Palaces of Sand

June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

creek wide

The sweet sound of falling water leaking through her window excited the little girl, who pulled her boots on over her pajamas, and tip-toed out the back door. The smell of the wet morning tickled her so hard she giggled madly, boulder-hopping down the crude stone steps in the gathering light, to her favorite place in the whole wide world.

Grinning so big her dimples hurt, tears welled up as she stopped at the edge of the wash, and whispered, “Hi, old pal,” to the clear water gurgling past like a happy baby. She waded in and felt a shiver of delight break loose another giggle, then standing in the middle of the fresh and beloved little stream, she pulled off her boots, and tossed them to the bank, slipping her bare feet into the swift water, and sighing gratefully as she felt the sting of the cold. Splashing upstream, soaking her PJs, as she hopped from pool to pond, from rock to stone, she finally stopped to sit on the big old oak that had fallen across the creek two winters back. She waited full of hope and anticipation, watching for the shiny nose of a little green tree frog, or the broad warty back of a big old bullfrog to emerge from the sandy bank just below her.

“Nini, Niiiiniii.” Her name echoed off the wet hillside, and she looked up to see the sky bright, dusted with cotton-candy clouds. Leaping off the log back into the dear water, she kicked up huge sprays as she skipped downstream toward her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! The creek, Mommy it’s running, it’s running!” She screamed, stopping for a moment to kiss the head of the old dog who waited for her, wagging eagerly at the bank. She bounded back up the steps as the old dog picked his way along behind her, carefully choosing his path among the boulders that made up the rough stairs. Her dad had let her pick most of these stones herself in that very arroyo, during the hot dusty days of summer, when her creek, running deep beneath the sand, laid as dormant as her frogs, both hiding their damp joy.

All day at school, she pined. “Nini,” her teacher scolded, “Oh Nini? Where for art thou oh teeny Nini?” Her friends laughed, as she blushed, her crab-apple cheeks glowing.

“Sorry.” she apologized, then excitedly, “My creek is running!” The kids all laughed again.
“Huh?” Scotty said, poking her in the back, a third grade flirt.
“It rained so hard, my creek is running.” She repeated quietly, sad that they didn’t get it.
“I’m very glad,” Ms. Taka said, “but, we’re not frogs.” The class roared again, and Nini sank into her seat.

She did her work quietly, biding her time. Finally, the big hand jumped to the twelve, then ring, ring, ring, and she darted out into the still-clear day, running all the way home.

Her mom met her on the road, and scooped her up, covering her face with the million baby kisses she squirmed to escape.

“Mommy, still running?” Was all Nini wanted to know.

Shaking her head and setting her little wiggle-worm down with a knowing click of her tongue, Nini’s mom smiled, “Change your clothes first!” She shouted, watching her sunshine streak down the muddy road.

Together, mother and daughter, both now in high rubber boots, walked in wonder up the center of the wide, rushing stream. The mother too loved this creek; loved the smell of wet leaves and the sound of the bubbles and stones tumbling along the rocky bottom.

“And aren’t we mostly water?” She thought wistfully, looking down at the small fingers, pulling her upstream and wrapped so eagerly around hers.

“Look, that big bush has washed completely away!” She said, reigning in the whirlwind for a moment to observe the new landscape the creek had built.

“And that big rock!” Nini squealed, “It’s all dug out.” Leaping on top, and spinning round to scan the wondrous scene. “And, mommy, look!” She said, flying away, splashing again upstream to her favorite spot. “The frog pond’s all dug out too!” She called back.

Seeing her wade into the deepest part, her mom called out, “Oh Honey…” But too late, the water filling Nini’s boots as she tested the little pool’s depth.

Sitting on the fallen tree with the tiny wet boots drying next to her in the sun, the mom watched gratefully as her sprout frolicked and splashed joyously; building then breaking dams, and setting leaf boats adrift, then chasing them downstream.

Springing onto the log, she gave her mom a hug. “Seen any frogs yet?” She asked eagerly, her teeth chattering. The mom took the shivering and compact little body up into her warm arms.

“Just one.” She answered as she wrapped her coat around the poor drenched girl. “And it needs some dry clothes and a nice cup of hot caterpillar cocoa.”

The half moon beamed through Nini’s bedroom window, as her mom gave her a million more baby kisses. Lifting open the window next to the bed, the sound of the falling water gushed through the open sash.

“Listen,” her mom whispered. “Ribbet, ribbet.”

“Welcome home.” The sleepy girl muttered, the sweet lullaby of her croaking companions carrying her off to dreams of palaces of sand, and banquets of bugs.

My Father’s Pipe

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Chinese-opium-pipes

I wanted to see my mother’s lifeless body for my self – say goodbye. I didn’t really get to when my father died. I said goodbye, but it was an offhanded farewell to a man who was only leaving me on his way run a few errands. They didn’t allow children in the ICU, so that casual hug was the last I ever saw of him. I went to see my mother on every one of her last days. On the final one, I kissed her silent face and cried some tears onto her soft still warm shoulder. I don’t know which memory is worse, her frightened gaping face, or the absence of his.

The really funny thing is, within a few months of her succumbing to a protracted battle with lung cancer, I started smoking again, so did my sister. I had been gratefully clean for ten years, since the birth of my first son. I swore I would never take another puff, I had come to hate my smoking so much, and had such a hard time quitting, that I was sure I had left it behind. To my own considerable surprise, I found myself back to 3, 4 packs a day in no time at all.

In one of my most haunting recollections of my parents, all I can see are the dancing fireflies of the glowing ends of their cigarettes. I would sometimes awaken them in the small hours to escape the horror of a bad dream in the snuggling security of their bed. They would invariably light up as they patiently listened to me babbling down from the nightmare adrenaline rush. In the dark, those dancing tobacco cherries were powerful symbols of their presence, their strength and their love.

She would be dead 2 years before I could muster the inspiration to finally, once again, conquer that horrible addiction. By the time I came to understand its genesis in that hopeless attempt at recovering their eternally lost love, it was too late. My second battle with that evil weed, that had taken both of my parents, turned out to be a protracted and bloody one. Each failed attempt at slogging through the week of confusion and inability to concentrate, each guilt-ridden drag of deeply pressed smoke that so majestically washed away that fog, only strengthened the grip that awful drug had on me. But I did finally succeed, and know better still that I will never let tobacco get a hold of me again. Thankfully none of my kids has been snagged.

