Day 313 5/4/14: My Pagan Yard Sale

A man at my yard sale held up two DVDs: “Rosemary’s Baby” and “It’s Alive.” The cover of the former features an ominous baby carriage on a hill. In the background Mia Farrow’s dazed and staring face fills the sky. On the other cover  a sharp demon hand dangles over the side of a bassinet.

“Same movie??”

The wispy ghosts of my high school Spanish deserted me.

How could I surmount the language barrier and assert the vast superiority of Polanski’s movie?

“Both demon babies,” I said. “But “Rosemary”  was made first, in 1968. It’s much better. You never see the baby.”

“So..same movie?”

“No different movie. Both Satan’s baby, but different. Different plots.”

“I see. So they are the same.”

All the many years of cultivating my discerning aesthetic seemed irrelevant in the withering heat. I took the dollar he offered for “Rosemary’s Baby,” and watched him reluctantly place “It’s Alive” back in the ripped cardboard box from which it had come.

“Take them both,” I said. “You’ll see.”

Why did I own so many horror films about demon children? Only minutes before I’d watched wistfully as a smiling, very focused man with red sneakers and wisps of white hair wreathing his temples snatched my copy of the 1979’s “The Brood.” At the end of the afternoon, when only the dregs remained, a tall collegiate looking girl rescued Tarot cards from the bottom of a box, and lingered over the books, trying to choose between Famous Statues and Their Stories and The Cat in Ancient Egypt.

She finally decided on the statues.

“There’s a lot of witchy stuff here,” the college girl confided to my friend Deirdre, tugging absently on her U.C. Berkeley lanyard.

She then confessed she was going to cut my 1930s art book up for collages, which struck me as a rather brutal form of creative “magic.”

By the end of the long, unbearably hot day, when my DVDs were mostly gone and a few stray cards from an animal magic divining deck littered the sidewalk, a friendly family arrived.

A young woman who walked with a limp approached me and I showed her the boxes I’d packed up for Goodwill.

“Take anything you want.” 220px-Itsaliveposter-1

“I have a weakness for books,” she said, “I’ll take any books.”

Isn’t it strange how easy it is to feel love for someone you don’t even know?  I gave her the box full of books on art, on love, on witchcraft, old Gothic paperbacks with dry attic-sweet pages, books on movies. She accepted it all with enthusiasm, even wonder. I handed a woman who must have been her mother a pair of 1950s decorative cats, a white 50s ashtray, “Thank you, Thank you….!” I piled each of them high with stories I’d loved or pictures I’d studied or ephemera from the dead I could no longer carry. They didn’t subtly imply that I might be a practicing Satanist, or ask me to explain the fine lines that separated one doomed birth from another. They didn’t inquire why I might be handing off these once-beloved parts of myself to strangers. They just opened their arms in gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Day 310 5/1/14: Facing It

About a month ago I was sitting in a little windowless office at school chatting with my friend and fellow adjunct, Emily.

I was blabbing to her about the end of this blog. How this year I’ve written about all kinds of things outside of sharks, I’ve written about my mother’s life fading and grieving the loss of my father. And even the activism—the petitions signed, the protests and teaching, the Jaws Benefit, all of it seems a bulwark against vanishing. Soon, and finally, I’ll be going on this trip to see the sharks in South Africa.

“I have to see how it all fits together,” I told Emily, “to make a book out of it.”

“Well, going down in the cage is your confrontation with death,” she said.

I know she didn’t just mean I was off on some “extreme” adventure, some chance to stick my head in the maw of oblivion, but my confrontation with all of it.

marysharkI knew this. It seemed both revelatory and obvious. I must have said or written or voiced it before. But why when I heard Emily say it did I feel a weird hush inside me—the kind of sea silence I imagine myself descending into?

 

P.S. I stole this title from a fantastic poem about the Vietnam Veterans Wall by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Day 303 4/25/14: Dracula, Cheever & Me

Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.

When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it  and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:

Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.

****

 Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.

