I don’t understand by what relativisitc Einsteinian sorcery the years pass like months. Songs and books and laments have featured this phenomenon forever, I know. But our former saucer-eyed little bowling ball Stella is a willowy young woman today with the carriage and demeanor of a smartass gazelle. How I wish my mom were here to see this day; Stella is built with great exactitude from Aloha’s blueprint. Mischief-making, wild spontaneous laughter and radiant love are the salient features. Another fuzzy little Earthly soul who awakens every morning laughing and pirouetting. It’s madness. Any scanning electron micrograph of Stella’s DNA would show Aloha climbing the double helix, waving and laughing from the highest rung. Today is Stella’s day; not at all coincidentally it is the shortest day and longest, starriest night of the year.
What happens is, as a kid you search for signs of what is making the world move. The central facts seem spooky and you suspect some indefinably freaky cloaked center to it that is not friendly. The hunch is that all this grandness is by its nature momentous and somehow terrible. Well, it’s provably an arc of the retrograde variety. Firm, thrumming, electrified flesh reduces to a spotty beige bag filled with articulated goo, and in the last days the cranial vault houses an increasingly assertive id, discomfiting many. But these are remote, fabulist phenomena. They can’t be named and kids don’t fear them, there is a vague wonder and kind of dread, but nothing as concrete as fear. The Grand Inevitables are in evidence, but as kids we can’t begin to guess what they signify. We drop ants into hot tar and note with interest that they do not seem alarmed. We skin our knees and, denied the gift of invective, scream like maddened banshees. We don’t know we are young and whole, our faculties fastened together with seamless joinery and a sprayed, fragrant patina of skin so form-fitting it seems literally impossible it will ever become the rubberized paper we see on the old and mustachioed. We move somnolently about in the sun and rain and are violable and happy without knowing we are happy. We don’t know we are violable. We’re incautious. A gun goes off and a kid is taken away from the world. You there; you step out onto the street in front of your high school and a passing van clubs you to death, or you are dragged 60 feet beneath a Volkswagen Beetle, as happened to a fresh-faced Happy-Go-Lucky in my high school. More frequently the pattern comes clear during 3rd grade recess. Betty or Amber or Lisa bails off the swing in a high, thrilling arc, her arms windmilling through the blue at dreamy half-speed. While you watch the girl you secretly adore, your half-smiling mouth agape, the little bench dances back on its chains and smashes your teeth. When I was six I was made to understand that the whole of the flat earth under my Keds was actually a round rock, a rock resting on nothing, a rock so enormous that at any given point of contact it seems as flat as a table. It’s not flat and at rest. It’s round and adrift. Adrift. A floating rock amid an endless field of other suspended rocks, unspeakably gigantic, drifting around like debris. Only a floating rock! Our whole ‘World’! 1966. I laid me down on the lawn in our sunny side yard, legs shaking with a pure vertiginous panic, and dug my fingers into the sod. For all the good it did.
Dear diary: I’ve been reborn. J3ff’s the name, yo. With a backward 3. Well, the 3 is forwards, but looks a little like an ‘e’. Yo. I mean to infiltrate the Youth Culture and see what makes it tick. I’m a man of a certain age but have sufficient verve and vigor that I believe I can pass myself off as a hipster, as they call themselves nowadays. Turn the collar up on my Izod, tear the sleeves off, dog collar around my neck; like that. J3ff. Double-agent. Chameleon. Will report on progress from Inside.
Day 1: Went to first rave tonight. Pretty wild. 8,000 maddened children, 6 stages, 5 hours of noise and not one note of music. A couple of the acts were an underfed little cave fish named Shrillex, who really lived up to his stage name, and another emaciated man-child named DeadMouseHead. Kid had on a giant mouse head! Started laughing my ass off and couldn’t stop. Had my hand to my mouth like some high school girl. I mean, I couldn’t breathe for laughing. Thought I was gonna give up the game the first night. My mascara ran till I looked like Tammy Faye, or Alice Cooper. No one noticed. The place was pure bedlam, kids were in orbit, waving their arms like hydras and swaying in the crazy lights, eyes closed. Like…. a trance I guess. Speaker towers throwing out these 1000 decibel beats, my guts jumping like shocked jelly. Meanwhile the guys onstage, the ‘talent’, are just sort of milling around their machines, pumping their frail little arms once in a while. Damndest thing. Sad, really. Give me Ozzy in The Day biting the head off a live bat. Where has all the music gone?