When my father was a young man, most people smoked. How peculiar it is, in the light of our current mores, to watch some old movie in which some sexy Noir dame pulls a long drag on a filterless cigarette then picks a piece of tobacco off her tongue with her long dark nails – I presume that some may still find that sexy, but to me, it seems disgusting. My aunt told me that as a boy my father collected pipes.  He had been proud of the old briars and unusual meerschaums he had congregated.  How noble and grown up he must have felt as he clinched some fragrant old stem in his teeth.  However, there was one pipe in his collection that was completely unlike his others. It was clearly not meant to be smoked in the evening with dogs and children gathered round the master’s feet; it was not meant to fight back the gale on the clipper’s bridge, nor inspire the old academic in the wingback chair of his club. This odd pipe, clearly an opium pipe by its tiny bowl and confirmed by the worn ideograms stamped into the flip-up lid of the small container suggesting that it was built some where in China. It is the only one of my father’s I ever met, and was forged out of some unusual alloy which I suppose must be brass, though the color is very pale and steely. I have seen other pipes of a similar design, but no other like his, intended no doubt to soothe the exhausted body of some pitifully poor serf, or inspire the dreams of some pathetically spoiled prince. How it found its way into my father’s collection, I will never know, everyone who might have, is now dead. I doubt that as a young man, whom I’m sure occasionally fired up even his rarest meerschaum, he ever bothered to light this particular pipe.

When WWII came, like most of the rest of his generation, he enlisted. He ended up in a successful yardbird revue and went off to the theaters of war, as the show’s chief cook and ballerina. Hey Rookie finally disbanded in Calcutta, India. My father and his best friend, the show’s band leader, stayed on in India, assigned to manage an opulent officers’ club, my father running the restaurant, his friend the nightclub. As the war drew to a close, they settled into a bizarre and decadent life. Hashish and holiness were common amid the alternating squalor and grandeur of Calcutta, and my father and his friend were initiated into a lifelong quest of heightened consciousness.

While my father was overseas, both his mother and father died, and the family sold their home and dispersed all of their belongings, among which was his pipe collection. Perhaps apocryphally, the narrative went that a few years after his return, a parcel, containing only that old opium pipe accompanied by no return address, no letter, just the one pipe, appeared in their mail, a bit of an omen to the pair of self-described heads

My father usually had to work a night job to support us. As a struggling actor, he kept his days free for auditions and interviews, and would work the graveyard shift as a machinist at the aerospace companies that littered Southern California, and which were booming around the clock in that heyday of the cold war. He would often come home just as the sun was about to rise. Sometimes he would gently carry me to the car still half-asleep, and with our dogs hanging eagerly out the back windows of our mammoth old Buick, I would awaken with the day as we would explore the unknown backroads of Griffith Park, the Angeles Forest, or Santa Monica Mountains in the couple of hours before I had to be in school. I was 10 when on one of these amazing and holy early morning rides we were working our way up to Bee Rock by way of Mineral Springs. I was leaning out the window, watching for golf balls sliced over the fence of the driving range and hiding in the gutter, when he rolled up his window, and asked me to do the same. He took out a minuscule sheet of cigarette paper and one of those old aluminum film cans with the bright yellow screw tops, and quickly rolled a cigarette with one hand as he kept his other on the steering wheel. I had seen him roll hundreds of cigarettes, for although he chain smoked Salems, he often carried a little cotton sack of Bull Durham tobacco that he would roll into little crooked yellow cigarettes as a part of his frequent characterizations of cowboys, the mainstay of TV and his career in those days. I realized that so many young men, weaned on Bogie and traveling, impoveresihed, on the road during the depression must have had similar rolling acumen.

My relationship with him had always seemed to be characterized by his complete and truthful responses to my incessant queries about everything under the sun. But this morning, he admitted that he had lied to me when he had told me that his little film cans contained a blend of Turkish tobacco. He admitted that what he had just rolled was marijuana. He explained that he had a friend, a policeman, whose children had recently busted him with loose talk about the funny cigarettes their daddy smoked. He said he regretted lying to me, but was confident that I was now mature enough to understand the truth. He apologized for his deceit and cautioned me that others disapproved, and that marijuana was illegal, but he also explained that it was a gentle drug. I remembered times when I had seen him smoke that pipe, and recalled how I enjoyed the way he grew warmer, quieter, and reflective. And, I remembered the very rare times when I saw him drink, and how I hated the way he became rude and aggressive – and I felt grateful for that joint he was now smoking. My sisters and I, along with the children of his closest frinds, refered to his pipe as the “peace pipe” and would welcome the laughter that often floated out of the bathroom where they would hide to smoke together in an effort to be discreet.

As our Buick climbed up Mt. Hollywood road, startling the deer returning home in the growing orange light, I rolled up my window, and began to interrogate him about the origins, nature, and effects of this unknown herb. As he patiently answered and explained, he suggested that if I inhaled deeply, I might find out for myself. I don’t recall noticing any effect, but I do recall how proud I felt that he had trusted me with such a delicate piece of his adult world. By the time I felt ready to enter that adult world, he was dead. I deeply regret that I never got to smoke his pipe with him.

I finally did get to smoke his pipe, my first summer (1968) back home after a transformational year on my own at college. Smoking his pipe that first time with my mother, evoked his presence so profoundly, I could almost hear his sweet soft voice. After that day I realized that my relationship with her had been beautifully transformed from that of parent and child, to one of adult peers. A relationship that was always marked by its respect and honestly, until she the day she died almost 20 years later. Another 10 years later my father’s pipe is still a powerful symbol of my parent’s identity to me.

My mother’s bohemian friends, her mastery of the hip dialect that we hippies had co-opted, made my college friends judge her hipitude as almost holy, and I could dig it cause she was pretty holy to me. I easily joined the counterculture. For me, I wasn’t smoking to freak out my mom and demonstrate my independence, I was following in my father’s footsteps, I was exploring my consciousness and seeking truth, and I was exercising a healthy alternative to partying on booze, a behavior that still kills teens by the score. An open dialogue about lifestyles, drugs, and anything and everything else, with her and a few of her friends who had special feelings for me, made my experimentation with these things infinitely safer than for so many of my young friends who were barreling all alone into a dangerous world they knew nothing about. For so many, the only information they had about these things was Women’s Christian Temperance Union educational films that were so full of half-truths, and naive rhetoric as to be counterproductive.

