Personal Space: The Final Frontier

melkweg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

A Lib Confesses

A Lib Confesses

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

Stingray in the Stingray Day

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

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

Mug of a Carpenter

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

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

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

How May I Help You?

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

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

Coming Clean

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

Eugene Delacroix-La Liberte guidant le Peuple

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

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

 

Bible-Thumping Darwinists

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

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

The Paragon of Animals

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

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

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

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

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

The Crackers and the Lorax

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

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

 

not with a bang, but with a bib. yes.

145929814.4CYco4c4.Sh2157HSTfinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom in our Paradise

Paul and the Phantom

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

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

Not Your Father’s Icarus

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

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

Daft Punk ❤ Paul

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

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

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

“….do you know how to reach him?!”

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

Roger Nichols and World Domination

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

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

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

What About Phantom?

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

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

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

Gratitude and Trust and Karen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Barbara Sentinel Volume 4 – Issue 13

How the Gipper Vanquished Communism, Punched Out Clark Kerr, Created Your Paralyzing Tuition, and Changed Higher Education from a Right to a Country Club

LS.1E.10/Savio1966.eb.2.$

Berkeley student Mario Savio found himself the de facto leader of a huge student campus Free Speech movement that attracted the ire of governor Reagan, who thought the student spoiled, ungrateful pinko beatniks. Reagan would fire UC President Clark Kerr for his leniency and then angrily raise fees on the students. The beginnings of today’s California tuition fubar.

In the buzzing, vibrant center of the beautiful UCSB campus sits a squat concrete box. This is Kerr Hall. Simultaneously cube-like and angular (not an easy combination to effect), the building looks like an enormous post-modern bunker, or an Iron Curtain edifice meant to make a statist comment. Which is fitting. To add to the atmosphere of gaiety, Kerr is windowless on three sides, its gray pebbled carapace textured with roof-to-ground vertical grooves, reportedly not molded in a cycle of prefabrication but deafeningly gouged out with jackhammers once the building was completed, in 1977. A demure little plaque at the bunker’s east end, gone tastefully green over the years, bears an innocuous inscription

“Clark Kerr – President of the University of California 1958 – 1967. For Encouraging a Better Quality of Teaching”.

What the hell does that mean? Who is this Clark Kerr guy? You wouldn’t know it from that bland little encomium, but Clark Kerr was UC Berkeley’s embattled first Chancellor, and not incidentally a prominent Free Speech piñata who the Commie-frightened Establishment would beat till the candy came out, to our common detriment. Clark was also Ronald Reagan’s springboard into politics in the go-go sixties. He would be invoked with contempt as a limp, liberal communist sympathizer in The Gipper’s galvanizing 1966 campaign speeches.

Kerr was, more lastingly, the architect of what came to be known as the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the nationally and globally venerated public education model that layered California’s institutions of higher learning – community colleges, the California State College System (today’s CSU), and the vaunted University of California system (the UC) – into a parfait of academic upward mobility. The Master Plan’s holy mission was to codify a promise from the State of California to her citizens: any student who aspired to an empowering education would have one, and practically free of charge; a compact that wove into the state’s cultural fabric a social and class mobility that was limited only by an individual’s desire to rise through learning. This didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Reagan, a guy (like many during that period) to whom the word “State” summoned the Red Scare, Stalin, and Siberia’s chain of Best Western gulags. In 1966 Reagan would enlist the delighted assistance of the FBI and step lithely into the governor’s mansion on the mud-smeared back of Clark Kerr, and three weeks later Reagan would loudly fire Kerr as UC President. A couple years after that, in 1969, the Governor would formally begin California’s climb-down from investment in public higher education by placing more of the burden on the University students themselves, whose socialist ingratitude for the education they were receiving had gnawed at him since the days of Berkeley’s student protests and what he considered Kerr’s insufficiently iron-fisted response. Reagan’s convincing of the UC Regents to impose “education fees” on the UC students was comeuppance for Kerr’s Master Plan, and is considered by educational historians to be the introduction in California of a little something called Tuition. Heard of it? You can blame it on the commies.

