before my stupefied eyes the hot waitress receives the bib-guy’s advances and warms to him. She is flirting back. SHE IS FLIRTING WITH THE BIB GUY. This is the world I can never join, the world I can’t even comprehend. It moved on without me when they were handing out membership cards. While I was timidly romancing the trombone player in marching band, the high school hotties who couldn’t even see me were just biding their time, waiting for these louche drunks to put on their huge fucking bibs and excite them.

“Dave, check this out,” I whisper urgently out of the corner of my mouth. “These guys are wearing bibs!” It’s less funny to me than fucked up, especially now that I see the waitress warming up. Dave is everything I am not and knows his way around, writes articles for Oracle, is built like a championship swimmer and takes business trips. He haunts the cocktail lounges of Manhattan when he is called there by his urbane, yacht catalog-perusing corporate masters. He glances over at the drunken flirts in their man-bibs and turns back to me.

“Yeah,” he says. “They ordered lobster.”

Phantom in our Paradise

Paul and the Phantom

Paul Williams. You know him. Hai Karate aftershave, Lancer’s sparkling wine. His name and brand are adrift back there in the soft-focus, Foster Grant 70s, mingling pleasantly with hanging macramé planters, red shag carpet, Fondue parties and lapels large enough to bear one aloft on a breezy day. And my neighbor Cathy and me in my room at night, holding hands by black light and sitting stock still on the edge of the bed, staring at my glowing St. George and the Dragon poster like congregants, the room awash in Karen Carpenter’s crystalline expression of the gorgeous Williams/Nichols hymn Let Me Be the One, with that brilliant horn syncopation I was sure nobody else in the world had noticed. In the 70s Paul Williams freaking ruled. His songs were all over the radio and in the movies, you couldn’t watch prime time TV and not see him cracking up the host with his deadpan delivery, then taking the stage in his tailored suit and just absolutely killing some soaring pop masterwork he’d written or co-written, tucking in his chin and emoting his ass off in song. He owned the 70s; the good 70s, not the shamefaced 70s. And the fact is he never stopped ruling; his Kingdom just got reframed for a little while as the Second Happiest Place on Earth.

“The Carpenters were very clean cut kids, and I was on my way to becoming a hard core addict,” he says matter of factly. “I did acid and psilocybin in the late 60s, developed a huge cocaine habit in the 70s and 80s…”

Not Your Father’s Icarus

Icarus, in his vainglory, flew too close to the sun. The wax that bound his wings melted and he plummeted. Paul Williams’ problem was more prosaic. He needed attention and he needed dope, and he received both in killing doses. “I spent decades defending my mistakes and hiding my addictions,” he now says. He’s seated opposite me in the otherwise bare McCune Founders Room at the Granada Theater on State Street, where later tonight he will introduce the classic film The Way We Were and do a Q & A with dynamic American songwriting duo Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who with a young Marvin Hamlisch wrote the unforgettable title song. “How can you go from doing 48 Tonight Shows and walking down the street and everyone knows who you are, and being happier now that nobody necessarily recognizes you? I don’t want fame, I’ve done fame. And I really did it, too.”

Williams and his co-writers churned out hit songs seemingly at will in that decade, and everyone wanted to sing them; Sinatra, Kermit the Frog, Claudine Longet, Three Dog Night, Elvis, Willie Nelson, and yeah, The Carpenters. Williams was the Me Generation’s Minstrel, the diminutive variety show fixture with Veronica Lake hair, Dorothy Parker drop-deadpan wit, and a selection of unusually tiny sweater vests which he wore without irony on the Mike Douglas Show. He made Carson laugh till he couldn’t breathe, guest-hosted the Merv Griffin show approximately as high as a kite, and between televised bons mot sang some of the most intelligently beautiful popular songs in the American catalog, HIS songs, center stage; often in a suit impeccably tailored to the specs of a 13 year-old boy. When he was singing you could often see the show’s host (you name the show) watching carefully from the peripheral half-light of the panelists’ riser. This is the Paul Williams we gauzily remember, and he was at the summit. The good times came bundled with the usual toxins, though, and by the late 80s he had effectively disappeared.

Daft Punk ❤ Paul

In 2011 a weirdly charming documentary about Williams quietly hit the theaters, aptly titled Paul Williams: Still Alive – a loving if sometimes hard-to-watch record of the fall and rise of a pudgy, Phoenix-like songbird who turned his scarifying mistakes into raw power of the sort that can be shared around like a ring of keys in a jailhouse. Williams is alive all right, and he wants to spread the goods; 25 years sober and as fleet-of-foot as anyone who has shaken off spiritual chains and a two-decade hangover. Enter Daft Punk.