I had a long series of letters with my mother when I was at college, a 1000 miles away, and was contemplating taking LSD. She was against it, but shared what she knew. My father had apparently taken one trip when it first hit the scene, but hated it and never did it again. After his experience she decided not to, but told me about her friends, a couple I knew very well, who had supplied my dad with the acid. She explained that they believed, absolutely, that LSD had been responsible for ending what had been the wife’s increasingly frequent stays in inpatient psychiatric institutions. Indeed, though a very odd person, she has to this day, 35 years after her last trip, remained stable enough to live independently. Of course in those early days they all approached LSD as a therapeutic psychiatric drug.

My parents had an open way with their friends about our home and his pipe. Anyone was always welcome to sit down at our kitchen table and join us for dinner. Afterwards, my father might fill the bowl of his pipe for them and invite them to join our discussion. This openness continued to be offered to my generation. My mother’s house became a haven for all my hippie friends. There, we enjoyed the presence and counsel of some of the old heads that were her friends. The recovering lushes and junkies had things to share that were frightening and enlightening, and most of us were spared the agony of going through their mistakes ourselves, because these people with whom we ate and sat and smoked and talked, had credibility for us. Our long nights of smoking and drinking coffee yielded the beautiful insights and deep understanding that should be so much the hallmark of those years of our youth. Only very few of us who shared those times stumbled off into the oblivion of addiction and excess that was rampant among our less-enlightened peers.

Like them, I would taste anything, but was more cautious of starting on tobacco, though I did, mostly for the high at first. Carefully, I drank a little, then one evening, a little too much and called that one off. Most things, like cigarettes, heroin, or tall glasses of scotch, many of us took once, threw up and just turned away from. But sometimes, when something really hits the spot, and some of us with one drug, and others with others – some of us with sex or shopping or gambling – get sucked in and lost in a pit that seems beyond our control to climb out of. Some substances are more addicting, some less, some not at all, but anything that touches that one spot just right, can become an obsession.

Ironically, my most painful challenges were with caffeine and tobacco, both of which began to have severe affects on my health. After perhaps my 10,000th cup of coffee, my stomach began to ache, my hands began to shake, and my lower back would spasm, my mood would fluctuate and I would become grouchy and sullen whenever it would wear off, but the dark fog I would find myself in each morning cried out for that little cup o’ Joe, and I kept on long after it I knew it was a problem. Finally, I resolved to give it up. I had not been prepared for the powerful withdrawal that I experienced, a nagging headache that was unresponsive to aspirin; blurred vision, lack of energy, and one nasty attitude. I didn’t make the first try, nor the second nor third, but eventually, I succeeded. Though I had to put up with that headache for three full days. Then with a new baby and a hacking cough, I resolved to quit cigarettes too. Another 3 days of agony: nervous and unable to concentrate, then a few weeks of white knuckles, followed by a year of slapping my hand every time the old cues chimed in. 10 years later, after my mother’s death, my second battle with that evil weed, was even more protracted and bloody. trying and failing and trying and failing more times than I could bear to imagine.

Now, I am older, wiser, and less resilient. I miss the artificial mania of coffee and Pepsi, but not the depression. I miss the hypnotic swirling smoke, the appealing accent of that little white baton, but not the hacking cough or the burns. I was too well-informed and cautious to go very far with the other physically addicting drugs like barbiturates or heroin. I easily turned my back on the wild and epic journeys of acid, mescaline and psilosybin, when I had traveled quite far enough. The glowing self-confidence of cocaine and the stumbling numbness of red red wine included such awful corollaries that I quickly ran and never even looked back.  Most of my peers had similar experiences. But too too many, in denial of the dark sides connected to those appealing substances, needed to hit the wall before they could understand and escape. But still, for myself, like so many of us, the comforting and quiet euphoria of cannabis has persisted. Just like the evening cocktail, the soothing glass of wine, and the welcome jolt of cappuccino does for most of us Americans, the communal sharing of our peace pipes is a positive and harmless ritual.

I have often smoked every day, and often not smoked for weeks. I have felt no compulsion, never the constant cravings of tobacco or caffeine, never the throbbing willful battles with addiction. In fact, after I quit smoking cigarettes, one of my most difficult challenges was what to do to finish off a meal. Without the ritual cigarette I had trouble with stopping my eating, and so began to smoke a joint of low grade leaves after every meal, to salve the habit. But despite my love and commitment to the weed, the way getting high at times when I would rather not have been high, actually and automatically broke me of the habit of smoking after I ate, without my even noticing.

Now though, I face a challenge, as my three sons began to smoke cannabis as well, apparently, like most of their friends, smoking in secret. A great many of my adult, invariably boomer, friends still smoke occasionally, or condone it in their friends or mates. My wife no longer does, nor does my sister, we have many friends who just stopped, a few who fought back obsession with it, but they are so rare, and were often struggling with whole suites of substances. Sadly, almost all of us, faced with DARE and SANE and Just Say No as ubiquitous forces in our children’s lives, have hidden it from the kids, have felt compelled by social grace and mortal fear to support the avid witch hunt that they have enlisted our children in. Many of us have looked back on the beer busting, coke crazing, or tripping to the edge, with remorse, most of us have lost friends to the crack pipe, the needle, or a couple-o-toots in the fast lane. And so most boomers have given the appearance of falling into line, delivering the same stupid and dangerous drug-free message that big brother has demanded of all citizens in his self-proclaimed war to save our souls.  The rhetoric has been so broad, and the misery of abuse so clear and so painful, that most of us have fallen in.

But the children are not as stupid as they think. Just like we had done before them, they have seen through the well-meaning lies and denial, and in a horrible vacuum of the truth that we who know so well have assented to hide, they have made the same foolish leap of logic that they can little hope to avoid in their ignorance. If we say “all drugs are bad, they will only hurt you,” and then they see and meet and use drugs that do not seem to hurt, that seem to help, drugs that reduce the crushing anxiety and stress of modern urban life, drugs that make them run faster, jump higher, drugs that make them feel just swell; then that egg metaphor, however clever, is made a lie, which tragically tends to makes the opposite seem true.