****

 Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.

****

 So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.

****

 In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.

I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with dracula1me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil.  At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.

 

 

 

Day 293 4/15/14: The Way of the Animal Powers

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Revisiting the work of Joseph Campbell, I came across this passage from his book “The Way of the Animal Powers”:

“The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes and gazelles are in cages in our zoos. Man is no longer the newcomer in the world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbors are not wild beasts but other human beings, contending for goods and space on a planet that is whirling without end around the fireball of a star. Neither in body nor in mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and life ways we nevertheless owe the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. Memories of their animal envoys must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.”

 

Day 287 4/9/14: Meditations at Jack Webb’s Grave

Yesterday I fulfilled a longtime dream and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Jack Webb. I am proud to say that we share a birthday (April 2), and although I was a little late, it felt good to sit on the green slope of Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills and reflect on immortality and Dragnet.

An activity like this should always be done with a dear friend, one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1970 “Night School” episode  which, Joe Friday tells us, unfolds on a mythical April 2. While enrolled in a psychology class,  Joe Friday busts a mouthy fellow student when he spies a bag of pot in the pusher’s binder. When traveling to the grave of Jack Webb, one’s companion must understand the pathos of the not quite pink or red or orange cardigan Joe wears to night school or at least possess a passing acquaintance with outdated drug vocabulary, and be able to separate sugar cubes and cartwheels from reds and yellows and rainbows.

I am lucky enough to have such a friend in Connie Pearson.  We passed through the gates of the grand, palatial cemetery and in the Forest Lawn gift shop, I bought a little plastic HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign for $1 and obtained a map from the information desk which led us to Jack’s stark no-frills marker.  Connie and I wrote notes of thanks to Jack, impaled them on the birthday skewer and stuck it in the ground. In the distance on a far away hilltop, we saw a deer grazing on some memorial flowers. Beyond the white statue of Moses in the green semi-wild mountains, we heard the weirdly joyful yips and howls of coyotes.

As I stared into the gorgeous pine boughs overhead branching in seemingly infinite directions, I remembered another tree, one in the infamous “Blueboy” episode. A teenage LSD enthusiast and dealer takes one too many “sugar cubes” paints his face half blue and half yellow, “like an Indian,” and tries to chew bark off a tree.  “My hair’s green,” he proclaims. “I’m a tree!” When Joe Friday and Gannon find him in a park, the young freak has dug a hole in the ground and stuck his entire head in it.

In Los Angeles, meditations on nature often lead straight to the land of pop culture. I remembered a long ago picnic at a sea cave at Leo Carillo beach, an attempt to escape the city. Almost as soon as my boyfriend and I had set our basket down, Geena Davis walked out of the cave in a golden bikini, followed by a photographer from Harper’s Bazaar. Incredibly tall and trim, Geena Davis looked like Venus. Another time preparing for a horseback ride in Malibu Canyon, I met a visibly distraught Jan Michael Vincent. JMV is also a Dragnet alum: see 1967’s “The Grenade” in which the sullen surfer-handsome Jan has acid thrown at him in a movie theatre.

Connie and I talked about how Jack might like this spot in the Sheltering Hills section, with the coyote dens behind him and the 134 Freeway and Warner Brothers studios before him and how he opened each episode with a “This is the city,” mini-narration of 1960s L.A., and how we always wondered how these little anecdotes about the LaBrea Tar Pits or the crowded freeways would inevitably connect with the burden and responsibilities of the badge. We debated ashes vs. burial. We talked about things that had gone—not just the people, but eras and places, whole states of being,  disappearances were harder to trace and difficult to describe in the typical vocabulary of loss. But the hot, still afternoon was too beautiful to feel too sad. Besides, how could we complain when the coyotes and the deer managed to survive on the vanishing margins of wildness? How could we not smarten up with the stern fact of a great man’s mortality written in the ground? So we gave our thanks to Jack Webb, walked down the hill, climbed into the car and left to find our place in the story of the city. Image

Day 286 4/8/14: Shark Gods & The Drought of Dreams

“I’ve kept a diary, writing in it virtually every day, since 1976; beginning on November 30, 2012, I started keeping instead a series of ‘Trance Notebooks,’ as a way to transform my journal into a higher pitch of ceremony, an occasion for intensified, unmoored consciousness. Now I’m distilling the results into a sequence of assemblages….”


