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

stop pulling that goddamned dog

stop pulling that goddamned dog

man’s best friend
is an expensive afghan hound
afghan may mean drone strikes somewhere
here in the u.s.
afghan means a sleek-looking hound
at the end of a grasped leash.
aw look at the doggie
look at all the doggies
aw man’s best friend
you can’t have a dog
you’ll never take the dog out for a walk
aw yes I will, I promise
and even if you do
it’s an idiot’s game
man’s best friend spends every minute
straining against the leash
does anyone notice that?
man’s best friend wants to run
sniff pee-pee at every bush
make a little pee-pee himself
and take off running again
“whoa, that’s a tall order
i want a best friend, sure
a loyal yes-companion from the ranks
of the docile lower animals
but this is man’s dominion
we made it to the top
climbed here with our thumbs
where the hell are your thumbs, little doggie
thought so
you’ll be at the end of my taut leash.”
he doesn’t know he’s an afghan
and the pricey Shih Tzu’s id is indistinguishable
from that of the three-legged living rag
that nervous guy sold your neighbor
the Shih Tzu looks at the three-legged rag and thinks
that’s me
not bad
not bad at all
i like
the dumbass Shih Tzu doesn’t know from dominion
it has been bred to walk from room to room
“interesting breed. what are they for?”
to walk from room to room
none of these best friends know what they are
they just want to screw each other
and eat and make pee-pee
like us
is that such a big deal
you get to do that every day
or nearly every day
can your best friend
maybe take a crack at it, asshole
loosen that leash.
I said loosen it, jackass
i will knock you down
aw look at him strain
aw his little face
he doesn’t know he’s a prisoner
you dog wants to run
aw man’s best friend
he wants only to run!
but after maybe 30 self-congratulating minutes
you’ll be fatigued from hurling the slimed ball
in its plastic “Lower-Animals-R-Us®” claw
let’s get back to the condo
and leave our companion alone
back to the kingdom of pain, I mean man
back to a blanket in a basket
and a synthetic Purina snack of glued brown powder
shaped like a cartoon bone.

T-Bird of Happiness and Crashboat

T-Bird Tragedy and Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trader Joe’s and the Death of Froot Loops

tj

I visited the Temple this past weekend. We needed milk. “Oh, we LOVE Trader Joe’s!” someone hissed with enthusiasm by the unsalted peanut butter.  “Oh my god, it’s the best!” her friend rasped in concurrence. When the conversation turns to the tingly pleasure of the TJ’s shopping experience, the votes are nearly unanimous. Nearly. The loving and loveable oddballs who staff the swank grocery store are a blessing, and the product line manages to be all things to all people. My fellow shoppers are the problem, and they are a monster of Joe’s creation.

In 1954, Stanford Business School hotshot Joe Coulombe, the “Joe” in Trader Joe’s, got a job doing convenience store research for Rexall, the aspirin and suppository giant. Coulombe so wowed his new bosses they were soon suggesting their wunderkind consider creating a convenience store chain in California that mimicked Texas’ all-powerful 7-Eleven. Joe jumped at the idea, got financing from Adohr Milk Farms and began building his blitzkrieg of grocery-hipness by opening a bunch of mini-marts all over the state of CA. He called them Pronto markets, and they were a hit. When the company that had financed his Pronto rollout acquired 7-Eleven, though, the handwriting was on the wall.

Casting about for a market segment he could call his own, Joe stumbled onto an article in Scientific American that pointed out that 60% of Americans who qualified for college were going to college, at that time a heartening and newsworthy factoid. In that statistic Coulombe saw (and in fact invented) a new species of grocery consumer; the self-identifying wise-ass who purchased lowly boxes of Froot loops only grudgingly and aspired to a boutique grocery-buying experience beyond the reach of the unlettered masses. And it had to be cheap. Or as Coulombe himself once put it, ”Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators and journalists,” to which he later pointedly added “ I didn’t say smarter. I said better educated.” Bless him. His odd idea took flight and the flattered smarty-pants set came running. TJ’s took off like a rocket, initially selling everything from cereal to ammunition –  a practice that ended with the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in ’68. In 1970, thanks to another Scientific American article (it could be argued that Trader Joe’s fans owe a debt of gratitude to Scientific American Magazine), Coulombe was introduced to “Green” thinking, and an unstoppable grocery cult was born.