But there is an even worse lie, a much broader one that we boomer ex-hippies should know all too well. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a drug-free society. Pepsi is a drug, raspberry leaves are a drug, nitrogen is a drug, oxygen is a drug, tobacco is a drug, white wine is a drug, chocolate is a drug, cocaine is a drug, heroin is a drug, lacquer thinner is a drug, Xylene is a drug, strychnine is a drug, belladonna is a drug. Each of these, and many more, is as much of an individual as are each of us. Each has it own set of benefits and dangers. Each is a little different for each person, some are deadly dangerous, and will leave your brain just like those eggs, some are totally innocuous to one person and deadly to another. I do not want my kids to feel that because the cop who DARED them to live drug-free was a fool, that inhaling the solvent from spray paint is the same as inhaling the smoke from their bong. Those two things are in no way equivalent, and I am angry that someone is out there suggesting to my children that they are. Lumping together the whole panoply of forbidden drugs as acutely dangerous, and the set of legal ones as somehow safe is an absurdity, that while routinely parroted in all quarters of our society, will never fly with the majority of inquisitive adolescents that it is aimed at.

I tell my kids how good cocaine makes one feel and how quickly it can sabotage one’s satisfaction with life. I let them know that it would make them feel strong and happy but not stoned. I let them know that Freud thought it was a wonder drug. I tell them about Conan Doyle’s morbid depression. I explain to them how a friend locked herself in her house for 6 months and thought everyone was out to get her. I make sure they know that for as good as they may feel going up, they’ll feel that must worse, times 3, going down. I explain that crack, coke and freebase are essentially the same drug, worshipped and used practically by the Incas for thousands of years. The kids who can remember her, know that their grandmother’s terminal lung cancer, was caused by her smoking. I point out how every adult I know who smokes cigarettes is desperate to quit, how powerful the addicting effects of nicotine are, and how there are dozens of smoking-related diseases, and thousands of smoking-related deaths. I let them know that ethanol is the active ingredient in beer as well as vodka, and how it destroys brain and liver cells, and fogs your judgment and coordination, how 1/3 to 1/2 of traffic accidents, suicides and murders happen under the inhibition of alcohol, how addicting it can be and how one can die in the grip of the convulsive withdrawal or overdose. I tell them that for many people a few drinks is the only way they can release their inhibitions enough to find the intimacy necessary to fall in love, and how it can reduce the risk of heart disease. I talk about how marijuana makes you apathetic, and the effect it has on short-term memory, but how it helps improve appetite and reduces stress. I tell them how coming down off the caffeine in a couple of sodas or cups of teas can make them paranoid and ill-tempered, just like coming down off of speed or cocaine, and how Xylene can wipe out countless neurons in their brains. I explain how hyperventilating can cause potentially fatal blackouts, and how chocolate can make you hyperactive mostly from the caffeine and not the sugar, how kicking heroin is like a very bad case of the flu, and how gentle it is on ones cells, but how powerful the addiction can be. How over 100 ft. below the ocean, the N2 that makes up 70% of our air becomes narcotic, and how replacing it with helium which is completely chemically inert makes your vocal cords vibrate more quickly so you sound like a chipmunk, but don’t get high. All this and more, all truths and all, too too sadly, hard to come by.

Now my sons smoke my father’s pipe, and I smoke it with them. I tease and criticize them for stuporous afternoons with their bongs and Nintendo, and dare them to give it up for a week. I wont let them drive if they’ve drunk, give them a cup of coffee in the morning if they’ve stayed up late to study, warn them about the crash, scold them for the attitude when they do, and apologize when I do. I am in this with them and I hold my own life, my own regrets, my own triumphs and defeats out in front of them, and we analyze them together. Drugs are a fact of adult life, learning to use them responsibly and in moderation, is a vital task for most young adults. We all seem to know that kids will do as we do and not as we say. We all know that we model our behavior on our fellow members of society, but in this dangerous and important realm, we seem to insist on obscuring the truth of our society’s ubiquitous and generally moderate use of drugs. We leave the kids in a vacuum with only other kids to model, and bombard them with commercial images of romanticized alcohol (read DRUG) use, and then wring our hands and make louder speeches when we finally reap a generation that we have condemned to struggle alone in ignorance with their inevitable drug use. I will not abandon my children to these falsehoods.
 

I cannot imagine not sharing my drug use with my kids, I cannot imagine joining in the confusing lie that I see driving so many of their friends into ignorant abuse. I love them too much to not spare them the pain my parents helped me avoid.

Canoeboy

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

canoeboy1

Building that canoe was one of the most profound experiences of my long life. I built it from nothing but junk at Burning Man in 2002 which was my 5th year out there. I didn’t even have the idea to make it until I was about half way through the 14 hour drive from LA to the vast Black Rock Desert.

It turned out to be one sweet ride. The theme that year was The Floating World, the best one for boat cars I think, as the playa feels so much like the ocean msot of the time anyway – although Larry, the one of founders who picks the themes, meant it more like transcendence, but the rabble took it more to mean pirates. Arrgh!

My first day on the playa that year happened to also be my dear darling daughter’s first day at Vassar. With my youngest out of the nest, and at my ex’s insistence, my last call before I fell off the default world and into the isolated sea of the playa, was to my realtor to finalize the listing of the houses (the Quiet House and the Noisy House) I had built with my own hands 10 years before. I had heaped my little pick-up truck impossible high with a huge pile of flotsam left over from various sets and gags I had built over the years in my work as a production designer, and which I had stored on our property – soon to be someone else’s.

I was utterly lost in grief and wept most of the way up I-5, doing mental R&D of what sort of vehicle I might be able to cobble together from the random junk in the bed of my truck to take my mind off the loss and sadness. I had also brought as many of my crazy-vast selection of tools as would fit, and so the very first thing I did after I arrived on the playa was to build a shop, mostly out of a gold and silver painted set I had built for the Local Emmy Awards show. I had been designing the shop in my head as well, and in just a couple of hours, I had a pretty great little scene, that ended up becoming the service station for several dozen art cars that year.

shop 1

I hung up the blue prints from my Noisy House, and the Little Mermaid poster my daughter had hung on our bathroom door, and started covering them with wistful tear-stained remembrances and prayers: “Fly high little bird”, “Stand tall old friend”, sappy shit like that.

And then I started digging and building, cutting and welding obsessively, sobbing, cursing, bleeding, and just work, work, working for four days. 14 hours, 18 hours a day I worked, I slept, I worked, hacking that crazy canoe car together. There is a zen saying, “chop wood, carry water” that is one of the primary touchstones of my mental health, so I chopped and carried my ass off.