Day 2: Chilling with the posse. God, just saying that makes me feel like a cowboy in Alaska. But I’m so in with these guys. They don’t have a clue I’m a middle-aged adman in a dog collar. So cool! And I’m adopting the lingo quite naturally. It’s like stenography, or code or something. Everything’s shorthand. When something is funny they just, you know, laugh. But if they’re reading something that is only mildly funny they laugh in writing; LOL. Which means Lil Ol’ Laugh. Kind of cute. That’s just one example.
Day 3; Went to another rave. Dropped ecstacy. While crawling around on the floor looking for it some punk-ass in purple platform jackboots kicked me in the Shins t-shirt, which is to say, my ribs. This compelled more crawling, now accompanied by moaning. On the other hand I found two ibuprofen down there. Score!
Day 8: How long can I do this? These kids got nothing going on. They sort of lounge around their computers and watch these little movies. Or they look at these stupid pictures, some with captions, some not. They call them ‘means’. Not sure why. But they look at these things over and over. Just..batshit crazy, I don’t get it. ‘Dramatic Chipmunk’ is one of these so-called ‘means’; three minutes of a chipmunk looking at you. Really? How unfair for these poor little bastards. We get Knievel in extreme, loving slo-mo going over the handlebars at Caesar’s Palace, hitting the pavement, sliding. That’s a video. I’ve watched that thing maybe 3000 times. Them? Dramatic Chipmunk. Hoo boy.
Day 15: Nearing the end of my rope. Another day, another rave. Just one act this time, a couple of French do-nothings in robot helmets, standing around under a neon pyramid. Daffy Duck — no…Daffy Punk. Crowd went into that trance, waving around like Bible Belt snake handlers. I’d been noticing that a lot of the kids at these things had pacifiers in their mouths, I swear to God. So I picked one up at Babies R Us in the afternoon and made a big show of jamming it in my yap outside the club that evening, so the bouncers and other trip-hip-hopper cognescenti could see I was in the groove, you know. I got a really good one with a little tinkling bell on it, and a little velveteen ribbon of deepest blue. Oh, they looked, all right. You coulda heard a pin drop. What you heard instead was the little bell on my righteous pacifier. Hey, there’s a spy in the house of love! This agent is all in, yo. But it’s a le Carre hall of mirrors. I mean, sometimes I wonder if J3ff is taking over. Then I see myself in the club’s filthy men’s room mirror with a tinkling little pacifier in my gob, a dog collar chafing my fat neck and my teal liptick a smeared slash across my mouth. Then I think, nah, J3ff’s probably not going to take over.
Day 21: I’m introduced to the Duckface phenomenon. omg. Duckface? It’s that omnipresent, deadpan pursing of the lips used by young girls in online snapshots to express either a kind of bored street-insouciance or the terrible ruin done by a gang of earwig larvae meandering from one side of the skull to the other through the middle of the brain. The Duckface phenomenon generates many gobbabytes of impassioned conversation on the www. Yes. Duckface. It’s worse than I’d feared. These things are viral, all right; crushing the culture’s outer cell wall and injecting a slow-motion pillow fight into the mitochondrial nexus. Soon enough the Zeitgeist develops a runny nose, itchy eyes and cascading organ-failure.
Day 28: Oh God oh God! Can we go outside guys? Shoot a little hoop? Catch a movie? Oh..we’re chillin…yeah. I’m down. OH NO! OH NO! I WON’T WATCH DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK AGAIN! NO! GUYS? NO! NO STAR WARS KID, EITHER. I — DON’T PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK OR STAR WARS KID AGAIN! DON’T YOU DARE PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK!
Day 40: I think maybe my Dramatic Chipmunk breakdown 12 days ago was a mistake. When a grown man really gets to crying even the uninformed can see it for exactly what it is; a balding office worker in a frayed dog collar and carefully tattered post-irony Herman’s Hermits tube top, laying prostrate on the floor and weeping like the damned. The morning after my collapse I awoke to find my posse had Superglued my Sidney Vicious Clip-On Safety Pins to my earlobes. I tore them off in anger and there went part of my right earlobe. Still I maintained. Soon their fey passive aggressive taunting broke me. I flung the remains of my dog collar to the floor and with some quite awkward difficulty managed to peel off my bindi. “There. Now you see me as I really am!” I shouted, my floral leggings and aviator goggles already forgotten in the melee. If they would out me as a middle class bore whose ill-fitting Guy Fawkes mask would cause him to walk blindly into rush-hour traffic, I would out them as morons. This Establishment Grup would lift the veil on their almost explosive cultural ignorance. So began our hellish minuet.
“Taj Mahal!” I cried.
“It’s a kind of seizure, The worst kind.”
“Monster with neck bolts.”
“Don’t Ride in Giant Flammable Balloons.”
“An express car wash.”
“No, but not bad.”