–Wayne Koestenbaum

I love Wayne Koestenbaum, and I love the idea of transforming the records one has kept of one’s life into something larger, stranger, full of new possibilities, a way to lead multiple existences.

I have piles and piles of journals I have kept since 1980, and I want to do something inventive with them. I had an idea that I would pick a representative sentence or two from each year and then throw all the journals away. I don’t think I have summoned the courage to do this yet, although I like the idea of only a few words like gossamer threads connecting me to the blurred past.

This morning, I began sorting through this random pile of thrift store ledgers, Barnes & Noble blank books, etc.

The volumes in which I recorded my dreams are even more difficult to part with than the books that contain transcriptions of my waking life.

Here’s a shark dream from 1999:

Walking down a crowded private beach in Malibu with a guy I didn’t really know, I spotted a dead whale in the shallow water.

Though the size of a sperm whale, the flesh was black and white like an Orca.

I pointed and announced the obvious.

“Oh, look! A beached whale.”

We waded out into the shallows to take a closer look. Up close, we discovered that although the body of the whale was real, the insides had been hollowed out and converted into a research station.

“Why doesn’t it smell?” I asked.

My friend ran his hand over the whale. “It appears to be covered in some kind of shellac.”

The whale rocked a little. “A great white is feeding on the underside,” he said.

No sooner had he made this observation, than the great white shark rose from the shallows and turned into a man.

At that moment in the dream, I recalled another dream I’d had in high school in which a dolphin sped from the open sea into the tidal break where he turned into a gorgeous Greek God type—sleek and chiseled.

However, this shark-man was no Adonis, but a grinning, buck-toothed flower child with long hair, a headband with a daisy stuck in it, and a frock over his pants—basically a hippie from central casting.

We became friends.

I wondered if his sudden transformation was a kind of omen, if it meant that other sharks might come.

Sometimes sitting next to him in the research station inside the whale’s body, I’d notice from the corner of my eye that his head had turned back into a shark’s head with grinning, crooked teeth.

Eventually, my companion and I had to leave the beach, return to our inland lives, and my hippie changeling slipped back into the water and returned to his shark form as my dolphin-man had done so many years ago.

But my nameless companion and I never forgot the shark-man. In the company of friends, in the post-dinner warmth of a kitchen, as one of us dried the dishes the other might tell the story. There was always laughter, always disbelief, but we’d quietly assert the reality of what we’d seen.

“No,” we’d say. “He was real. Right out of the water. A shark, then a man, then a shark again.”

There is probably an ancient story somewhere that explains the pull of original form, the inability of the animal spirit to stay in the human body for a prolonged period of time. And that’s why I love dreaming. We get to participate in stories beyond the bounds of our memory, stories that are somehow also our birthright, our very nature. We know them without understanding them. We filter myths through weird pop culture images.

Is it any wonder during this prolonged drought of dreams, that I feel somehow less human, less animal, less alive?

 

 

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Day 276 3/29/14: Waiting for the Dead

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Waiting for the Dead

Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain

wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,

assuring no revelation

spilled past the allotted hour.

He held my right wrist and traced

two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.

“You have the ability to transgress boundaries

and enter the world of the dead.”

This I already knew.

The paths inscribed in the body

mirror those I walk in the wooded past—

trails marked with faded red ribbons

blurred by rotting and growing.

I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,

the crude warnings nailed to trees,

the collapsed wedding altar.

But where are the dead?

Should I watch for them

in wilderness

or  feel them

rise and fall in every step?

I hear that the dead often appear

just beyond the borders.