On a recent trip to the Trader Joe’s on de la Vina I took several minutes to soak up the atmosphere. Santa Barbarans bustled purposefully through the glass doors with brightened, wide-eyed expressions, the TJ’s crew skipped jauntily about, radiant with what always looks like tightly contained joy. It was, per the norm, a little unnerving. And of course the workers run the sartorial gamut. I’ve never been in a Trader Joe’s anywhere whose crew didn’t boast the sort of mad personnel mix typified by Star Fleet’s HR Diversity Handbook; here a Vulcan, there a Scotsman, over there a busty speaker of Swahili with a salt shaker in her ear. Many of the cashiers at Trader Joe’s could be your favorite uncle or aunt, if your favorite uncle or aunt were inked from ankle to jawbone. Some of the workers stocking the shelves look like they could play bass for Arcade Fire. Though TJ’s is today owned by a German grocery conglomerate, it still operates from a simple premise: rebrand bar soap and waffles as swinging, irony-exuding emblems of cool that gratify the shopper with a stylized sense of self. It works. Hoo boy. It really works. But.

There is an implacable phantom angst haunting Trader Joe’s happy-go-lucky aisles, like the creepy come-hither twins in The Shining, but vegan and scarier. Despite the mediating karmic glow of the TJs crew, the place at rush hour is a parade of Tension Hippies, mate-seeking tofu enthusiasts, wildly pierced Salsa unpackers, and the occasional bewildered housewife looking desperately for Clorox with an “I’m Lost in the Funhouse!” expression of growing confusion and terror. Will the misplaced maven raise her hands to her face and scream, like Patricia Owens in The Fly? I’m waiting for the day. For those who have yet to partake of a Trader Joe’s outing (are there still such people in our fair state?), I offer this portrait of a pilgrimage to the de la Vina store.

The layout of the place is a Feng Shui mishap that begins in the parking lot, where an expanse of slanted parking spaces as snugly patterned as herringbone already puts you on edge. You first thread the needle to get into the de la Vina lot, and there begin worriedly seeking a spot for your little buggy as glandular luxury SUVs stalk the car park like a herd of bulbous predators, their chrome grillwork grimacing menacingly as they hugely maneuver the hairpin turns of the overstuffed little acre. You finally manage to dock your car into a suddenly available little slot and as you pull in there is the inevitable TJ’s customer in hemp chinos, slowing his walk to a theatrical crawl and glaring dead-faced at the empty air because he is angry to have had to slow his gait, angry at your oak-strangling internal combustion engine, and angry that his braided, faux-nativist ponytail went out of fashion with Billy Jack posters and One Tin Soldier lunchboxes.

Inside TJ’s the cool-looking diagonalized aisles create a spiritual and spatial confusion that has artfully tattooed shoppers bumping into each other with pursed lips and clenched/enlightened souls. You pause to look contemplatively at a box of orange lentils for more than 4 seconds, and a Progressive with lavishly pierced nasal flanges and those big ear discs will park behind you and start belting out an aura the color of spoiled bean curd. You feel the New rAge with your spidey sense and allow the pissed off spirit-pilgrim to pass by pressing your back against the reconstituted old-growth-forest-favoring single-ply toilet paper. The soul pioneer breathes out in the yoga practitioner’s version of a disgusted sigh and moves through without acknowledging you.

You go to make your purchase and while in line an overcaffeinated pixie with a bag of Free Trade Shade Grown Madagascar Decaf chirps a rolling 4-megaton blast of happytalk at you that within one withering minute has turned your rigid organic banana to a useless tumescent throwaway not fit for purchase. If there are happier or more loquacious shoppers anywhere they need to be restrained and tranquilized. You leave checkout and enter the narrow little exit aisle where more passive-aggressive maneuvering stands your remaining hair on end as you clip hopefully toward the door. You pick your way back to the car, more frozen expressions glimpsed through expensive windshields as those attempting to park suffer your affronting pedestrianism. You slowly pull your car out of the tiny parking space, receive more blank-faced Califorbearance as you painstakingly steer through the swarming lot with the fingertip-lightness of a vascular surgeon. You get home and heave a sigh of gratitude, and having lusted for a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for two hours discover you bought soy milk by mistake. You weep.

