Monday, January 28, 2008

School Days (1)

"Good old golden rule days..."--what does that mean anyway? Nuns rapping your knuckles with a ruler? Schoolyard bullies stealing your lunch money? Some sort of Athenian democracy of equals working usefully together? Hard to see how anyone's school experience fits some fine Golden Rule.

And I write as one who pretty much had it easy. We changed schools often (Air Force family), but I knew how to keep quiet among my peers and keep my head down, focussed on homework or tests. I had a quick intelligence, evidently, and a good memory, so doing the work was never a problem. I always made straight A's, only had a couple of fights, played sports with minor success by hustling harder than my skills allowed for, survived a couple of unrequited crushes, etc.

But my lasting school memories are limited, really. I remember my Third/Fourth grade teacher encouraged me to start creative writing. (My first stories were about a Chinese boy so inept with chopsticks he had to invent the fork, and a dumb science fiction parody of television's Dragnet I called "Pla-net"!) And I remember walking home one day through fields where I found a fire starting to spread and, rather than running off to get help, I just brashly beat it out with my quickly-ruined, Davy Crockett fringed leather jacket. That small moment of feeling heroic may have been the highlight of my gradeschool days.

But we kept moving on, so I got to experience the preteen dating mores and general racial attitudes of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955-56, making for a difficult Seventh grade year (see the blog chapter called Two Kings). And then we shipped out to Izmir, Turkey--where my grades were so solid and the school so small that the teachers decided to skip me from Eighth into Ninth instead. I went from being somewhat older for Eighth to being younger than most of the other students. But aside from another fight or two, things and I adapted.

The most interesting events were hints of hard drugs circa 1957--at least one senior, an aspiring Jazz drummer, was toying with marijuana and maybe even heroin--and having to play Turkish highschool teams in soccer and basketball. A local "highschool" guy might mean a 35-year-old, a huge and definitely hardened worker or mechanic, even ex-Army maybe. Us American kids routinely got our shins and asses kicked!

When we moved to Tacoma for my Junior and Senior years, I managed to sidle back into the structure; played intermural sports, held minor student government and/or dance committee jobs, and kept getting good grades. In fact, by the end of school, because Clover Park HS offered some college-level courses worth extra credit, I managed to graduate with a 4.02 grade point. But for some reason, I have blanked out on graduation itself; I think I was number one in the graduating class of 1200 seniors, but I don't remember delivering any valedictorian speech, nor indeed the big event itself...

I'd played the plan-for-college game, so I was accepted to a few spots across the country (even tried for the recently-opened Air Force Academy; didn't make it), but picked Northwestern, in Evanston right by Chicago, because my parents were off to another duty tour elsewhere, and I had relatives nearby in Illinois, in case of any problems. Between a healthy scholarship, family support, student loans, and part-time jobs ranging from kitchen clean-up at a popular campus hangout to an excellent assistant slot with Northwestern's offical events impresario (I got to read/press-clip the New York Times every day and be a "gopher" at all the campus drama and musical events), I managed to last there for the first two, very expensive years (1960-1962).

Then I transferred west to the considerably cheaper University of Washington. At Northwestern I had started with the idea of majoring in Mathematics and Computers (Fortran machine-language and punchcards were the order of business in those days), but quickly found the programming boring and the math daunting. So then I was a general Liberal Arts guy, sort of toying with Languages and Linguistics, until I reached the UW and had to get serious. First it was Political Science with a Latin American focus (I was imagining a career in the diplomatic service), but the gathering storm against America's interference around the world--Guatemala, Chile, the beginnings of Vietnam--coupled with my own lefty-populist ideals, convinced me I couldn't blithely support my government as an embassy worker somewhere.