It ended up with three different sized wheels, an air cleaner made our of a water bottle, the stuffing from a sleeping bag and a tee-shirt sleeve, a juice can for a muffler, and running lights based on the inland water’s rules of the road.

I was somewhat amazed at how beautiful the chassis was when I got it all finished, I hadn’t even had to damage the canoe, which remained seaworthy, and was excited to take it out for a ride, but the damned motor wouldn’t start, would just not start. It had been running when, 25 years before, I had crashed the motorcycle it came from, so I had expected it to run, and spent a half a day checking and rechecking all its components.

I finally guessed that its piston rings were probably stuck, and the only way to get it to run, would be to tear it completely apart. So there in the dirt and the desert, a hundred miles from any parts, I tore it down. The rings were indeed stuck and so for two hours, with a can of WD 40, my swiss army knife and some brandy for solvent, I pick and poked at the fragile little things, until I got them free. I cleaned it all up with the brandy, made a gasket out of some paper towels and silicone seal, and put it back together.

It ran like a top and was a completely surprising delight to drive, it would go 35 mph and you could throw the tiller over and it would cough up a rooster tail of playa dust and scream off in the opposite direction. But it also could idle along at a walking pace among a crowd on the Esplanade. I steered just like a boat with a big caster as a tail wheel, and could even carry a couple of passengers. Somehow, what was just a rudely hacked together pile of junk, had ended up an amazingly sublime, and completely elegant and functional canoe car.

canoe drive

After my first ride across the playa to the other side of town (it was by now Friday night and Black Rock City was in full swing) my spirit was utterly released, I was in that floating world, flying across a sea of dust. My grief had been completely choked-off by the pain, fatigue and thrill of those four days that I had been channeling MacGuyver and Charles Eames. I was Manic, proud and paddling along, far above the world that I had known before that evening

Two guys who had been stopping by my shop watching me build it and had money on it whether it would ever run. The older guy said I had a shot, the younger said no way. Dozens of folks had tried to reassure me or dissuade me, telling me how hard it is to get anything to work out there, how guys who spend weeks working in town before they come out, couldn’t get their stuff to work. They were well-meaning I guess, all trying to save this poor Sisyphus who was covered in grease and burns and cuts from a fool’s errand.

When the older guy won his bet and returned after taking a drive, his eyes were bright, wide and leaking tears. “Awesome, just fucking awesome.” he gasped as he gave me a huge hug. As the de riguer at Burning Man, he went back to his bike to retrieve some gift schwag, and returned with, of all things, a stainless steel vaginal speculum. He winked, used it to make an animated duck mouth and said “The ladies love it” (in his dreams.)

The rule with Mutated Vehicles is that they should serve the community, and so one is expected to give folks rides, as did many times. One couple who I had happened to give rides to a number of times, and who had come back to the playa to end a relationship that had started there, finally gave me two Viagra as their gift. Guess they didn’t need them anymore. But, WTF, celibate guy awash in grief and broken hearts having his nose rubbed in forgotten lust. It felt like ironic fate as just the appropriately surreal frosting on my floating cake.

On Monday, with the city mostly empty and all the big burns now finished, as I began to approach the difficult task of tearing down my shop, I decided to make one last naked, high-speed run out along the trash fence in the deep playa. I was descending and trying, in my speeding canoe, to stay aloft in that floating world a little longer. I crouched down to streamline, wound out the little motor, reaching over to richen up the mix a bit, trying to see, on her final voyage just what she had in her. At about 40 mph, I hit a little dune, got crossed up and airborne, and was pitched out onto the playa.

As I lay there in the dust, my startled fear slowly changed to profound satisfaction, and I just laid there on the playa in the sun, grinning, filthy, joyful, and stunned in appreciation at the near absence of any sense of grief or loss in that moment. Just soaking in the sun and feeling the warm earth on my back, I suddenly had this wacky vision of myself dancing around my burning shop, naked with a raging hard-on.

I am a fat man, fatter then than now, and not especially filled with a positive body image, so this vision seemed particularly absurd to me, particularly unthinkable. But then I thought, fuck, this is Burning Man, I really could dance around my burning shop naked with a raging hard on, and the thought, just the thought of it, blew my mind, and between it and the triumph of that canoe, I felt more certain, sure of myself, than I think I have ever been at any other moment in my life

So I righted my dear little canoe, and headed back to my shop. As I had never done before, I didn’t put my clothes back on as I reentered the mostly deserted city, and still naked, tore down my shop, and took the blue prints, Ariel in her castle, the silver walls and all rest, and hauled it out where I piled it on top of the ashes of a boat some folks from the Netherlands had burned the night before.

I had always planned to burn the shop, and so had invited some folks, the Viagra couple among them, to come see my old life go up in smoke. As the sun set, I downed both of those viagra with a shot of tequila someone in the neighboring camp had, and when it was finally dark, went back out to the burn site. In front of a 20 or so friends and strangers, I poured gas on the pile and set it ablaze. I did not get hard and I did not dance, but I did cry my eyes out and get some of the warmest and most sincere hugs I had ever gotten from my artist friends. When it was in full flagration, I tossed in that stupid speculum.

canoestern tilted

The Quiet House and the Noisy House

February 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

Metropolitan Home, Feb. 1992

Metropolitan Home, Feb. 1992.

When our family began, she had two sons, I one. They were just out of preschool when we married. One more, a strong intelligent little girl, and there were six of us. A small family by our grandparent’s standards, but enormous by our peers’. We struggled together to make our blended family thrive. The boys, confused and angered by the destruction of their once cherished nuclear families, were often in conflict. It sometimes seemed as though everyone resented everyone’s relationship with everyone else. All this was always crammed into too-tiny homes – first a cute 900 sq. ft. house in a marginal neighborhood near downtown LA, all three boys sharing one of the two 100 sq. ft. bedrooms, and our tiny daughter sharing our bed in the other. Then, boldly, we moved to a smaller 600 sq. ft. house in rustic and idyllic Topanga Canyon. The three boys shared one 8 x 15 ft. detached studio: a constant and amazing pit of chaos. Privacy was a luxury that seemed reserved to the rich.