Published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel Vol 4/Issue 3/Feb 7-21, 2015

Wo Dynasty

Could Be Worse

Woe the wand’ring little cloud
And woe the storm that brings it
Woe the stupid jingle
And the imbecile that sings it
Woe the little instances
Of love and life and laughter
And woe the need for terror
of our darkling numb Hereafter.
Woe to ev’ry tiny thing
inhabiting the daily
and woe to starlings sparring
and to manatees a’flailing.
Woe to paws that scrabble
and woe the speechless beagle
woe to poor Montgomery Ward
and dear tormented Spiegel.
Woe to those appliances
which maim and snap and crackle,
and woe to those who die at sea
while rescuing their tackle.

I’ve Fallen to Earth and I Can’t Get Up

I've Fallen to Earth and I Can't Get Up

I turn in my seat to watch as they quietly enter the Arlington’s half-light in whispering twos, threes and fours, peering through the murk with a touching vulnerability, expressions brightening at the sight of friends, hands raised in greeting. The hushed army of once and future glam-slammers and barricade-stormers, they who would have turned the world on its head some 45 years ago, now furtively take their seats, apologizing for the inconvenience as they sidle past in their chinos and Chuck Taylors. They settle in and lean into each other, murmuring. The dusky Arlington cavern already has the hushed aspect of a church service. They’re here for Bowie, yeah. But there’s the luggage, too.

David Bowie Is. The omnipresent-tense of the film’s title suggests a quasi-religious experience, and the congregants approve. Bowie was (is) a special case; part accident, (large) part calculation, and part Divine timing, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and inserting himself and his message into that weird demilitarized zone between the 60s conflagration and the 70s blow dried confusion; between the exhausted Stones, the divorcing Beatles, the drowned Hendrix and the approaching polyester Me Generation steamroller. Just at the moment the fires were being doused and the broken masonry swept up in prep for James Taylor’s entrance (mustn’t get brick dust on those white trousers), here comes Bowie like an escapee, with One More Thing To Say. Dismantling the Establishment is for squares. Why overthrow the old order when you can find an elliptical orbit that obviates the need for any order at all?

The film itself was a strangely (not to say deceptively) promoted documentary, a tour of a celebrated Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an exhibit so freaking anticipated by a global public still starved for Bowie that it (the exhibit, you understand) is itself touring the world like a rock star, with stops in Toronto, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Melbourne. David Bowie, at 67 and reportedly not in great health, has attained that level of cultural hegemony that allows his shirts to tour in his stead. In the movie two talking heads walk the movie audience through the exhibit’s Twelve Stations of the Cross, as it were, the gasping experts gesturing and talking earnestly at the camera. We see Bowie’s famous costumes (notably for this writer the psychedelic skin-tight tea cozy he wore in his watershed Top of the Pops performance of Starman in ‘72), his childhood ballpoint sketches and odd doodles that seem to suggest designs for movie sets and character creations.

Like most little kids with light bulbs for heads, little Davie Jones had big weird ideas and recorded them prolifically and energetically; unlike most kids he carried them into adulthood as action items. When, at 15 years old, Davie was mightily popped in the left eye by a schoolyard chum in a brief tussle over a girl they both liked, the die was cast. The eye was saved but the pupil paralyzed, an interesting oddity for the shaggy folk-Bowie of 1966, but an absolute badge of deep-space authenticity when he later invented Ziggy and let his addled wife dye his hair a color not found in nature. Unlike say, Perry Como (another estimable chameleon whose startling collection of cardigans could make his audience dizzy with dislocation and excitement), Bowie did not inhabit or typify his time; he infused it. Emerging from a decade that sought exaltation and strangeness, this eyebrow-free wraith with the mismatched pupils and strange, melodic gift wrote his own and our tickets.