In 1949 the United States was aflame with the Red Scare, which sounds like a rash and did indeed result in pustules and weeping sores, many of them holding public office. That year the UC had instituted a requirement that all employees, present and future, sign an Oath of allegiance foreswearing ideas and institutions seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, a thinly clad reference to Communism. Clark Kerr, since 1945 an Associate Professor of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, grudgingly signed the oath but would take it no further, and continually pushed back against the singling out of colleagues and staff on campus. Kerr’s pugnacity earned him the nervous respect of his colleagues in the academy, and it was Kerr the UC Regents chose to appoint as UC Berkeley’s first Chancellor in 1952. During his time as Berkeley’s head honcho Kerr proved a rock star steward of “Cal”, such that by 1957 UC Berkeley was ranked third in the nation behind Harvard and Yale. That year an impressed Board of Regents chose Clark Kerr to be president of the entire UC system. Just ahead lay UC Berkeley’s explosive Free Speech Movement, Ronald Reagan (and his girlfriend the FBI), and the meat grinder that would pulverize Kerr and make pâté of his Master Plan.

In late 1964 a bunch of Berkeley student activists set up some tables and information booths on the Berkeley campus. Most of these kids had just returned from Mississippi, where’d they’d spent an adventurous summer registering as many African-American voters as possible in a well-orchestrated effort that came to be called The Freedom Summer, or in the movies “Mississippi Burning”. The thousand-strong army of volunteers that poured into Mississippi that summer had braved beatings and harassment and arrest. Several of them had been murdered. Now the returned Berkeley student contingent, lives changed and eyes opened, wanted to talk about it. From their rickety card tables and benches and booths they disseminated info on campus and collected donations for civil rights causes.

UC Berkeley rules at the time prohibited any campus political activity outside the student Democratic and Republican clubs there, and the dean asked the students to please strike their tables and stand down. The bloodied Freedom Summer students would have none of it. There commenced over the coming weeks a swarming wave of sit-ins and angry marches, with a charismatic grad student named Mario Savio becoming the leader of the movement, one of the first American university protest conflagrations of the sixties. Kerr was caught squarely in the middle (to the delight of many), pissing off the Berkeley students for not acquiescing immediately and wholly to their demands, and enraging Edward Pauley, head of the UC Regents, for refusing to expel and otherwise punish the wild-haired socialist student rebels. Bewildered and poorly directed peace officers helplessly followed the “frightened mistakes” template, arresting and nervously clubbing kids who were, after all, only agitating for a Constitution they’d been bored by as jug-eared fifth graders just a few years before, but which had now become a precious thing which the Civil Rights struggle had burnished to a fine luster, and whose purity they felt exalted to be beaten up protecting, this tattered cousin of the Magna Carta. The bland wallpaper of ubiquitous freedom doesn’t become dear till it’s being torn down by often well-meaning morons.

Watching the goings-on at Berkeley were two birds of a feather; future CA governor Ronald Reagan and his bulldog on a long leash, J. Edgar Hoover, the dyspeptic and perennial pugilist-king of the FBI. Hundreds of thousands of pages pried from classified FBI files by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that Reagan had been going to second base with the FBI since his film acting days the 1940s, routinely flipping Hoover and the boys the names of supposed Communist subversives in Hollywood, Ronny in one recorded instance dutifully reporting on an actress who’d had the temerity at a cocktail party to complain about the Hollywood witch hunts. The relationship with Hoover would prove fruitful.

In 1966 Reagan ran for governor of the Golden State, and wasted no time colluding with the FBI to smear both the Berkeley student leaders and UC President Clark Kerr, with whom both Ronny and Edgar were furious for not cracking down on the seditious, unshowered hippies. The Berkeley students would soon enough fold an anti-Vietnam War theme into their riotous campus protests and enrage Reagan and Hoover even more. FOIA documents describe in detail the nighttime break-ins and personnel file fingering of the FBI in Berkeley neighborhoods during this period, much of which largesse showed up as fodder for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign. In his public rhetoric Reagan vowed to send “the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

The student unrest at Berkeley, and the public disaffection he managed to whip into a politically helpful shit storm, got Reagan elected governor in a landslide. Once in office he went unabashedly after Berkeley, slashing the school’s budget, and, when they complained, recommending Berkeley raise money by selling their library’s rare book collections. Ray Colvig, the Chief Public Information officer for UC Berkeley during the period of Reagan’s rages, has said, “He thought if you wanted a world-class university, let the students pay for it. The idea of selling rare books went along with that.” Three weeks after his election, in the new governor’s first meeting with the UC Regents, he fired Clark Kerr.

