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

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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.

T-Bird of Happiness and Crashboat

T-Bird Tragedy and Joy

Oh, and here comes the holiday season like a runaway Edsel, excuse me. It’s always a little surreal how suddenly it shows up. Another year? Really? Is that Jack Frost nipping at my nose or the taunting, flicked finger of the Grim Reaper? “It’s almost Christmas!” the little ones yell with unbridled glee. Yes, you tiny, careless immortals; it’s almost LAST Christmas. How’d the year pass by so quickly? Just a week or so ago we were throwing ourselves into the ocean in full-tilt escape from the brutalizing heat wave that we were sure would set the mountains on fire. Now, a couple of puny rain squalls later, the inevitable “fall” weather sweeps in as an almost reluctant little cold snap, and we Santa Barbarans respond by excitedly dragging on our pea coats and diaphanous, utterly useless Donna Karan scarves. We swoop our gossamer “winter” accessories around our room-temperature necks like NY hipsters or movie actors, turning up our collars and stamping our feet as if to shake the snow off our galoshes, we’re so giddy at the change of seasons and the prospect of candlelight and mulled wine. It’s the one time of the year you can gulp Tramp Juice from a soup-bowl sized mug without the other guests remarking about it behind their sleeves. The whole demeanor of the town changes

“Ooh, it’s a little chilly, isn’t it?”

No, not really. But let’s live it up. We get maybe 80 of these. It’s time to get about the business of Holiday Cheer. And what’s not to love? The city workers begin dutifully stringing the lights up along State Street, great arcing stars making of our downtown a glowing arbor. Suddenly the shop fronts all have paper snowflakes in their window displays, faux-Victorian carolers hunch and yell in close-harmony at every street corner, the chill evening air takes on that seasonally pleasant aroma as the town’s fireplaces gently surrender a fragrant bouquet of crackling cherrywood, and frightening soot-covered chimney sweeps flash-mob the rooftops with mad, high-stepping dance routines. Chim-Chimney, Chim Chimney, Chim-Chim-Cheroo, if you damage my ridge vent I’m likely to sue. Soon enough that strangely phallic Christmas Rocket erects itself near the Arlington Theater, they throw some lights on it and we’re off and running.

But first…ah, yes. First there is Thanksgiving to get through, the weird, uber-American ritual whose most famous visual expression remains that nightmarish Normal Rockwell painting of an aproned matriarch proffering a slain and naked bird; recumbent, belly-up, beyond embarrassment (the bird, I mean), its truncated little wing-arms relaxed at its sides, its formerly strutting legs now stiff and shortened and dressed in paper anklets. In the iconic painting, which like most of Rockwell’s stuff is meant to embody and crystallize the rubberized American Soul, the homespun Ma and Pa figures stand at the head of a table crowded with strangely leering family members in da Vinci-like attitudes of conversation, but strangely feral; all teeth and eyebrows and clasped paws. It’s an unnerving work of art. In the upper left-hand corner of the photorealist painting is a grinning boy with a slightly reptilian expression, and seated beside him a little sister figure likewise stares down the length of the table like a drowsy viper. In the lower left of the painting a man is laughing maniacally at the empty air, displaying a scary set of choppers, while a sunlit pear with a suggestion of humanoid countenance looks balefully up at him from a bed of grapes. In the lower right corner a man’s haunted eyes stare back at the viewer. Even for the diabolically exacting Rockwell, it is a strange and unsettling hymn to the Holidays, one of the most singularly dread-inducing paintings this country has ever produced. What did Rockwell call this thing? Freedom From Want. My alternate title, you ask? Horn of Plenty Heebie-Jeebies.

But Thanksgiving means well, and however cynically plasticized and oversold the “gather and be thankful” vibe is this time of year, however much it is leveraged by the Commercial Sector to brace us for the aptly named Black Friday, all doubts fly up the chimney with the cherrywood smoke when you start mingling with family and friends in closed quarters while through the windows brisk, happy breezes stir the trees and foliage in blanched autumnal sun. As hard as the numbskull forces of human avarice try, they can’t completely wreck Thanksgiving. They can’t strip away, for instance, my hard-won memories of my mom coming over on those Thanksgiving mornings.