Following a successful concert tour with Melissa Manchester a couple years ago, Williams’ longtime pianist and musical director Chris Caswell (Cas to his friends) was tapped to come into the studio and lay down a few piano overdubs for the helmeted pop gods. Williams picks up the exceedingly unlikely tale.

“Chris is there and he hears the guys talking about Paul Williams, talking about Phantom of the Paradise.” Phantom. Where to start? Brian De Palma’s evergreen midnight goth opera of 1974 concerns a caped, helmeted figure who haunts the shadows of a rock palace called the Paradise. The gold-hearted creep is also trying to protect the girl he loves from the machinations of the evil owner of the place, Swan, played by a baby-faced Paul Williams, who also furnishes the movie with some of the most gorgeous songs of his career. As it turns out, In their pre-helmet youth the D-Punks had bonded over the movie, had grown their friendship around it, had each seen it 20 times and could recite it as a Shakespeare scholar does Hamlet. Now, like a couple of fanboys they were quietly chatting each other up in a corner of the studio, talking excitedly about Paul Williams and the movie, all within earshot of Williams’ old pal Caswell. Williams takes a slug of cold bottled water and continues. “And overhearing them talking, Cas says, ‘Um, I was just on the road with Paul’.” In the studio a pin dropped.

“….do you know how to reach him?!”

Daft Punk came down to the little house along the canal in Naples Williams was renting (not Florida), and they talked. One of the guys handed Williams a book about life after death and asked Williams to read it. This is what the album is about, Williams was told. Not life after death per se, but a journey. “The first thing we wrote was Touch. In our first working session he played me the melody and I thought it was beautiful. I took the music home and wrote the lyric.” Williams sings on the track and is in terrific voice on what could be described as a multi-chapter prayer you dance to. The song has been likened to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took the Grammy for album of the year, and a varied group of smiling, fashionably underdressed hipsters and record company cognoscenti clustered around the dais to accept the award. Included in that odd throng were two nodding white robots and the co-writer of The Rainbow Connection. It doesn’t matter where or how fashionably you are tattooed, what world-conquering band you’re in or what celebrity demi-goddess you are publicly feeling up. If you’re alone in a room with Paul Williams, you are the square.

Roger Nichols and World Domination

Initially he’d set out to be an actor, and by 24 Williams was taking roles in movies, playing much younger. In his 20s Williams could be seen portraying precocious, well-spoken kids. The roles were small, the hours between takes long. He began killing time on the set by fiddling with a guitar. “My first movie was with Jonathan Winters, and when I moved up here to Santa Barbara in the 70s I bumped into him again and we had the same manager.” Williams began experimenting with writing his own tunes, and that combined with his comedic instincts landed him a gig on the Mort Sahl show, the stand-up political commentator who set the 60s on its ear. Introduced to A & M records by his friend and erstwhile songwriting and improv partner Biff Rose (it was their very early songwriting effort Fill Your Heart that appeared on Bowie’s seminal Hunky Dory album), Williams was quickly snatched up by the label and paired with a contract tunesmith in need of a bard. Roger Nichols and Paul Williams would soon find their feet and begin papering the radio walls with their hits.

“If you’d asked me at the time I’m sure I would’ve said I was much more into rock and roll, but I’d grown up loving the Great American Songbook. I mean, Jimmy van Heusen, Here’s That Rainy Day, George and Ira Gershwin…my favorite song to this day is Someone to Watch Over Me, my two favorite songs are that and Don Maclean’s song Vincent.” (he sings the final line of the only radio hit inspired by doomed modernist Vincent van Gogh). “That song goes places most songs don’t go.”

The day they were introduced, Roger Nichols wasted no time giving Williams a melody. “He gave me a cassette, I took it home that night and I wrote it and came back the next day with a lyric. It just rolled out of me, you know? I hear music and I get words. And Nichols became sort of my music school. He taught me a lot. And Roger wrote note for note. You know, he didn’t want a note changed. He was a great disciplinarian that way.” Their many collaborations include Rainy Days and Mondays, Let Me Be the One, We’ve Only Just Begun and many many other hummable little ditties the world is likely stuck with until the sun explodes. “But different writers have different approaches.” Williams is currently co-writing, with Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, a stage adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This collaboration is a bit more freeing. “With Roger at times it could feel like cross-hatching,” Williams laughs. “This, though, is the most passionate collaboration of my life.”

What About Phantom?

And what of the oddball cult rock musical that provided the early Daft bond? And how on Earth did horror auteur de Palma choose Paul Williams to write the songs for this thing? We’re doing rock and roll horror, people; dismemberments, electrocution, blood-soaked mayhem – a Faustian orgy with the lights on. Get me the guy who wrote We’ve Only Just Begun. And make it snappy! Maybe like that?