At the end of the subterfuge, we made our peace, me and the Dramatic Chipmunk monks. We went our separate ways, with maybe a little more understanding of each other’s worlds; I grokked the hermetically sealed electronic cocoon that comprises their apprehension of the cartwheeling universe in all its multiplicity, they shrank even further from the soulless 8-5 fabric-covered cubicle in which I bake my daily bread. Two worlds that will never collide. It was a month later I noticed the tattoo. Somehow they’d punctured and painted the back of my neck, a miniscule little bit of clear blue script in an attractive and unassuming font. How had they done this? It says much about my largely unsuccessful attempts to weather their KitKat-fueled all-nighters. At first I thought it was a bruise of some kind, craning my stiff neck to see it in the mirror.
Druids, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Nuwaubianists, Cthulhu acolytes and well-off Vatican habitués in ill-fitting silk: hello. And hi to you, herniated bronze-age nincompoops who assembled Stonehenge. Was it worth it? We don’t know what the hell it is.
Tanned, muscly Aztec priest with your heavy eyeliner, Marcel Marceau-anticipating pancake and over-serious tribal headdress: put down those sacrificial entrails and come down from your gore-littered ziggurat. Let’s have a word. Your worship has grown tiresome. How many still-beating virgin hearts can you gnaw in a week? You must be paying a fortune for floss. There is an easier way to venerate.
To paraphrase the Old Testament: it’s summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime in Santa Barbara California! Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice Spiritual Heartwork and Drink Specials Celebration® has come staggering down the pike once more, and our relationship with Nature® is the better for it. First day of summer! The longest day (not to be confused with the 1944 coastal invasion of France) of the year! What the ancients used to call Midsummer and would celebrate with enormous bonfires and dances and chanting? You’re in! Gather up your healing bunches of St. John’s Wort, raise your arms to the stars and sun, embrace the season cycle and the circularity of it all. Let’s ring it in with a gaudy parade and send it packing with a terrific organic hangover. All that genuflecting before old-timey Titans in the clouds, multi-armed Vedantic yoga freaks, that laughing fat guy with the incense holes? So yesterday.
Santa Barbara at Solstice is the Way, The Truth, and The Lite. Paganism, venerable pre-Abrahamic obeisance to the natural order, is here thrown a party in which the celebrants are happy to raise a toast. To what they aren’t exactly sure. These are folks who think Wicca is the stuff lawn furniture is made of. No matter. Let us pray for two whole days and nights. This mammon-haunted burg shall become a New Church where the faithful feverishly worship the sun, the Earth and the trees, well drinks-two-for-one, Puff the Magic Whatnot, and the sun and the Earth. And the trees.
We Santa Barbarians have seen this before. Going on nearly 40 years now. What began as a gentle mime/artist/eccentric playfully celebrating his own birthday with pals by traipsing down State Street in a colorful show of self-congratulation (RIP, Michael Gonzales) has, in the well-meaning decades since, morphed into a self-loving juggernaut fraught with all the trappings of a metastasizing commercial enterprise.
On Solstice weekend, a reported 100,000 people pour in from all parts, nailing their lawn chairs to the Main Street curb in the wee hours before the big day, the better to be in the middle of the action when the parade comes broiling up the main drag with its balloon arches and scantily clad pan flute wielders and army of annoying bubble-blowing flower-children adults.
The parade’s terminus, beautiful Alameda Park, is so crowded with vendors that weekend you can barely make out the grass for all the electric cable. Stella and I were accosted in the early hours of vendor setup last year by a Goat’s Milk Soap purveyor intent on a sale. No, thank you, ma’am. If it squirts out of a goat, I won’t want to lather with it. Later in the day, the entrepreneurism was in full-flower at the park, Ra looking down in wonder. This in the midst of a Summer of Love mob of dancing, swirling babes in translucent rainbow-colored gauze, and the ingenious chameleon-like “Dockers and Izod” infiltrators who slipped unnoticed (they truly believe) into the melee, wearing confused grins and glad for once to be in Church.
And while the yearly parade themes change, the parade itself does not. Beverly Hillbillies theme! Peace theme! Sunshine theme! Affectionate Gargoyles theme! All the themes feature the same goldfish on bicycles and young ladies in chiffon batwings, flapping serenely down a main street thronged with the stoned, the stunned, the curious, and the hideously sunburned – our visitors from the Heartland who keep raising and then slowly lowering their cameras. Normally respectable orthopedic surgeons twirl down State street in papier-mâché tree outfits alongside besotted clerk-typists in loincloths, drill-teams of faux Amazons on roller skates, and kettle-drum beating, shirtless and worryingly crimson Hedge Fund managers in the first stages of heat-stroke dementia.