Per the yearly ritual I would have dropped in on my mom’s apartment at Villa Santa Barbara the evening before to remind her of our Thanksgiving breakfast the next morning. She would inexpertly and comically disguise her uncertainty as to who exactly I was, and we would have our usual bemused summit for a couple hours, watch the home movies for the several-hundredth time, bat the same over-familiar questions and answers back and forth. I’d long since stopped being maddened by mom’s endlessly repeated questions, and came to be charmed by a universe that oversaw our elderly parents exasperating us with the same ninny repetitions they’d had to suffer when we were mindless little non-stop blabbermouths. Fair play.

The next morning, Thanksgiving morning, I would stop in to nab mom for the drive over to our place and explain our Thanksgiving date all over again. “Hey! What are you doing here? And who are you, again?” She would laugh nervously at her own question sometimes, but she knew in her core that I was on her side, that we shared something. “I’m your son, mom. Jeff?” “Right!” she would laugh again, making comic gestures of dismissal, still not quite believing it. But she would grasp my arm, dance me into the elevator and veritably skip from the Villa Santa Barbara lobby to my car parked on the street outside.

We would take the long way to our place, the miraculous, palm-lined, ceaselessly stunning Cabrillo Drive, the unlikely Pacific sparkling off to the left like an over-earnest special effect. At our condo, mom would be greeted like royalty, Judie and the kids rushing her at the door. Mom’s face would be simultaneously aglow and bewildered, Judie’s Dutch broodtafel likely adding to her dislocation as it featured breads and cheeses and sliced meats and hard boiled eggs. This isn’t what the Indians and Pilgrims ate, is it? I can clearly picture mom sipping delightedly at her mimosa as the rest of us blab away in conversation she only half follows, her sated half-smile turning to each of in turn as we speak, her expression a sort of uncomprehending exaltation in the moment. She didn’t know I was watching her watching us, her indefinable love and gratitude shining like an aura. She’s gone. This year will be our second Thanksgiving breakfast without her, and I’m unspeakably grateful for the sometimes harrowing 14 years we had her in town.

Sometimes after Thanksgiving breakfast we would flop onto the couch and flip through a photo album, one of the weird old ones I’d known since childhood. It had a dissolving, nautically-themed cover and stiffened pages to which the fading photos had been sloppily fastened an eon ago with now-opaque squares of yellowing scotch tape. I’d seen all these pics a hundred times or more growing up. When I was a kid I was bored silly by the album (as by everything else to do with my parents), all the black and white snapshots of laughing men in government-issue khaki, lots of pics of my mom – the beauty, the dreamer – now an 89 year-old with failing faculties and loose-fitting flesh. Of course as I grew older I became forensically interested in what the album held, particularly a photo of my dad, now long gone, as a 14 or 15 year-old. Wonder of wonders.

And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons during that time, my parents, Bob and Aloha, drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, my dad there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the seated women are wearing scarves over their hair, and Capri pants, and beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Just a lovely thing! Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, happy yaps aimed skyward forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in a posture of hilarity (one! two! THREE!). Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and mom has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away, the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. Unlike the rest of the gang, she’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.

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.”

Koos z’n Bevrijdingsdag

Get Me to the Church on Time! Koos Leads the Way to Monster's Heart

As absolutely everyone around here knows, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the undermanned Mexican army’s surprise drubbing of the invading French in the Battle of Puebla. As it happens, May 5 is also Liberation Day in Holland. Bevrijdingsdag, they call it, and I’m afraid it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. Judie’s hometown is over there, a cozy village on the Dutch channel coast with the unlikely name of Monster (“Muenster”, I’m often corrected by know-it-all passerby. No. Monster.). From her mom’s house you used to be able to see a glimpse of the nearby windmill, whose name is de Vier Winden, but now the vanes are obscured by other houses. If you strike out in the direction of the beach, though, you’ll find the windmill two blocks away. Walk on past it if you want to hit the beach. If you want to head downtown, though, hang a left and you’ll continue on for an easy 20 minutes (weather permitting) through a long, leafy neighborhood of tidy brownstone row houses, their steeply canted roofs and ordered lawns conferring a certain highly organized tranquility.

When you reach the roundabout at Van Bemmellaan, (or Van Bemmell Lane, if that helps), you hang a right. There, adjacent to the Film Club videotheek you’ll find a bronze statue commemorating Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day), the day in 1945 the exhausted German occupiers left at the suggestion of the arriving First Canadian Army. The statue is a mildly expressionist woman cast in bronze. She faces the nearby beach and raises her right hand in welcome, signifying the massive sea landing further south that finally brought rescue. The Canadians swept into Holland almost exactly one month before the D-Day landings on the French coast.