“Initially I wasn’t going to be acting in it – I have no idea why de Palma chose me for that movie. I was probably the worse choice, of all the rock n’ roll singer songwriters and rock acts that he could have gotten to do that, there’s nobody whose bio is more against the grain. This genre-jumping glam rock movie…why did the guy who’s writing for the Carpenters get this?” Williams himself wonders aloud.

Then as De Palma started hanging around Williams and observing his writing process, the way Williams worked with the musicians, he started seeing something in the cherubic Williams, a surprising Svengali streak? “He saw what he described as a Phil Spectorish quality, is how he described it,” Williams says, referring to the legendary rock producer who gave us the Wall of Sound, the Ronettes, and Paul McCartney clutching his hair at the layers of honey Spector ladled onto Macca’s The Long and Winding Road, a simple piano and voice outing when left in the producer’s care by four former friends who couldn’t wait another minute to depart each other’s company. Spector is presently serving life in prison for shooting a woman to death in the anteroom of his mansion. Again – get me Paul Williams!

Gratitude and Trust and Karen

Today, Paul Williams, writer and co-writer of more terrific and indelibly stamped Great American Pop Songs than most people will ever realize, is giving back. He and Tracey Jackson have written a volume called Gratitude and Trust and he is traveling tirelessly to get the word out (gratitudeandtrust.com), using his own dark experiences and missteps and catastrophes to make light, and to show that the climb back is not only doable, it’s energizing. A new podcast is aimed at spreading the love even further. And even now he wonders if he isn’t dancing too close to the Me Me Me fire. He is also president of ASCAP, the songwriters’ and publishers’ consortium since 1941, and its most ardent spokesman for fairness in compensation for music creators in this era of piracy, downloads, and the lust for free stuff. But he does occasionally worry about a renewed vanity attack. “With my ASCAP role and the podcast I wonder sometimes if I’m not getting a taste of the thing I shouldn’t be nipping at. But then I see the potential for good. I’m only speaking 20 or 30 times a year, the book and the podcast are a way of reaching a lot more people; IF it takes off. We’re only into our first two weeks of the podcast.”

And apropos of absolutely nothing, does he recall where he was when he learned of Karen Carpenter’s untimely passing? “Yeah. I was in Washington D.C. doing a benefit for Wolf Trap (National Park for the Performing Arts) with Elizabeth Taylor, Rod McKuen, a bunch of us were there. It was just….so sad. You know, her weight concern, it gave her a focus. it was like her weight was the only thing she finally had any control over. Somebody wrote in a review or something that she looked a little heavy, and it deeply affected her.” He pauses. “I often think, if she’d run off with the drummer, done a lot of drugs, just gone crazy, I think she’d be alive and sober now. I didn’t think that then, but I wonder now, sometimes.”

The publicist walks politely into frame and gives us a five minute warning. I have to ask this one last, possibly threadbare question. Does Paul Williams ever step back and consider how many individuals around the globe have, over the decades, been emotionally stirred by his songs?

“Well…when somebody hears something that says another human being feels the same stuff they’re feeling, there’s a relief to the loneliness. And if you’d talked to Harry Nilsson or to Jimmy Web, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen or Tom waits – what we’re doing is chronicling a human emotion we all feel. It’s that commonality that creates our success.”

“That’s a great way to look at it,” I remark, almost to myself.

“It’s a little healthier than it used to be!” Williams laughs loudly. “I’m a work in progress.”

Santa Barbara Sentinel Volume 4 – Issue 13

space flower

Blossom the Dynamo!!

If there is anyone cooler than Blossom Dearie, for gawd’s sake let me in on the secret. And I don’t mean post-irony-cool, like Tony became after his manager-son paired him with k.d. Lang those years ago and rebranded him as a hipster-cred New Lounge Badge. <note: I worship Tony and am truly grateful for his autumnal renaissance>. Blossom is an element on the True Periodic Table; a building block. Blossom’s relentless pursuit of melody as a life/art theme floors me. Her style stands my hair on end. From her standards treatments to her own gorgeous oddball compositions (“Hey John” lovingly documents her crossing paths with Lennon on a talk show. “Sweet Surprise” lives up to its naif title every single listen, year after freaking year, and her beautiful fugue-state paean to “Dusty Springfield” is as happy-making a tribute to anyone or anything you’re likely to hear), Blossom ruled the Elliptical Artist Orbit. In this clip she follows the ageless gumdrop “I Wish You Love” with a four-handed improv session alongside her quietly excited French host. Adoring and adorable. Naturally Europe hugged her with airport greeting-lounge-strength at a time when to be a ‘jazz’ artist in the U.S. often meant you couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.  She’s ours, though, baby!! Now Blossom’s gone, but you wouldn’t know it. Begs the question yet again (to my mind) – where does the love go? Whence the warm energy of this lovable sprite? Answer: the Hubble Deep Field.