We began to know that our home was a powerful metaphor for our shared lives, and that we must find a physical habitat that contained spaces and forms that would support and nurture each of us. We continued to look for this home. We were totally hooked on the wonderful small-townesque community in the Santa Monica mountains, and determined to stay. But real estate prices were skyrocketing as it became fiscally related to its neighboring communities of Pacific Palisades and Malibu. 3 and 4 bedroom houses, rare in the cabin-littered canyon, cost much more than we could afford. So we gave up.

Then tragically, my mother died, but left me with a large life insurance benefit. We began our search again in the now more-inflated market, only to be discouraged by the dearth of suitable homes within even our swelled budget.  Finding nothing that we could afford that even came close to meeting our needs, we began to look at vacant land, and began to design our home.

Friends, architects, builders all advised us not to buy raw land. Everyone warned us of the nightmares of the bureaucratic labyrinth involved in building a house. But this “House” had become not only a metaphor for the potential structure of our family, it had become a model for that structure, and it became clear to me that it must conversely be modeled on what I knew we needed our family to become. So despite the precipitous logistics of such a project, we leapt.

My wife and I had phenomenally different experiences of childhood, and very different expectations of our new home. I felt that being together in one space, even at different tasks, always available to each other, builds a sense of unity and support that our family needed. I felt a need for an airy, open plan with texture and room for the chaos that our number, and my eclectic interests, always seemed to generate. I thrive in such over-stimulated, disorderly environments, where I may move easily from one activity to another. My wife, on the other hand, felt a strong need for a refuge from such chaos. She had always craved a calm, aesthetic space, orderly and soothing to the nerves. And unfortunately, with six of us in a small house, this was a need she was rarely able to satisfy. As for the boys, they were nearing puberty, and were disturbed by their lack of privacy. They were discovering their autonomy, and yet so often their exuberant boyishness would become intolerable inside the house.

We each found ourselves drawn to differing styles as well. I love a practical, industrial, modern look, and my wife enjoyed a more traditional and romantic style. Of course, at times, I too I enjoy a calm space just as she enjoys an active space. We wanted it all. We pleaded and negotiated, cried and argued through different concepts and designs. And while we searched for some land, we continued to close in on our design.

Finally, in a neighborhood with an unusual sense of community, we found two lots, across 8 acres of steep chaparral with a magical seasonal creek, barely enough flat land to build a couple of houses, questionable geology, but what a feeling! It was backed up against the state park at the end of a mile of dusty road, and had a quiet that one thought could no longer be found within a half hour of town. But the smaller, more buildable lot contained the access to the larger lot, and the thought of someone perhaps awfully else buying that lot and traipsing across in front of our house did not fit the model that was beginning to grow. The only solution to this particular site seemed to be to find someone we could live with to buy the second lot. My older sister was the perfect solution, and I was eventually able to persuade her and her husband and young son to come in with us. We purchased both lots, held them together in joint tenancy, and eagerly began to plan our new homes: a little community in the oaks that we knew our mother and father would have loved.

Very soon we realized that the money that was left after the land purchase was just a drop in the development bucket. The geology and soil work was costing thousands, the permit fees were huge, the county asked for more and more geology work – soon almost all of our money was gone. As we were laughed out of one bank after another, it became clear to us that we were in way over our heads. But with so many of us dreaming the same dream, there was almost no way for it not to become real.

As we slowly caressed and coaxed the bureaucracy, we finally began to see the form of our home begin to coalesce. I once had taught at an alternative high school in the Santa Cruz mountains. There was a large communal kitchen and dining room, and classrooms and offices in three other buildings nearby. 14 sleeping domes had been built by the students and scattered around the magnificent 40 acre site. At class, meal or meeting times, the staff and students would walk through the woods to come together in the common spaces. While living there I came to love the way the layout forced me out into the natural world many times each day, and kept me in touch with the seasons, the stars, the weather, and the changing light of the day. I loved the way we each had our own private space, and the way the common spaces felt all the more united for the lack of use-conflict.

This became the model for our little community. Each person with his own separate structure as a bedroom, and a large central common building to serve as kitchen-living-den-family-dining room. Our hilly-open-wooded site was well suited to this idea. Each of us would design his private space, imbuing it with the qualities that his own sensibilities demanded. Each of us would have a refuge, just as family as a greater being would have its refuge. The boys, as well as most of our friends, were a little unsure of the idea of having to go outside to get from one’s bedroom to the kitchen, TV or bathroom, but everyone came to appreciate the autonomy and the contact with the natural world that such a layout provides. Living here, it is almost impossible to overlook a lovely sunset.

As we began to refine our designs with the help of a friend and an architect, we realized that our concept for the layout of the structures clashed with the reality of the building codes in the extremely conservative Los Angeles County Department of Building and Safety. We also discovered the necessity of conforming with certain norms for the purpose of assuring that we would be able to convince a bank to give us the $600 some thousand that would be required to build even modest structures. Compromises with these omnipotent external forces finally resolved into the design of 2 separate structures: the “Quiet House” and the “Noisy House” (I guess we may have to call the boy’s cabins “storage sheds”).

In keeping with our differing needs, my wife designed the Quiet House, and I the Noisy House. The Quiet House has a traditional look that recalls the houses in her native New England, with wood divided light windows and french doors, fan lights above the entry doors, and a peaked roof. The Quiet House contains the master bedroom, which, even though shared with me, was her private space – bearing considerable spiritual importance for her as a sanctuary. Our young daughter, who was only just leaving our bed and discovering the individuation that comes with 7 years old, had a bedroom across the hall. An elegant bathroom with a large tub also joined the large 6 ft. wide hallway, as well as a small office. This hallway opens into the center of a large room. Intentionally the least used of the some 17 rooms we have built, I think of this space as the parlor, but it is most often referred to as the quiet living room. We use this room for more special family dinners and for entertaining, so our nicer dishes and such are stored on open shelves rather than in closed kitchen cabinets, and the kitchen is much like a large wet bar. Beneath this room, down an outside stairway, is a large shop-space/laundry room. This whole house is intended as a sanctuary for all of us, a place to read quietly, talk with friends, take a long hot bath, or just escape the hustle and bustle of family life.

30 ft. to the west, and 2 ft. higher on the same north facing 1.5:1 slope is the Noisy House. The county requires a 15 ft. upslope setback area which, being shielded from the road and the neighbors by the structures and joining the entries of each house makes a large private courtyard of sorts. This area was planned, funds willing, to become a densely landscaped glade with a creek-like lap pool. Starting from this courtyard, 6 ft. wide redwood decks run down the adjacent elevations, and then across the high downslope sides, facing an almost pristine panorama of hills and chaparral.