Also, one rotten PoliSci professor gave me the only C I got in six years of college (B's a couple of times), because I didn't do the extra-credit scrapbook we had been told would NOT count against us, but would instead only boost our grades; well, I had B's at worst on tests, including the final, but wound up with that damned C grade. I was too foolishly proud to do more than squawk to the T.A., but it cost me in the long run, because my final college grade point was one tiny percentage away from Summa cum Laude, and a B would have put me in. (On the other hand, aside from pride, I really never did put much stock in grades or I.Q. numbers; so I got A's, was 139 or something, did great on College Boards--did any of it make me a better man or someone better able to cope with the changes/problems in life? I don't think so.)

So I switched to a major in Spanish for a couple of quarters, for no good reason except the courses I had taken, until I realized I really didn't want to teach Spanish somewhere--which was the only job I could imagine in my naive, anti-entrepreneurial way... "Go into business? Never." Suddenly I was facing the Senior year with no plan or major. The only thing I could think to do was fall back on what I had always enjoyed doing, reading and writing. I shifted straight into English Literature, took solid English courses for the next four quarters, and graduated with a B.A. in Lit in August of 1964.

"Now what?" I thought.

((The answer comes next time.))

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Local Habitation

"A picture is worth a thousand words"; a typical cliche with much truth beneath the gloss. As one who has made his living as a writer, I have to agree that the attempt to describe something accurately--rather than partially evoking it, let's say--is a tricky business; what empirical details are needed? can the words actually match the image? how much needs to be said (written, that is)? a thousand words, really?

What I have always valued is the idea that "less is more," fewer but right words, and one's individual imagination, believing that our internal images are stronger than the actual visualization. I cherish the listening experience, for example, be that music, information on the radio, or people conversing, whether to me or to someone else--eavesdropping, yes. Yet I do love movies, and seeing the world, and a beautiful face or body. (This blog is called "I Witness" for a reason. It's not only eyes doing the witnessing.)

And so we come back to pictures, whether great art or simple snapshot photography. From early master Jacques Henri Lartigue to Life Magazine's David Douglas Duncan, from the many W.P.A. photogs to, yes, Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz and scores more, I have found pleasure and fascination in, mostly, black-and-white photography.

Yet I am a word man. Only rarely do I ever place my own hand on a camera, depending instead on powers of observation and memory and description to do the job. During that 19-month trip around the world, for example, I took no camera, vowing instead to recount the experiences in a journal and poems instead. Well, you win some, you lose some, and some get rained out... as another cliche puts it. Much of the journal bogs down in insignificant details, not to mention the occasional banalities. And the poems? Well, just be glad I'm posting--slowly, please note--only a dozen or so drawn from those two years of travel.

Like most poets, a verbal test I have enjoyed occasionally is the attempt to render some striking painting or photograph in words. English poet Charles Tomlinson is one master at that (he was a painter as well), and W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop were others who succeeded. This posting today presents a pair of my own attempts linked to favorite photos by Kertesz (begging the question slightly, I am showing his photos too).

Kertesz loved unexpected perceptions: architectural details, patterns found, people in odd moments, often viewed from skewed angles (from a hotal room looking out and down was a favorite). His photos are art; my poems are mere pastiche, but possibly amusing. See how many of my words it takes to "give to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name..."

Kertesz: Two Photos

I. “Disappearing Act”

See where the partial man ascends to nowhere,
Bare legs and baggy shorts cut off in mid-air
By massive beams, broad horizontal stripes.
Vertical bar-like wires, supporting steps
Dangling in space, enclose him in a prison,
Sentenced to higher climbs. Whatever season
He’s risen in, the background verge shows scrub
And sand, tideland and piers beyond, a drab
Seaside community in haze; he could be
In Queensland, the Camargue, or close to Kitty
Hawk. That it’s “New York, 1955”
Seems apt, a site no harder to believe
Than this image magique, with printed contrast
So bright the air and house above are one vast
Field of off-white, with lines precisely squared:
Magritte reworked by Mondrian. But where
His head should be, a block of mirror, window,
Or trick exposure renders man a Hindu
Fakir vanishing up his rope of stairs
To graphic truth: in time, one disappears.