Today there are four Kerr Halls in the University of California system; one at UC Davis, one at UC Santa Cruz, this grooved bunker at UC Santa Barbara, and most tellingly, one at UC Berkeley. Why? Providing the disenfranchised the means, not the capital, mind you, but the means, to move freely about the class system is not everyone’s cup of tea, mission statements and impassioned dais-thumping to the contrary. The metastatic growth of tuition as the defining feature of higher ed is the proof in that pudding. But it was Clark Kerr’s cup of tea. What Kerr had attempted to make an Individual Right is now an increasingly exclusive clubhouse. And Kerr? He seemed to accept his fate with good humor. When Reagan fired him, Kerr did indeed refer to himself as ‘fired’. “I leave his institution as I found it; fired with enthusiasm”. Kerr laid the foundations for a common beneficence through education and got bitch-slapped for it. And in that light the gray concrete box that is Kerr Hall doesn’t look half bad after all. It may even be the sweetest spot on campus. If you think of it, stop by and leave Clark a flower.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 11.07.48 PM

Looking Back at the Surprise Attack

Jupiter II!

Tiptoeing past my middle-passage afraid of rousing (or worse, arousing) whatever cloaked figure awaits the creak of a floorboard or the sound of a stepped-on garden rake levering up to thwack my beak, I am nevertheless confident in the New Day. May it bring an Elysian lawn chair or the romance of slaughter at the disputed Hot Gates.

Startled by the flying beige flag! Yes, teens, my decline and your prom are coincident, this bit of manufactured magic acquires a seam once the liquefied plastic is blown in and all the Wonder of wonder bread is its balloon-daubed plastic bag. Einstein fires a bullet in a car traveling 800 feet per second per second, and another per second thrown in.

I know exactly where you are: the sweaty, temporal nightmare of roiling youth and feeling good, when Elton murmured from my Panasonic ball and chain like a man singing through a hangman’s hood.

So, yeah. Speaker tech and outerwear? Much later the radio “sounded” better. But we lost through that advance the letter of the law; Gilbert O’Sullivan stands down and in sweeps Ke$ha. We threw it all away for a pair of fancy-pants.

Really now; imagine actually waking one day, Samsa-like, to find you are an older man with sudden dappled paws. And I don’t mean “Perhaps”. That happened to me. Hand-backs shiny with Arbus cross-hatches and arranged spots like those that trouble the failing sun and indicating the same collapse.

The microwaves turn back around and the heat-death of All This sees God tiredly lifting the latches again, this time to let it all back in, tired energy pouring homeward from near and far, as was expected all along. “The day is done! Lamplighters, would you please snuff this dim embarrassed star? And turn up the stereo one last time on Billy Joel’s ‘Zanzibar’! Jesus, what a song!”

Star light, Star bright, the star our God turned off tonight, I wish I may I wish I might be delivered of this overbite. No more to burn the petals or leaves, and buh-bye melanoma. O teen you have some insufficient inkling but you won’t grow comfortably into this weirdness any more than I will return to pinrail and glory in the wings of Oklahoma.

But I I I I…I have the plucky interiority of a 30-something and have retained, against every expectation of my own childhood certainties of decay, a sense of timelessness, and now see kids glance sidewise at me several times a day.

I used to shiftily spy on ‘older adults’ with whom I would periodically be trapped, utterly trapped and panicked, my expression naked with dread. “Kid” (I’ll say); “as strange as you think growing older is going to be, I’m here to tell you that your untested powers of imagination are not up to the task of painting that picture on the inner walls of your earbud-deafened head”.

Now it occurs to me that, in the space of some individual year, no way of knowing which one, in a future whose approach I only guess (not a calendar year, but I’m supposing about 1 year of adventurism from a stem to a stern, more or less)

I’m likely to unravel like a ball of yarn, my sensory nonchalance, this thoughtless unenlightened physical well-being of my middle passage will be cruelly undone, my spirits in flight like foul bats from a foul barn.