So I follow the cold stone walls

up and down the leaf-strewn hills.

Once I dreamed that they wait for us

at places of transition—the parting of two roads

or the benches of lonely depots.

I remain alert when traveling alone.

They’re attracted to still, late hours

and fragments of their bright voices can be heard

fleeting transmissions

in moments of our greatest joy.

But most often the dead enter through sorrow

that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees

in a forest of undeciphered lines,

of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.

(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)

Day 256 3/8/14: The Song Hospital (Pt.2)

“Bring your song to the Song Hospital.” I found the ad at the back of a 1940s magazine on amateur photography, one of many other ads offering the services of “song doctors.” I’d obviously heard the term “script doctor” but song doctor had such poetic possibilities—it made me wonder if songs had the potential to be broken, injured and healed.

This morning I woke up hearing “Save it For Later” in my head and I remembered another album I played and re-played to the point of physical destruction. Not even the most talented song doctors in the nation could have saved this record.

In 1982, my mother and brother and I moved to Ojai, California from a little town in Massachusetts. Everything felt exotic to me, the orange groves across the street, the huge mountains and that summer’s baking heat so different from New England humidity. The heat melted the tapered candles in their very colonial looking candlesticks, until they began to softly droop. School hadn’t started. I stayed inside the shady and cavernous living room, watching Twilight Zone episodes and at night listening to records.

I played Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” endlessly that summer. Moody and spare, the music did not match Ojai’ s pink mountain sunsets and horse ranches and oak groves. Each time I played the record again, my brother would groan and blast “Sex Bomb,” by Flipper to obliterate “Nebraska’s” harmonica, its mournful evocation of Midwest interstates, of killers, war veterans and state troopers:

Me and Frankie laughing and drinking

Nothing feels better than blood on blood

Taking turns dancing with Marie

While the band played Night of the Johnstown Flood

Even when I wasn’t playing “Nebraska,” it played in my head. I had an orange cat named Vincent. Late one afternoon I found his body by the side of the road. I wasn’t sure how he’d died, but I decided not to burden my mother with the news right away. So I buried Vincent in the overgrown backyard, thinking as I wielded the shovel that digging a grave by moonlight, did feel like something out of the black and white world of “Nebraska,” that I’d finally begun to live the songs that until then I’d merely memorized:

Everything dies baby that’s a fact

Maybe everything that dies someday comes back

By September, “Nebraska” became unplayable. The two sides somehow merged, melting into each other until the songs spoke to one another in an avant-garde dialogue.

I took a strange pride in this, as if I’d taken music to some new extreme, the frontier of teenage loyalty. I’d passed into the grooves themselves.

I’m not so reverent, so fanatical anymore, but as a writer music remains to me a vital companion. To evoke a particular mood right, I do what so many writers do. I play the same song over and over. And I am amazed at how durable these songs are, how long the spell can be stretched out without losing its power, how a good song can reach into so many different directions at once, each of which is true—a love song is an otherworldly invocation of the next world and a world-weary reflection about being a cocaine-fueled rock star all at the same time.

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold

With a head full of snow

With a head full of snow

If I listen to “Moonlight Mile,” by the Rolling Stones, I exist at once in two places: the actual road I am trying to evoke on the page, a blue road in the country, that I’ve walked many times and another road where the dead travel, one that seems familiar beyond memory. As long as the song is playing, I can see both roads, blurring and vanishing into each other, and I am rooted to the ground, echoing in the emptiness of the air.

Day 255 3/7/14: The Song Hospital (Pt. 1)

I’ve been listening to the same song for three days. No news. No movies. Nothing. Just one song. In my car. In my apartment. I want to see what lies beyond the fog of the too familiar, beyond the edge of boredom. Can a song heard so many times become new again? Will the ending sound less wistful when I know it’s going to start again for the fortieth time?