So, yeah. We of course took along our 12-year-old daughter that night, grateful for the opportunity to introduce her to a more artistically nourishing time when pop stars could legitimately be thought to have come from outer space. You’re so lucky to be seeing this tonight, Stel! (she nods once, bored already. “How long will the movie last?”). Stella, though, has yet to be seduced into the Earbud Army, and to her credit nods off every night to a long Carpenters lullabye (whether or not the reader finds that a taste assault that trumps all others) – but today’s shuffling deaf-mutes, anesthetized teen and tween droids with wires hanging out of their ears, music blaring minutely in the middle of their wallpapered crania through hours and hours made mundane by the ceaseless, seamless soundtrack. They buy gum, cross the street, scroll their i-things, text their professed love, kiss, and occasionally talk to each other with skinny little Ariana Grande and the gasping Demi Lovato et al marauding through the middle of their heads like an earwig army. And the teeny songs songs tend toward that thrill-ride motif, the honking synth loops and hammerblow bass they blast at 1000 decibels as you try not to bark up your funnel cake on the mischaracterized Alpine Toboggan at Earl Warren. Our musical heroes in the Day were larger-than life avatars who scarcely seemed containable in ordinary rooms.

Bowie was like an androgynous reptile, Jim Morrison a radiant Dionysus in sterlizingly tight leather pants. Our daughter’s pop idols look like paperboys and kickball champions. Justin Bieber might be here to mow your lawn. You want to rush the stage and help these stadium-filling kids with their math homework. And they never leave the heads of our earbud-imprisoned kids. In the 70s (he dared venture) my audiophile friends and I would crowd into my friend Dave’s acoustically pristine bedroom, dim the lights and listen to Genesis’ Musical Box or One for the Vine at crystal-clear high volume, or Supertramp’s Hide in Your Shell. It was a special gathering – like going to temple or church, but without funny hats or those tiddly winks they put on your tongue. I challenge you to try dialing up a Supertramp song with your twelve-year-old in the room. “Daaaduh! Can I change the song!”

But…yeah. You reach a certain age and, as if by some hideous magic, hear your jawbone broadcasting stuff your own mom and dad used to say, and it makes you blush in terror. The effort not to sound like an historically predictable parent/philistine when remarking on the kids’ music choices – it can be tough. But our folks still take the cake! They weren’t possessed of the frightened self-awareness we wear like a postmodern millstone. They didn’t care if they sounded like Parents, they reveled in that, saying the dumbest summary things without hesitation.

One evening at the age of 16 or so I was listening to Elton’s anthemic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” on the living room stereo, in the days before my very own Zenith Allegro Home HiFi entered and transformed my life and drove me into my shuttered teen bedroom for good. Just as my dad entered the living room that evening, Elton was singing “frozen here…” (on the ladder of my life) , and my dad yelled “Frozen beer! What the hell?”

“Frozen here!” I shouted.

“I heard frozen beer!!” my dad yelled back. I knew immediately this lame shouting match was not the sort of telling generational schism that would feature on a PBS documentary about the dissolution of the American family. It was the only time I can recall our having raised our voices to each other. Yow. Rock and Roll.

Back in the Arlington a theater full of grown teens breathe deep the gathering gloom, to quote an old song. All those long teenage nights behind the locked bedroom door in our parents’ houses (our parents! our parents!), feeling the centrifugal energies of a world spinning like an idiot top. Did all that really happen? Why did my denim bell bottoms have so many zippers? Why did I let my hair puff out like that? Why did I have to borrow a shirt from John Videan for my senior portrait?

This Bowie evening is a rocket ride back to the whole of the teen whirlwind, where lead routinely turned to gold and the world could still surprise the shit out of us, could still drive us back to our locked grottoes to sort things out. I would stare wonderingly at my blacklight MC Escher poster, or spend hours lying in bed and listening to Sparks or Kate Bush or The Who’s Tommy with the lights out, the stereo painting almost tactile sonic pictures in the dark over the rumpled twin bed with its embarrassingly childish sheets and untested box spring, the bittersweetness of LPs stacked on a spindle.

 

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

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 20/October 4-18

Atheists and Pantheists and Little Lambs Eat Ivy. Again.

Maypole!

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.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 12/June 14-28. Page 6