II. “Rainy Day”

“Tokyo, 1968”: umbrellas,
from above, across
a gray curve of street as mirror-dull as
a river embossed
by flooding; twelve well-suited businessmen
on parade, in rain,
herded, hurrying, reflecting but un-
thinking--a dozen
open brollies obviously no more
au courant than one,
here in the land of the rising water.
Oblivious, thus,
to the yen for P.T. Barnum’s patter,
these damp gentlemen
yet follow a bright-painted, quite non-Zen-
sical white arrow:
“This way to, not Progress, but the Egress.”

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King

Honoring today's celebration of Martin Luther King and all that he and the other Civil Rights heroes stood for, I commend to your attention my early blog postings dated 5/18/07 (Two Kings) and 6/23/07 (A Road the Dust Blows Over). I'd rather offer musical riffs than political posturing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Venus Reborn

Feeling the pressure of new year necessities, so today I've decided to return to the saga of Down Under, 1986 (see two previous entries)...

When I got back to Sydney from the West of Australia, my love and soon-to-be-fiancee Sandie arrived for a two-week reunion as we sought to determine whether we were a couple that could survive lengthy separations (yes, we were) and whether we could travel together (we could and did, with Sandie rejoining me in Europe a few months later, for another lucky 13 months of adventures).

But first we experienced some other parts of Australia. We explored Sydney's galleries and nightlife, for example, flew into the Outback to climb Ayers Rock, and dodged the bats flitting nightly about the town of Cairns--where I bought a brilliant and brilliantly colored t-shirt showing a sort-of swinging bachelor wombat lazing in a hammock, with pen and postcard in hand, and caption reading, "Weather is here. Wish you were beautiful!"

Prior to Cairns, heading northward on the continent's Eastern coast, we had some lovely and solitary days on the beaches of Queensland. The following poem dates from that time, as we enjoyed both weather and our beautiful, reunited selves...

Botticellian Song

Languidly my lady goes,
Accepting what the sea
Bestows, froth of waves
Lapping at her heels, surf
Slapping at the rocks beyond.

The ocean is the bond
Between us here, forgiving
All that we bring each other
For cleansing. Lithe still,
She leans looking down:

The sucking sand absorbs
Each splash of tidal wash,
Reflects her peering face
And the flash of naked
Limbs scissoring across

Liquid space—a treasure
Of radiance, and grace
Beyond measuring. She bends,
Hesitating, where the foam
Ends, her hand reaching

Down to mirrored hand
To pluck a scallop shell
Tossed to sand by the roil
And ruck of tumbling water.
O Aphrodite’s daughter,

Child of sea and earth,
I see you rise holding
Out your prize to me,
Birth of Venus reversed.
In your eyes I see myself

Revised: handsomer: a lad
Of golden summer again—
The magic of this beach
After squalling rains
Linking us now, each

To the other, and removing
Age’s stains, here where
The land’s reach falters
And drains, as a woman
Alters, spent after loving.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blasted Outback

((Returning on the Indian-Pacific train, heading back from Perth (this time to dip south for visits to Melbourne and Adelaide), we again had to cross the Nullarbor Plain, again much of it during the night. On the first trip, the train had stopped at a waterhole/non-town named Cook for 40 minutes, but the train cars had been locked tight, so I couldn't get out to view the stars and Halley's Comet. On the return, when we stopped in Cook the second time, I found a door unlocked, so I climbed down and headed away from the lights to look skyward.

I walked out a couple of hundred yards and stared up at the heavens... After several silent minutes I decided I wanted binoculars; I was about to go back for them when I heard... the train already pulling away! Panic-stricken I ran over to and along the moving train, pounding on locked doors and car sides, convinced I was about to be abandoned in the wasteland Outback, just another fool tourist caught short...

The rest of my bonehead experience and what I made of it can be read in the following poem. The Nullarbor piece I had started and put away suddenly had a reason to exist and a, sort of, resolution.))

Nullarbor Plain Song

All day we drive deeper, wheel-shafts
muscling the Outback’s Long Straight
of steel-rail track. Granite disappears,
and red-ochre dirt gives way,
till west of the road north to Alice,
the Indian-Pacific skims limestone
dust like ash: decayed salt-flats
of a Cretaceous seabed upraised.