That tired-looking, older gentleman-hippie on stilts lumbers about ponderously for the umpteenth year in a row and is not yet pitched screaming into the roadside kiddies by stilt-loving termites. The high-priced DUI attorney (probably still on the clock) for once tipsily commingles with and does not attempt to prosecute the inebriated IT guy, both of them dressed ineptly as sunflowers: the Lion and the Lamb. Overtanned retirees, who fancy themselves “fit” and have the sort of hairy upper arms that make you throw away your ice cream cone, prance about in regrettable form-squeezing lycra – their sweaty, balding pates ringed with denuded wildflowers. It unnerves the children. Oh, the children, the children. They come for a parade and a little shower of tossed candy and instead have their innocence ripped from them by oldsters prancing in floral leggings, the septuagenarian’s unearthly, outthrust, collagen-plumped derrières looking like bargain styrofoam implants. Don’t look, baby! Turn your head to mommy, turn your head to mommy!
But then (speaking of Bringing Up the Rear) troubled hearts are made new again by the monstrously cheery, primary-colored, bobbling inflatable giants that more often than not signal the end of the Parade line every year, and which are invariably greeted with cheers and even more feverish, lumbar-tormenting gyrations. We have the brilliant and indefatigable wonder-worker Pali-X-Mano to thank for that; a lettered Hungarian artisan and Budapest’s gift to our twisted little Candyland for many many years now. His brilliant, happy creations have become emblematic of the very spirit of the celebration.
And it’s all for the love of Mother Earth, or Mother Nature, or that margarine in the 70s that used to invoke Mother Nature. There’s some Mother involved, okay? Flower-bedecked, bra-burning. We have come to worship Her. Gail? Sounds like Gail, I think. The communion wafer is a peyote button, the Blood of the Sacrament a hidden flask of warm Wild Turkey. The only sacrifice this religion requires is that of your pride as you toddle blindly into traffic owing to your sloppily aligned butterfly mask and the several pints of Guinness sloshing around in your happy, swollen thorax.
By the end of this two-day orgy of spiritual growth and graceless tipping over with painted arms a-waving for help, one can see the acolytes scattered about the twilit landscape like people dropped from a low-flying airplane; face-down, arms outstretched in a show-closing embrace of Gaea (that’s it!), supine, exalted. The fruits of faith.
Oh-How-We-Adore-It, this indescribable weekend of bedlam! Solstice in Santa Barbara! A freak! An anomaly! A disheveled clown cruising through your neighborhood at dusk on a Vespa! There are no truly apt analogies, and that’s as it should be. It is a yearly grand mal carnival that is wholly our own, completely SB, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. So, till next year, dear ones. Cast your bread upon the waters. Just aim away from my new shag carpet.
*Jeff writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a ravishing print version of this piece can be found.
G*d have mercy on me. Among the unlikeliest of songs in the rock n’ roll canon is a hair-raising little tune called The Greatest Discovery. One gets a throat cramp knowing that this scraggly early triumph preceded world domination, then reportedly a darkling period that featured a lot of John and Taupin crawling around on shag carpets sniffing pitifully for the leftover dregs of various coke bacchanals; stardom wiped its feet on the fledglings and they foundered willingly into the pit, for a while. But the first meetings? Their mutual awakening to the power of songwriting? Jesus. This very early Elton song clenches my fists and inclines my head, sums up perfectly why Bernie Taupin is a teenage idyll, a marble statue of a Kid Before the Fall sitting in a desk chair by a tensor lamp. Like all Taupin’s very early stuff this small, adolescent bit of dumb puffery reads like it was scribbled in a spiral notebook between math homework and parental orders to brush teeth and get jammies on. The devastating, high schoolish little verse isn’t much to look at, really shouldn’t have been married to a chord progression, doesn’t properly earn the right to a melodic treatment, staggers forward ineptly with accidental rhymes, slant rhymes, sophomoric bits of Yeatsian pretension and all the clunkiness one gets from a hunched teen with a Ticonderoga # 2 behind a closed bedroom door. It is a detonation, though. A marvel of reaching, halting boyhood, this cloying Mother’s Day paean to a new life in the house, as explosive as Brian Wilson’s wrenchingly autobiographical primal scream ‘In My Room’, in it’s way. Elton J has spoken in interviews of why the early and mid-period John/Taupin songs sound the way they do. Taupin didn’t know meter from Peter. His unrestrained, heartfelt teen verse most often took the form of a-metrical narrative lines or hurried couplets meant to capture a feeling. Read the lyics to Grey Seal and know that Elton is the hardworking Lord of supple melodic reverse engineering. The Greatest Discovery seizes me every time I listen to it, heralding the early union of these two misfits and their powerful willingness to be uncool. There’s a great vid in studio of the song being performed on BBC in 1970, linked to the photo above, though E’s apparently nervous producer Paul Buckmaster hits some painful bum notes on the cello opening. if you can find the original track from the eponymous ‘Elton John’ album, that’s the one. This and many many other imperfectly articulated tunes from earlier epochs are an antidote to these end times of tinfoil pop tarts stamped out of metal like license plates.