The Germans had arrived with a bang in another May, 5 years before – the terrified Dutch and German soldiers fighting savagely at close quarters in the previously bucolic forest of Ockenburgh, a half mile or so from Judie’s childhood home. The German guys were trying to advance to the Hague and the Dutch guys were determined not to let that happen, all the uniformed young men clawing and shooting and weeping and falling where today there are swings and slides and climbing structures for the kids, and birdsong. On a clear day you can picnic among the trees. For some of us it’s difficult to transpose the one scene over the other. I’d been raised on the stirring and sanitized war of t.v and the movies; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes. My G.I. Joe war doll came off the assembly line with a manufactured facial injury and a hint of fraternal smile. War was heck. The movies portrayed muddy, stylized battle, yes, and as a kid I spent a considerable amount of time wondering why they didn’t just throw the grenade as they would a baseball. What’s all this dumb stiff-arming about? The shadowy complications off the battlefield mesmerized me the most. There was covert intrigue and well-dressed men running along train platforms and James Garner in a turtleneck gently crashing his escape plane into a picturesque knoll, and always David Attenborough with his collar turned up. Attenborough’s pensive wartime baby face didn’t prepare me for Koos and Riek’s casually brutal stories of a childhood spent in the midst of a world war.

As kids in the middle of a monstrous and merciless war, Judie’s parents had seen into the abyss. How any kid of that generation who’d seen what they’d seen could survive and grow up and prosper and function – it’s beyond me. Judie’s mom, Riek (Hendrika), is an indomitable, humor-filled dynamo of energy and wisdom. She cleans like a cartoon tornado, is a three night-a-week card sharp, dispenses folksy Dutch wisdom with a raised forefinger and a smile and usually dines in her apron. Koos (pronounced like “cose”) was a particular softie, G*d rest him. A former cabaret performer, he had an artist’s sensibility, and he loved shared laughter. When he found something funny, his face would collapse into a crinkly smile and he would put his palm to his forehead in a silent gesture of hilarity, winking his eyes at you conspiratorially in his own inimitable signal of love and family. Koos was an emotional tinderbox, his heart a barely contained fire. When Judie and I had excitedly told him in the kitchen one evening that I had proposed to her, he surprised us both by bursting very suddenly into tears, roughly embracing me again and again, then turning to his baby and folding Judie into his arms. He was a lovely, gentle man, a bespectacled joker and much-beloved figure in the small seaside town on the North Sea where he’d grown up, which, like all real villages and towns, remains a world unto itself.

But he’d had it rough at the hands of the German occupiers. He was a pubescent everykid when they rolled in and he remembered aloud to me once the scene in Monster’s town square when advance word of the German approach was rushing through the cobbled streets like a toxic wind, uniformed teens in a local Youth Brigade of some kind rushing around in panic and yelling in terror at everyone to get their hands out of their pockets lest they be holding grenades. “Hands out of pockets, hands out of pockets!” he described the scouts screaming in their high kid voices. Once the Germans arrived, Koos and other boys his age were conscripted into killing factory work with little food to speak of, slave laborers assembling munitions. One day Koos walked by a room where several officers were dining. He hadn’t eaten in days. The officers asked if he was hungry and gestured him over, allowed him to eat his fill, laughed and smoked as he attacked the sumptuous foods spread out on the table. They knew the sudden feast would kill him, and it nearly did.

The 5 years between the German army’s arrival and the liberation of Holland were characterized by misery and privation, and many hearts were naturally hardened in that crucible. The stories are many from the winter of 1944 in particular, the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter) when the occupiers responded punitively to a railway strike called in by Holland’s government in exile. In angry response to the strike, Germany ordered the blockade of food shipments in a disaster that unfolded so quickly the German commander in the area saw the scale of what would unfold and somewhat desperately tried to roll back the orders, but by then the inland waterways, Holland’s famous canal system, had frozen solid and nothing could get through. Tens of thousands starved in a famine so virulent there is evidence it bred epigenetic changes in the next line of Dutch children to be born to the famine’s survivors. My in-laws have told stories about families digging up and eating tulip bulbs for food and capturing birds in the denuded, otherwise useless greenhouses. Riek’s father would leave the family and travel the perilous countryside for days on his bicycle and return with a loaf of bread. Her mother, unable to bear the hungry families that passed by their home day and night, would share her own family’s meager rations, infuriating her husband on his return. “M’n moeder was een heel goed mens,” Riek says today. During the hardships and death of the occupation, an entire generation of Dutch people had their hearts impermeably tempered against Germany and Germans.