I designed the Noisy House to be a large communal lodge with a soft but industrial look. The shed roof rises from 13 ft. on the downslope northern elevation to 18 ft. on the upslope courtyard side. Through three 7 x 8 ft. high single light glass french doors, this southern elevation faces the future location of the pool-glade, and, further up the hill, the boys cabins. The roof is supported above a 2 ft. band of glass that completely reveals the open-web trusses from the outside, and a 360 deg. band of sky from the inside. This band of sky was inspired by a common elevator design trick of placing a narrow band of mirror below the ceiling to give a false sense of space to the inevitably confining elevator cars. I have always loved the feel of gymnasiums and lodges, and this detail works very well to give this room the feel of such an enormous space. A 10 ft. deep sleeping loft for visiting friends runs across the east end of the 20 x 40 ft. room, and partially encloses a small windowless room that we call the “theater”. Here, a 4ft. high platform with storage beneath and with two standard double-bed mattresses end-to-end on top, acts as a ruff and tumble giant couch, facing the TV-nintendo-stereo-bookcase wall. This wall, supporting the inward edge of the loft, also backs the stove, refrigerator, and counters of our main family kitchen. The 38 in. counters wrap around into a peninsula that divides the kitchen from the rest of the room. A 30 in. counter starts on the dual height peninsula and wraps the rest of the way around the room to the southern elevation. A rugged 8 x 10 ft. bathroom, cantilevered off the east elevation, is tiled with symmetrical flat stones that we had collected at the beach over the past three years. The copper plumbing, feeding two face-to-face shower heads, is mounted on the surface of each wall. The shower’s sliding glass door exits into what will someday become a small, walled garden-court with a third outside shower head. Also in the noisy bathroom is a urinal, a toilet, and a lavatory molded into a concrete counter, mounted atop a small river-rock wall.

We have tried hard to site and design the houses to handle, passively and cheaply, the fairly radical (by Southern California standards) weather changes that occur in this little valley. We are installing lovely and efficient Jotul wood stoves to be fueled by the grotesque amount of trash wood I generate in my work as a set designer. In the Quiet House, air circulates through high hopper windows in every room. Vaulted ceilings funnel the heat into the peak of the central hallway, where 3 ceiling fans circulate heated air either into the rooms in the winter, or extract it and exhaust it through operable skylights in the summer.

The Noisy House was to have a long deep arbor of Wisteria shading the big, southern-facing doors in the summer, while allowing the winter sun through. The low-E glass in the high clerestory window is protected by a short overhang with four operable 2 x 8 ft. awning windows at the highest point of the house to vent the heat in the summer. Another cast-iron Jotul stove, a white elephant of a coal stove we were able to get a great deal on, will easily heat the single large room – again with ceiling fans helping to either extract or return the heated air to the floor.

My sister’s house is about 100 ft. away in a beautiful ring of oaks. It is a simple and efficient 24 x 24 ft. two story post and beam house with ultra-insulated stressed-skin-panel walls. The house was adapted from an Alex Wade design that would not have conformed to local earthquake standards. The frame was re-engineered, beautifully built, and quickly erected and skinned by Terry Turney of Pacific Post and Beam in San Luis Obispo. The open-plan living room and kitchen are upstairs, and the 3 bedrooms downstairs. In keeping with the fact that cooling is a more difficult problem in our climate, we have rotated the house so that the two-story solar greenhouse now faces almost north. It picks up the beautiful light from the sky and the sunrise, but little heat. Almost all of the huge 6×8 to 6×14 oiled doug fir beams of the frame are exposed inside the house, and we have left the pine 2×6 tongue and groove exposed as the finished floor and ceiling. The house sits so well among the old trees – so much the same scale as them, so much the same stuff.

When we broke ground, we had already been living on the site for the two years it took to get approval from all the necessary agencies. There were nine of us living in our temporary compound that we had built for about $5000, and consisting of: 4 trailers, 5 tents, one tipi, a shipping container and a chemical toilet. My sister and brother-in-law are actors, and together, he and I do motion picture art direction, designing and coordinating set and prop construction. Our work is sporadic, and at the time we got our $600,000 construction loan, all four of us were out of work. My wife and sister both returned to working full time as special ed teachers, while my brother-in-law and I built the houses. The thought of coming home each night to the unalterable realities of someone else’s standards was just intolerable, so we took a year off to oversee the project ourselves. This required that we also borrow the construction loan payments, and that we definitely finish in less than a year. We took everything we had, along with a great deal of what we didn’t have, and committed it to an enormous and terrifying project in the hopes of building a new kind of life for our families.

At each step of the project, from finding buildable land, to permits, to loans, to the actual construction, everyone told us that we were over our heads – and we were. We didn’t have the money, the knowledge, or the skills, and many people, who do have them, fail. But, once we had spent all our money on the land and the development and moved into our camp, I felt that I couldn’t turn back. Never has any project so thoroughly taxed my personal resources: physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. And never has any result been so gratifying. Even though we were not been able to completely finish our houses, we saw a profound effect on our family. Everyone was able to breathe more easily in the spaciousness of this layout, and yet everyone was closer as well. There was room and acceptance for separateness, and space and encouragement for togetherness.

The Coyote Puppies

January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

leaping coyote

The sounds of the wildness all around us slipped freely through the thin canvas walls of our tipi and blended with my dreaming, waking and sleeplessness. The crash of the dead branches, resurrected by the restless wind mingled with the clicking of small stones knocked together as the leaden birds landing in the leaf-littered creek bed. The rolling alert of the first distant, and finally near, dogs barking their warnings, and the night owl, crickets, and frogs all crying out for love.  Into this lullaby of the detailed hum of the machinery of the world, there came a little sound – a new sound.  Lost at first in the quiet roar of these billion lives in dissonant harmony, a cluster of little squeaks and peeps finally crossed the threshold into my awareness.  A bird or a bug I wondered, but as the sound resolved in my perception, I began to know what it was.  Now in my mind’s eye, I envisioned a litter of newborn coyote puppies.  I imagined the special odor of their breath, their bobbing heads and wobbly legs.  Listening carefully to their yelps, I raised and turned my head to get a bead on them.  Over in the thick chaparral, under the sycamores, down in the little meadow, I thought.  As I listened carefully to their yips and grunts, I discerned perhaps five, maybe more, tiny sad and lonely babies, hidden in the bushes, calling and crying for their mommy.  I imagined her off up the hill chasing bunnies desperately; comically hopping and zigzagging through the brush in search of a meal to refill her stretched and sagging teats.  Immersed in the sound of their cries I slowly slipped into sleep.