One evening in 1965 we were having a fried chicken dinner at the kitchen table in our house in Cheyenne, my newish little brother in a highchair. He suddenly screamed and raised his little arms like a guy being held up at gunpoint. A sharp chicken bone, yet another ill-fitting component of God’s perfect plan, had penetrated the roof of his mouth and stuck there. My mom shouted in a high terrified pitch that still rattles me in the remembrance. I turned my head away in terror and she dislodged the bone. Then in 1982 my little brother’s car crossed the center line of a road near our house in Phoenix and plowed head-on into a pickup truck, breaking both his legs, severing nerves, slicing his neck, scrambling his insides and unfolding his map. We all know how difficult it is to refold a map. A young firefighter from the station house near Thomas Mall kept him alive by pinching his hemorrhaging jugular closed. At the very instant of the collision, it will be shown, that overpraised jackass Robert Frost arrived on the scene with his stupid plaid shirt, dangling forelock and sleepy staring eyes and ushered my brother down a Road he would not otherwise have traveled. I would much much rather he hadn’t had to travel it. This road has been corrosive. I can see why other routes are preferred by those in the know. In the single lifetime we’re all granted this quantum path-foisting ate away much of his time on Earth. The crash left him badly damaged but he lived, terribly broken. On the crazed night my mom and I ran to the hospital we found him swaddled in tubes and surrounded by machines, his swollen, battered, terrible, unfamiliar face the bloodied living stillpoint at the center of a metal chrysalis from which he would later emerge, a changed brother, to begin an involuntary midnight voyage. A family member, in the midst of all the sorrow, reminded me that my brother’s own choices had brought this mayhem on, which was absolutely true, however powerless and empty a factoid at that moment. He’d been playing a drinking game at a friend’s apartment, and his idiocy had dragged two other people into his F***ed-Up Mistake Orbit (FUMO). The young guy in the pickup truck walked away without a scratch but was badly shaken up, of course. My brother had a girl in the car with him that night, a casual friend. She would lay in a coma for 6 weeks, the recipient and later ungrateful benefactress of my feverish praying. During that slumber her parents would successfully sue my parents and later buy a condo with the award money, we learned. When the young lady finally did awaken I remember running giddily around the living room of our house on Mulberry, assuring everyone that Christ, my boyfriend at the time, had heard my prayers and taken care of her, as he would take care of my broken brother.
The hospital that took him in that night absolutely saved his life, possibly in defiance of the natural order, and in the hurry to do so didn’t notice that they overlooked a break. He had two broken thighs and a broken shin and his guts were scrambled. Don’t miss that broken shin, doctors, please. And so they simply didn’t know to set his broken shin. Incredibly. In time he was moved out of Intensive Care, bedazzled and crushed by the full weight and reality of what had happened, and in near constant pain. My mom describes an intern/therapist coming into his room one afternoon a mere week after the crash, to readjust the system of ropes, pulleys and counterweights that held my brother’s badly broken legs aloft. P. reportedly tried desperately to talk the doctor-in-training out of moving his legs at all, when suddenly the young intern released something and my brother’s legs dropped to the bed like deadweights, his spontaneous screams filling the whole floor of the hospital, at which point my mom jumped up and hustled out of the room like a hurried somnambulist, then fled, running running running down the corridor with her hands over her ears. When he went home from the hospital my brother screamed as he moved about with his walker, cried out as he struggled to get out of bed, wept in anguish in the night. It didn’t occur to us to wonder if some broken piece of him hadn’t been seen to. We were idiots in hell. Maybe because he’d been drinking when he crashed we were the family he deserved. At any rate, this episode tested my faith, which had previously been in full flush, from Young Life meetings my sophomore year in high school to the darkling months after my brother’s ruin. Yes – his self-inflicted, choice-driven ruin. The abject failure of prayer in the coming period would change me, as idiotic a reason to surrender one’s faith as dumb luck and glowing new friendships are to find it in the first place.