It once would’ve seemed impossible, but by the early 1980s a grudging and ragged rapprochement was in the air. German families had been coming to Monster’s beaches for some time (to the occasional shouts and growlings of certain of the Dutch citizenry there) and a field had long since been set aside for their trailers and tents, in the shadow of the enormous berm that separates the shore from the town. But the intermingling of the populations also gave rise to new animus. During the war, Dutch bikes had been confiscated in their tens of thousands by the occupiers, the primacy of the bicycle to the Dutch culture and identity an unknown quantity to the Germans. The nimble mobility of the Dutch, and particularly the Dutch Resistance (Ondergrondse), the largest WWII resistance movement in Western Europe, was an unclear but intolerable threat to the occupiers.

Given the broader horrors that had been visited on the Nederlanders, the taking of the bikes remained, in the post-war years, a curious sore point. At the seizing of 100,000 bikes in July, 1942, the Dutch outcry was such that a Wehrmacht officer’s memo noted that the confiscation was “…a particularly harmful action. One of the worst things that can happen to a Dutchman is that he loses his bike.” As the long thaw between the countries incrementally crawled along, the angry lament for the stolen bikes stubbornly took hold as a sanitized and invective-free rallying cry of post-war national anger against the Germans, singularly hurled at German campers, football supporters, and so on. It was an innocuous, even childish thing to shout, but it contained volumes.

“Geef me mijn fiets terug!” – “Give me my bike back!”

In the early 80s there began a timorous exchange program between a church choir from the tiny village of Mühleip in Germany, and Koos’ choir in Monster. Someone in Koos’ choir knew someone who knew someone, it seemed an idea whose time had come, and arrangements were made. One year the German choir would come by bus to Monster and be hosted and housed, the next year Koos’ choir would be received as guests and performers in Mühleip. The informal, seat-of-the-pants arrangement began with some trepidation on both sides and crept along in stutter-steps. The enmity ran very very deep. But slowly, the ice cracked, a little. The recency of the war made it a glacial thaw. While no actual friendships grew, the two choirs began to see each other not as ciphers or historical symbols, but as flesh and blood, or to put it less biblically, as singers in a couple of small town church choirs. Koos, though, couldn’t let it go (understandably, I think), and during one visit of the German guest chorale he burst out with a comment that may have set the whole enterprise back on its heels; “How about you guys bring back the bike you stole from me!” After some downcast faces and throat clearing the remark was allowed to drift away, like an awkward flume of smoke.

When Koos’ choir next made the trip to Germany to perform and be hosted by their counterparts there, a couple of the German singers pulled him aside.

“Koos, we must tell you something.”

He waited. “Ja? Wat is er?”

The Germans looked at each other.

“Koos, we found your bike.”

“….my bike?”

His smiling German hosts wheeled out a beautiful 10-speed racing bike amid clapping and laughter. They’d painted it Dutch royal orange. When the German group next visited Monster, Koos met the bus at the edge of town and led his pals, in a singular procession, down the winding streets to the church where they would sing together, Koos on his royal orange steed gesturing as grandly as a parade master. It would be the second momentous rolling into Monster of a loud German mob. This one cheering.

The human race has its moments. We’re not stamped by destiny. Happy Liberation Day. (Koosje, je bent altijd in onze gedachte..)

changeling

dime is like a river
I’ve found my place in the cosmic order
marked it with a pen
content with my apprehension
of the eternal.
But in the all-too-temporal process of
peeling off my tight trousers
doing the helpless
suburban man-dance
in the previous quietude
of my room
a couple shiny dimes noisily fell
from a momentarily inverted pocket
and I shouted “oh screw you!”
The dimes rang accusingly
on the wood laminate floor.
Such small coins,
but commandeered
by mathematics and Gravity.
Mysterious and inexplicable Gravity;
unknowable energy field
into which the large bodies nestle
quantum thorn in the side
of the Grand Unified Theory.
We know this much –
the Mystery wants to see a dropped coin
perform an eviscerating hula,
each point of the milled edge
in its turn contacting the floor
in a round-robin rejection
of our race, our opposable thumbs,
our dreams of flight.
Thanks, Big Bang.
These goddamned coins!
They rang and rang and rang
and rang!
“Aaaaaahh! screw YOU!”
I had time to say it again
as the dimes whirled their lil’ dervish
for what seemed five full minutes.
I said it loud,
hissed it with meaning,
one aging chicken leg
yet ensconsed
in Tom Jones sale trousers.
Another scalding victory
of the inanimate.
I so want to live.