An inexplicable, sudden cascade of cancers, renal failures, plummeting bone density numbers, aortic blockage, and x-rays that cause my doctor to breathe hard and raise his hand to his mouth – a melting pilgrim’s cornucopia of disintegration as my architecture takes the express line south.

That will stun me! Stun my hapless fa-mi-lee! Clusterfeck of bewildering setbacks and teary, faux-philosophical internal and external monologues (arms waving around like those of the over-earnest Branagh), hug the wife and kids and step onto that ceremonial last banana.

Questions, I have but a few; could we have been less murderous as our cowboys headed west? At the top of the Space Family Robinson’s flying house what’s that little bubble do?  This is what I have to look forward to.

Visionary thinking, an aching frame, every day the same sustaining pill. Don West and the older Robinson girl? Not Penny, but Carol or whatever? Thanks to Captain Robinson’s intransigence and the finally distracting Alpha Centauri mission itself, they never got together, and now they never will.

A Tree Grows in San Roque

SB's Outlaw Tree - our own Ankerwycke Yew

In 1836 a nine-year old Irish kid named John Power landed in Manhattan with his hopeful parents, disembarking the Ellis Island Ferry in a teeming nondescript swarm of other exhausted immigrant pilgrims making the exodus from the darkling wars and privations of the Old World to the glowing blank slate of the New. The little guy was likely clinging to his mother’s skirts as his family and hundreds of others spilled into a million-gabled New York City with its jammed tenements and dark alleyways and uncertain promise of reinvention.

John’s kid-dreams and kid-potential would soon carburate into a combustible mix as the excited and largely untethered nine-year old fell immediately in with the sort of mischief-making toughs that have ever been the heartbreak of stressed parents everywhere. Running amok in a rapidly metastasizing 19th century Metropolis, John would be raised not by his mom and dad, but by his pals in the Bowery – an unlikely derivation of the Dutch word bouwerij – meaning farm – from an earlier time when the fallen New York district, whose name would become synonymous with drunken debauchery and sordidness, was named for the pleasant boundary it effected between the city and the farmsteads the wealthy Dutch had built just outside of town.

By his teens John Power was a product of the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen districts, as attractive and ruthless an urban animal as big American cities of that time produced, a self-possessed charmer and gifted horseman whose charisma and loosely fastened moral center would serve him well in an adulthood based almost entirely on adventurism. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846 and a call went out in New York for volunteers to head west and help the U.S. cause, John and a bunch of his friends eagerly grabbed what was to them a brass ring; a one-way ticket to an unsettled frontier Shangri-la where you could do whatever you wanted and have a good chance of getting away with it. John Power in particular would use the expedition as a springboard to self-rewarding naughtiness, to use the salty frontier language of the time. Once out west he began calling himself Jack Powers, and his bad behavior would find its culmination, and the beginnings of a denouement, seven years later at the base of a Sycamore tree near the corner of State and Ontare, here in Santa Barbara. You know, near Jeannine’s bakery.

Powers’ Company F of the NY Regiment made their way to Santa Barbara the old fashioned way, sailing around Cape Horn. When they arrived in Santa Barbara they found that General Fremont and his men, in a daring storm-battered surprise attack over the San Marcos Pass (costing Fremont many men and horses owing to a nasty combination of torrential rain, mud, and cliffs) had already driven Mexican forces out of Santa Barbara. The newly self-christened Jack Powers took a languorous look around and saw that the possibilities were pretty much what he’d imagined. Once he’d been discharged (honorably) from the regiment on whose coattails he’d happily arrived in California, he wasted no time and booked it up to San Francisco, already the mayhem capital of the West, where he gambled, schmoozed and murdered his way into a kind of awesome infamy up there. When he left the City by the Bay, he fled just ahead of a lynching.

He made it back down to Santa Barbara and got a great gig with the highly respected de la Guerra family as their horse whisperer and all-around equine caretaker, a job he would leverage on the sly. It was like putting a bank robber in charge of 30 getaway cars. With de la Guerra’s horses and a network of entrepreneurial cutthroats Powers soon made the stretch of Camino Real between Santa Barbara and SLO one of the more suicidal routes in the state.