By the time it became clear that he’d been sent home with a still-broken leg, it was too late. Eventually the unmended shin bone had gone ahead and reassembled itself according to both the crazy determinism inherent in living tissue and the rules of entropy and chaos. The natural mechanism makes the most out of the highly organized bedlam that is repeatedly shown to be at its center. In the absence of surgical intervention the smashed living bone roused itself, the ragged halves finding each other in the dark to follow the deeply programmed imperatives of repair and survival. The result was a mess. Constant pain and fear, to state the results plainly. Later, one leg shorter than the other, so he wouldn’t be able to run anymore. The hospital offered to rebreak it and my brother demurred. Neither could he smile the way he’d been able to before the accident. The severing of nerves in his face saw to that. When in time he would be moved to reflexively smile the result was more a grimace. Eventually he stopped smiling altogether, the better to avoid being reminded of all the dumb little things he’d taken for granted before. So. My dear little brother went careering down the chute into the arms of a pharmaceutically informed, acute rolling misery that would leave him friendless, directionless, and finally homeless. A few days after the wreck a commiserating neighbor would tell my mom, “Just the sound of the collision was the most awful thing I’ve ever heard.” Through all this period I would lie awake in the dark, every every every night, and picture him in his high chair, his little arms swinging up and shaking with the pain of a chicken bone having speared his hard palate. Like a harbinger. To that nightly vision would later be added the scene, plainly described by my mother, of the intern dropping his legs on the hospital bed.
In 1969 my brother and I were living in Libya on an American air force base with my big lifeguarding, scuba diving sister and my parents. It was our last assignment as a service family. I’d personally arrived there by way of Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas, Wyoming, Florida, at what I later realized was the zenith of an air-base cloistered, crewcut existence of cuffed blue jeans, jug ears, occasional cowboy boots and every day the same species of oversized, horizontally striped Montgomery Ward pullover shirt with the floppy, outsized lapels. My largish 8-year old’s ass was made even more pronounced by the tiny nondescript beige bubble I wore for a head. Having just come from Cheyenne, Libya was a strange and unnerving new world for Little Jug-Ears, and my brother and I made the most of it. Just before daybreak every morning the skies and gardens and kitchen windows and parked fighter jets and barracks and Office’s Club and movie theater would reverberate to the disturbingly monotone, air-raid-siren-loud singsong of prayers being broadcast from the mosques just off base. Until someone explained the practice to me I assumed these early morning loudmouths were just yelling at everyone to wake up.
Patrick and I didn’t know we were in a Muslim country, couldn’t know our concrete and barbed-wire, wall-surmounted Air Base was an island of grudgingly accepted Western sovereignty in an ancient land of nomads, oases, sword-swinging Berbers, and sandstorms so weirdly fierce that after the event you would find sand from the Sahara at the bottom of what had been a factory sealed cereal box, a phenom I never had explained but at which my friends and I marveled. My brother and I accepted this occasionally jarring new world with the mildly grinning equanimity of the stupid. In a couple years Gadaffi would storm in with his henchmen, topple the buffoonish King Idris, and close the base.
Like good crusaders my brother and I dutifully walked the 5 blocks to Sunday school once a week to be reminded we’d been born in sin and that our salvation would only come at the behest of a gentleman whose framed portrait on the classroom wall made him look like a freshly shampooed gentile from Cleveland. On leaving our quarters Sunday morning I would carry the lone family bible, an unread, threadbare, dust-streaked prop with a broken zipper, interestingly tissuey pages and red letters to indicate Jesus’ alleged speeches, murmurings and often ruinously indecipherable pronouncements. We’d lifted it from a hotel somewhere in our scant travels. Patrick, not wanting to show up empty-handed, would carry a bright blue hardcover copy of The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics. True. Naturally the inclination in hindsight is to wonder which of us carried the more fabulist tome.
I can remember vividly that our Sunday school teacher, to my frustration, pronounced the word ‘hell’ as ‘hal’; an impediment that made her uniquely unsuited to threaten us with brimstone. She once asked our class where people who did not allow themselves to be saved from sin were destined to go. There was gravity in her voice and a sense of careful treading, I remember. We all bowed our heads in embarrassment. The name of the place in most of our households was itself a form of invective, a curse word; something mom yelled with conviction when the meatloaf fell apart. The teacher had singled out a little blond girl in the class who couldn’t help but raise her hand to half-mast in what looked like an almost unwilling Pavlovian response. She knew the answer but couldn’t say it.
“I can’t say it.” Her blushing face was aimed squarely at the floor. No matter. Our teacher couldn’t say it either. She nodded in gentle commiseration as she spoke.
“It’s Hal, isn’t it?”
Some of my classmates’ heads bobbed up in mild curiosity. Hal?
Hal, I thought, doesn’t sound so bad.