Their mother or father, perhaps an uncle or cousin, had often seemed like vermin to me, cruel destroyers of the lives of small furry things I loved – kittens, cats, pet rats and rabbits.  I had chased and cursed their wily kin as they robbed me.  But this was their home long before it ever became mine, or any of the other insatiably reckless apes who so many centuries ago had invaded this little valley that was once the coyote’s sovereign dominion.  Like us, they were perched cockily atop a fragile chain of living.  Like us, mindless of the fear of the meek, they impulsively crashed through their lives sending the minions scurrying in terror into their nests and burrows.  And, like me, they were raising their children here, bestowing a concern we seldom feel for ourselves on our beloved and fragile progeny.  Surely they feared me as some vague threat to the well being of their children, just as I felt them a threat to mine.  This commonality of fear and boldness began to make the coyote mother’s babies seem as my own.  The saga of their lives, revealed to me only blindly in the voices of their children, became a wondrous metaphor for my own struggles with the great Entropy.  The strengthening of the puppies’ sweet voices, and the cunning care of their mother was a testament to the majestic will of our shared lives to magically resist the insurmountable and terrifying descent of all existence into the dark silence of oblivion.

Each night, after stripping off my clothes, and diving – skinny dipping into the icy stream that was my bed, I would cherish the short time I spent with my imaginings of the coyote puppies’ epic tale.  Coiled fetally beneath the covers as my body slowly melted a small warm cocoon into the frigid cotton cave, I would carefully tune myself into the frequency of those little calls and would usually, gratefully, find them.  Their plight, timidly shivering as I was, made my own passing chill trivial.  These puppies made me feel thankful for what my friends saw as my impossibly meager bedroom: a frail and drafty cone of canvas that seemed to them so incapable of protecting my family and me from the harsh winter we were having.  Musing at how grateful these wild things that had become my companions would be for even my sparse accommodations, I was always left feeling only contented.

One night the coyote family was up the hill, to the south in the oaks, and then on another, atop the barren ridge.  The canny mother seemed to be moving her brood frequently; some nights close-by, some farther and faint, but every night they grew louder and stronger.  I had thought I had heard five when they were little, but now I was certain that there were only three.  I know how fond the owls are of little warm and fuzzy things, and felt deeply sorry for the hardworking mom as she returned to her children after a hard race with a rabbit or a squirrel to find only four where there had been five – then three.  But now they were too big for the owl, and would themselves torment the rabbit mothers.

Soon the growing puppies sang with voices more like their father might use in his solitary calls. But still, despite their now low adult tones, the almost full grown pups stayed together.  Three voices now, howling, barking and hooting.  I was familiar with the long rhythmic wails of the elders but was surprised by these Young Turk coyotes.  Their songs swung.  They syncopated the yips and threw some growls and gurgles into the bridge as they exuberantly experimented with their new voices together.  As their strong low voices joined the chorus of their kin, my love and concern for them erased any perception I had of their race as vermin.  As spring deepened they began to range far away, and many nights I would be saddened at not being able to enjoy their raucous adolescent recitals.

Then one day, driving home with my 5-year-old daughter, I saw three handsome full-grown coyotes trotting across the road about a half-mile west of our compound.  I looked after them as they rushed down the hill together, and my heart quickened as I thought that these might be my three friends.  “Nini,” I asked, “did you see that?  Three coyotes all together???!!!”  She leapt up onto her knees to look out, but they had already disappeared into the chaparral, and she answered sadly, “No.”  I asked if she too had listened to their wild night-songs, but she hadn’t.  On these icy nights, when the tipi is stretched taut by the frozen dew and feels like fiberglass in the morning, Nini and her mother sleep in a little trailer.  They can’t sleep well in the cold, and I can’t sleep well in the cramped stuffiness of the trailer, so when it freezes we reluctantly separate.  I regret that she, a softhearted lover of tiny things, has not shared these growing pups with me, so I tell her about them.  I tell her about how the mother moved them every night when they were little, how she picked them up in her mouth and hopped through the gullies with them bouncing and dangling limply from her measured bite.  I tell her about the sounds that they made, and I try to imitate them: all the little whines and yips, the baby howls and the teenaged howls.  But my voice is old and rough and I have to apologize for not doing justice to the sweetness of the puppy’s voices.  Then to my joy and amazement she said “Like this?” and proceeded to mimic those little sounds in turn.  The yips, yowls, howls, growls and barks, she reproduced the whole repertoire.  Even though she could not recall having heard them, her tiny voice mimicked theirs so perfectly.  I looked at my child with wonder, and thought again of the mother coyote returning to find one of hers gone. I was overwhelmed by pity for her and by love and gratitude for my own puppy, and her health, wisdom, strength and voice.

Many months later, in the dusty hot grip of summer – when the magic of these communions had long since faded – Nini shouted down to me, from where she was playing some complex dramatic game up on the hill above our compound, “Dad! A big coyote is eating Otto’s dog food!”  Impulsively protective, thoughtless now of a once treasured rapport, I picked up a stone and rudely hurled it with my usual poor aim at this forgotten friend.  Startled by the crash of my rock as it upset a large trash bag full of aluminum cans, the fat coyote scurried away, frightened and perhaps disappointed, into the poison oak above the creek bed.  I looked back toward my daughter and was heart-broken as I suddenly read, in the sorrow in her eyes, the love for the coyote puppies that I had planted, and that she, unlike me, had nurtured into this summer.  I felt ashamed at my violent thoughtless act, and I apologized to Nini for my cruelty.  I think to her, my shame and regret redeemed me.  Her love could forgive me just as it could forgive the coyote bandit.  She wiped away my tears, and hugged me tightly.  “That’s OK daddy,” she replied trying to soothe the pain that she had now read in my eyes, “he was stealing Otto’s food, and that costs a lot! Huh?” I smiled, and nodded, and carried her in my arms back down to the trailer.  Through her simple observation I understood that the coyote had its priorities, and I had mine.  He and I share a rash and selfish side, and this too is an essential part of the vital force that joins us.