But they could never quite pin anything on the guy. Known for his crazy cool horsemanship, both in handling and in sheer velocity, Powers had once set a seemingly impossible land speed record for the day, riding 150 miles in six hours, unheard of at the time. Naturally he brought this talent to bear on No Good. He would keep fresh horses watered and fed at well-concealed strategic points between the highly profitable Santa Barbara-to-SLO route and L.A. When a rancher would turn up riddled with bullets and stripped of his cattle, area lawmen would naturally get their collective dander up and go looking for Powers. To the grudging admiration of many, he would typically be found 90 miles away in Los Angeles, quietly sipping a Shirley Temple in a local saloon with a book in hand and a choirboy’s “Who, me?” expression.

William Twist was a guy with a mission and, it must be said, a cool name; though the coolness factor may have been lost on the waxed mustache set. Twist had also come over to Santa Barbara as a volunteer with New York’s Stevenson Regiment, but that’s about all he and the overripe Jack Powers had in common. Their paths would cross spectacularly. Powers and his Louseketeers had holed up on someone else’s property in Santa Barbara, overtaking an abandoned building in San Roque Canyon, underneath the present day Foothill Rd. Bridge over Steven’s Park. Powers and his frat rats would not allow themselves to be evicted through the normal paper-shuffling means, and so it fell to the recently appointed Sheriff W.W. Twist to head over there and take out the garbage, as Stallone or someone might say.

Like everybody else for a hundred miles, Twist knew Powers by his habits and assembled 200 or so men, a posse, to help him get the Powers gang off the land. Powers, though, a fan of the “One Step Ahead” school of personal betterment, sent some guys over to where the posse was assembling, the Aguirre Adobe at today’s 27 East Carrillo Street. Powers’ tactless tacticians showed up waving pistols and a couple of them were summarily shot off their horses by the riled-up posse, but one of the bad guys got to Sheriff Twist and put a knife in his back, inflicting a wound that didn’t kill Twist but took him out of the picture for the coming drama on Ontare.

The steamed and self-righteous posse raced over to Powers’ San Roque redoubt, and as they approached the outskirts of the stolen fiefdom they were of course met with a hail of bang-bang and Powers’ explicit warning that should any one of them cross a line denoted by a large sycamore tree there, that hapless posse member would be immediately ventilated with flying lead. The tree in question is now believed to be one of the large Sycamores around 134 N. Ontare. In the event, the posse demurred, turning their horses around to schlump back to town.

But enough was enough. Within days the governor of California ordered a U.S. Navy warship to toddle down the coast from Monterey and drop anchor off West Beach. “Shall I order the Marines ashore, Mr. Powers?” Powers had also learned of a seething gang of pissed-off vigilantes from SLO coming down to turn the lights off. Ruthless and brave and cunning Powers was. A moron he was not. When several days later a jittery messenger arrived with an instrument of negotiation, Powers greeted him warmly and signed the paper.

And the story ends with a spoiler alert. Jack Powers, following years of variously tickling the locals pink with his charming exploits and then shooting them in the back for their gold, was eventually hounded out of the area by a fatigued victim pool. He became a successful rancher in Mexico and then, not completely predictably, was shot to death in a fight over a woman and his body fed to penned wild boars. No kidding. And Twist? After more so-so law enforcement in the American Riviera Twist was finally made to resign as Sheriff. Why? Here’s the scene: a Native American gentleman has been found guilty of murder and is due to be hanged, though interested parties and friends have petitioned the California governor for a commutation of the sentence to life in prison. A ship is said to be coming down the coast at full steam with the signed commutation but the hanging party can’t wait and begin to string the fellow up. At the last minute a guy races up on his horse and, using a roughly hewn species of Parliamentary hooha, argues for a temporary stay of the execution on the grounds that the commutation is likely aboard the ship that is set shortly to arrive. Twist grumblingly allows the stay, the ship arrives with the commutation and the nearly hanged gentleman is remanded to life in prison. This time Powers had used his vaunted speed on horseback to prevent a killing, and the frustrated townspeople of Santa Barbara fired Sheriff Twist for capitulating.

Ain’t life grand?

 

 

SB's Outlaw Tree - our own Ankerwycke Yew

 

 

Expurgated version published in the SB Sentinel Vol 4/ Issue 4/ Feb 21- March 7/ 2015