The song is “Save it For Later” by the English Beat. In the 80s, I kept a radio vigil for it, along with “Talk of the Town,” by The Pretenders. I saw the English Beat perform it at “New Wave Day” at the US Festival in 1982, the same day I saw the Clash and A Flock of Seagulls. It had been a long hot day of rock in San Bernadino, but when the English Beat came out, all skinny and New Wave, I felt reborn.

***

The song is fast. The unfolding spell of memory is slow. It’s the summer of 1983 and I’m in the country, at my father’s house waiting for a letter. I can feel the cold grass under my feet. When I hear a car on the road I shade my eyes with a biography of Keith Moon and look out toward the mailbox. The song won’t give me any more than that. Just a loop. Sun and cold grass. Keith Moon. Waiting.

***

 I’ve heard it 100 times and there are still lines I cannot decipher: “My seven seas are rotten through? The seven seas I’m walking through?” But I’m afraid to look up the words. If I know the muddled parts, maybe I’ll lose the grass and sun and whatever feeling rushed through me years ago when I waited for the song, for the letter to set me free.

***

When my father drank too much, he played songs over and over. As a child, I once played “Yellow Submarine” about 35 times at his request.  But my father shattered this record one summer when he played “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger fifty times in a row. In the line “deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out,” Bob Seger had effortlessly channeled my father’s daily struggle at the typewriter banging out stories about ax murderers and Boston politicians, about defrocked priests and lady blacksmiths. Combined with the potent melancholy of “drifters days” and “seeking shelter” “Against the Wind” conjured a spell against which my father was powerless.

I could do nothing but sit with him at the bar he’d created off the kitchen, under the genuine wagon wheel lights, and dime store dream catchers drinking cold well water and listening to “Against the Wind,” until some of my cynicism melted. Upstairs, I slid into a creaky bed in a room cluttered with newspapers all of which contained my father’s stories.

I guess I lost my way, oh so many roads….

Each time I came home, I cut some of the stories out of those papers. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t find the crooked scissors I usually used to excise his words from the dry bulk of the Boston Herald. I heard the shuffling of slippers downstairs. I could hear my father cough and open the cupboards rooting around for crackers.

 

I’m older now and still running

 

I listened and somewhere in that slim fragment of darkness, waiting for the song to begin again, I felt the interminable open out into something vast and tender.

***

I’m 17. “Save it For Later” comes on at the Halloween party where I am dressed as a slutty vampire, my hair electrified with Dippity-Do. The guy I’m with is 24. He’s embarrassed to be at a high school party. I sit on the edge of the chair where he’s sitting.  Cold saliva pools around my fake fangs. I rest my hand on his shoulder, in silent rapture. When the song is over, we’ll go into my friend’s room, but not a moment before.

 At the moment Ranking Roger sings Don’t bother trying to explain…Just hold my hand while I come to a decision on it

I want to hold his hand. To see if he notices.  To see if I can finally match song with world.

Day 251 3/3/14: “When There Were Ghosts”

popcorn18If you like poetry, sign up for the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day e-mail. It’s pretty great. I loved today’s poem by Albert Rios. It reminded me of the first time I saw “Jaws” and how all the cigarette smoke rose from the front row creating wraiths of fog around the screen.

When There Were Ghosts

On the Mexico side in the 1950s and 60s,

There were movie houses everywhere

And for the longest time people could smoke

As they pleased in the comfort of the theaters.

The smoke rose and the movie told itself

On the screen and in the air both,

The projection caught a little

In the wavering mist of the cigarettes.

In this way, every story was two stories

And every character lived near its ghost.

Looking up we knew what would happen next

Before it did, as if it the movie were dreaming

Itself, and we were part of it, part of the plot

Itself, and not just the audience.

And in that dream the actors’ faces bent

A little, hard to make out exactly in the smoke,

So that María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz

Looked a little like my aunt and one of my uncles–

And so they were, and so were we all in the movies,

Which is how I remember it: Popcorn in hand,

Smoke in the air, gum on the floor–

Those Saturday nights, we ourselves

Were the story and the stuff and the stars.

We ourselves were alive in the dance of the dream.