My brother is recently happily married. He and his wife go to church and they’re studying the Bible, whose Old Testament is the story of a pissed off and impatient God who yells from the empty sky and grows more and more angry as his people continue to f**k up. Great numbers of livestock and desert tribespeople are consumed in cantankerous sheets of fire, men are ordered to put knives to their own kids’ throats in order to prove their fidelity to this Creationist Egomaniac. There are also dark warnings about eating shellfish. It’s a mad grab bag of amorality and eye-crossing gibberish. No publisher today would touch the thing. The New Testament God acquires a bold new brand, though. He is merciful and nice, wears a terrycloth robe and a beard that, in photographs, is neatly combed. He offers up His own Son for once, and makes frank, sweet, apologetic promises that as yet we’ve no way of fully trusting. It’s as if He wearied of murder, became embarrassed by it, and walked into His own light. So it is with my brother. The Fates are taking a breather. They’ve delivered their beating and their arms are tired. My brother’s turning to God may be standard operating procedure once you’ve come through a fire, or after having for years been consigned to sleeping on curbs, in alleyways, in shelters and in fleabag hotels. For years and years! Then through his own heroic efforts and bootstrap-yanking heartwork he finds himself on a mattress with a new best friend. Bigger than a PhD.
It must be said that I did the consigning. When my dad passed away (“Don’t screw up,” he’d said levelly to P. when he’d sensed his own end was near; one of the few things he ever said to my brother or me) and my mom became P’s safety net and protector and constant companion, his ride to the courthouse downtown, his jailhouse advocate and sacrificial lamb, his inadvertent co-conspirator in the housing of stolen goods, the adventure took its toll over a decade or so. When a final straw appeared and was put in place my wife and I went out to Phoenix and moved my mom out here to SB. My brother, dismayed at the turn of events and terrified at his being cast out, had said to me in a private moment as we loaded the U-Haul, “Maybe I’ll just tag along?” To which I’d gestured emphatically. No. “…but I don’t know how to take care of myself!” he’d hissed tearily, in a scene I’ll never shake. It was a rare burst of openness and vulnerability that was too late in arriving. And I was an overwhelmed and intransigent son and brother, confusedly and ineptly trying to rescue his collapsing mother.
He was given $500 and instructions that amounted to “make a life and call us when you’ve done so.” At the end of that trip we’d hugged, and then he climbed into his battered Pontiac and drove away with a wave, the Valley of the Shadow of Shit awaiting with surprises and miseries none of us, even then, could foresee. When his car disappeared around the corner I sat down on the curb in front of the family homestead, put my head in my hands and sobbed like a guy in a movie, racked and comforted by the pretense of helplessness. My little little little brother, he of the rope swing behind our house in Cheyenne, the matchbox car collection, the Star Trek mural I’d painted on his bedroom wall to his unguarded delight, the daily attempts to smash his curling hair down before going to school, his tongue in the corner of his mouth with the effort. Driving away to a life I still can’t even imagine, a period of blunt survival among strangers in dimly lit, filthy surroundings, no mom or Jeff to hold onto. I see him in his bow tie beside our white picket fence, in Libya of all places, then his compliant sitting in Sunday School with an open book of Science Fiction Classics on his desk. Note to self. Call him. Luv ya, Pat. You did it.
My fam just returned from a terrific weekend spent with two married men; married to each other, of course. Great-looking, culturally informed wits (if I may briefly throw my lot in with the stereotypists), skilled parents, laconic commentators on the current bonfire, and most importantly this weekend, boat-owners. I have nothing culturally significant to add to the flood of typing that has erupted in the wake of the recent and historic death of DOMA, but to say that the dizzy and doomed legislation, when named aloud, sounds like the inarticulate threat one might puzzle over in the instant before being punched in the face by the idiot school bully after 6th period. By the bike rack. (yeah – he warned me. who knew?)
We zipped around a lake in a sleek motorcraft of some kind, occasionally towing behind us, in an inflatable SeaDoo, my 11 year-old daughter and one or both of their kids, and more occasionally my easily nauseated but otherwise particularly manly 17-year old son. Our kids clutched the pitifully small handles of the inflatable torture device till their hands cramped. Their kids had arms raised in the manner of rollercoaster show-offs. This says nothing about the B.F. Skinner distinction between kids raised by two dads and those raised by one mom and one hesitant coward. Does it? Behind the speed boat, buffeted by a rocketing flume of water, becoming madly and unpredictably airborne in the boat’s wake, and at the distant end of their wildly swinging nylon rope, the kids (mine) engaged in lots of hand across the neck gesturing, international maritime signal for ‘slow this ****** down or you’ll see my turkey and lettuce sandwich atop a bile geyser’.
By sheer happenstance this planned weekend at our friends’ lake house coincided with the historically raucous days immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision to give their long-awaited blessing to some of the clearest common sense ever waved into law by a panel of ostensible constitutional scholars. That it took this long to Enact the notion that you can’t legally be a jackass to some and nice to others just because you feel scared or nervous….it says less about our nation’s imperfect charter than it does about the frightened, kittenish morons we humans are, despite our mostly honest efforts not to be. We try, and very recently we have been trying harder. That little extra effort has CHANGED WHOLE LIVES NOW. LIKE A FINGER SNAPPING. CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT? WHY DOES THIS CRAP TAKE SO LONG?!!!! The parades and celebrations are tempered by the absence of those who couldn’t make the rehearsal, felled in the decades of utterly needless sorrow now ended by glib judicial fiat. Let’s try a little harder a lot more often. Our hosts this weekend were quietly celebratory, not triumphalist. They’ve been married awhile. They read with muted anger of the spontaneous, nearly algorithmic reflex-effort by a coalition of overwrought attorneys to get the Supreme Court to vacate its own decision. We are desperate bird-brains, all of us.
Well. Our cross-dressing Supreme Court, whose billowing black mumu could use an update, has spoken. They’ve essentially pointed at a cat and proclaimed amid trumpets and fanfare, after many decades of teen and adult suicide in this country, deaths by beating, and generalized soul-ruining mayhem, “IT’S A CAT.” Our be-robed, wizened village elders have spoken.
Sturm und Drang. While DOMA wasn’t about stopping people being singled out for beatings, surely a legal pronouncement of this scale augurs change all up and down the acceptance strata. Meanwhile, these Two Dads (as they would be known in a controversial oft-banned book about same-sex parents), like parents everywhere, have their hands full; they have to drag their kids off the electronics, exhort them to walk the dog, clean their rooms, empty the trash; THE MARVELOUS GOLD-LEAF NORMALCY THAT WE LUCKY HETEROS HAVE BEEN VARIOUSLY DRUBBED AND EXALTED BY THESE MANY YEARS. Married with Children. Now our willing gay guys and dolls can have the connubial experience of sitting bolt upright in bed at 4am of a particular morning and shouting hoarsely into the dark, “HOLY SHIT!! I’M MARRIED!!!! Welcome, Moms and Dads of the New Vanguard. If you figure out how to get your kids to brush before bed, like, every night? for g*d’s sake, SHARE!
Final note, apropos of absolutely nothing: at the end of our lake day I asked one of our hosts if the motor on a Jet Ski was an inboard or outboard motor. Was the propeller perhaps concealed inside the machinery? He regarded me with an arched eyebrow.
A sun-drenched Saturday and I ask my 11-year-old daughter if she wants to go out and get donuts.
“Yes!” She disappears into her room for 10 minutes, emerging in an outfit that would make Paris Hilton stammer. Her short-shorts are so tiny that at a glance she looks like a semi-nude dwarf in a cummerbund. She’s wearing dark brown pointy boots that reach halfway up her bare legs. I’d hoped to grab a glazed donut with my adorable 5th grader, not Barbarella.
“What…why are you dressed like that?”
I want to say “Like the Diminutive Saucy Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s forgotten classic ‘Self-Actualized Girl Gangs of Oz'”.
“I don’t know if you should dress like that to go out with me to get donuts.”
“Why not? This is how I dress.”
She’s right, of course. Any weekend you can see it at the city parks, a Bruegel riot of swarming go-go dancers and their bedazzled/stupefied preteen male counterparts, struggling to grasp a feminine mystique that will yet elude them even as their teeth sneak away and they are felled by old age.
“Dad, let’s just go-ah!”
We go. Walking into the donut place I feel the accusing eyes of all affronted patrons are on Stella, this strutting half-pint Bardot who has just learned how to add fractions. In reality no one blinks. A couple of the patrons glance up from their newspapers and smile warmly.
Was that ‘morning’ or ‘mourning’? I fear the presence of a Child Protective Services mole at one of the tables, pretending to read the morning paper while secretly talking into his lapel. ’Ethically bankrupt dad has just entered restaurant with underage member of the Tom Jones Dancers. Send backup.’ If I had a moral compass it would be spinning like a mad propeller. I feel I can telepathically register the thinking of the rest of the angry fritter-wielding mob.
>We’re so sorry for your loss.<
>The loss of the responsible partner in your charade of a marriage, who while alive would have known better than to let her daughter walk around like that in public.<
She’s not dead, she’s at the gym this morning.
>Oh. That explains it. Also, good parental modeling. While your wife is at the gym trying to improve her body and spirit, you are here with mini-Racquel, buying her a raised glazed.<
…to which I have no cogent telepathic response.
Tonight again I’ll read Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter while she sleeps, and one of these glorious mornings she’ll awaken and put on the neck-high frontier dress I bought from SwinginGingham.com. I just know it. There is hope.