The annihilated fastness grows
no trees—five hundred miles
of Nullarbor desolation. Yet life
holds hard here, living parched:
scrub grasses grip scorched ground;
salt-bush, myall, and mulga breed
hordes of insects, that lizards may feed
on this sun’s anvil; and predator hawks

hunt gallah and shrike, hammering
day down into night… Past midnight.
Roused by the train’s rude couplings,
I come awake at some battered
watering station—no town, a rough
cluster of tin roofs; most buildings
deserted, but a few housing mates,
Bruces and Sheilas coupled or un-.

The train cools down, waiting. I walk out,
restless, away from the work-lights,
to gaze up at myriad flickerings,
the patterned grid of translucent dark:
unknown creatures, strange constellations;
aboriginals Dreaming their ancestral trails
through nightmares of whitefella creation…
Kangaroos made radioactive. Goannas

that glow in the dark. Wombats mutated
by decades-old bomb-tests… No moon
and no sound. Yet night’s unseen motion.
And somewhere overhead, flashing
fire and ice, Halley’s veiled face. In this
cold, burning universe, where is the omen?
where the heaven-breaking response?
What sense can track the comet

through all its hard foretellings,
or prepare us for some radiant dawn,
past the terror wastes of Maralinga,
in a world of Nullarbor Plains?
Where lies the way out or back…?
No answer. Nothing. I am unused,
the still clapper in this silent,
arching bell of cosmic blackout…

Yet, almost imperceptibly, a faint form
stirs on the horizon of consciousness:
possible… immanent… shimmering…
Shattered by hissing, by the sudden
clack-clack of steel wheels slipping;
and I am panic-running, chasing
the stuttering sleepers, their doors
locked, train rolling faster and

faster, last car passing, going,
and I’m collapsing by the track,
but… a crewman’s hand grabs me—
boosted up and in, adrenalin
jumping, synapses overloaded,
rocketing with the car… as all
the lights go out: rail system
shutdown; braking, to, a… halt.

Perspiring here in starless black,
stalled in Australia’s blasted Outback
on a gone-dead train to nowhere,
now and for the rest of my journey
through these ashes, as terrified
as any ancestor who looked
to the heavens, transfixed
by mystery—and was answered.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Train Time

((The sad demise of American railroads and current sorry state of AmTrak versus some embarrassingly excellent trains still zipping and chugging their way around the world... well, that's a topic on my mind as the year 2008 begins. Everyone complains about airport delays, but friends of mine had passenger train screwups and stuck-on-the-track delays this past year lasting eight and thirteen hours.

True, I've ridden some hellbound trains (more
loco than motive) in Southeastern Europe and Burma, but I can also remember wonderful trips I experienced in decades past--across the Midwest, around New York State, from Chicago to Seattle several times, up and down the West Coast, and so on. These days I wouldn't ride a U.S. long-distance train even if someone else was paying. But line me up with a Eurail Pass, and I am yours for life (or at least the month); what a brilliant way to zip back and forth across the Continent! And that's pretty much a separate matter from the bullet-trains operating with great success in Japan and France. Where would Britain be without the Flying Scotsman and The Great Train Robbery? or France minus the Orient Express and that exciting WWII adventure film simply called The Train (definitely one of Burt Lancaster's best roles)?

Considering our own railroads' significant history--from construction of the Trans-Continental Railway to hobos riding the rods; from beautiful Art Deco travel posters to blues songs like "The Panama Limited" and "Love in Vain"; from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the City of New Orleans, and the Yellow Dog, to the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe; from
North by Northwest and Once Upon a Time in the West to Strangers on a Train and Sunset Limited; from the sad trains transporting Lincoln's body (or the Kennedys more recently) to the victory expresses filled with happy politicos or football fans; from Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers somewhere "Waiting for a Train" to the tragic heroics of John Henry and the engineer of Old No.9; from Gravy Trains and Midnight Specials and certain others "bound for glory," to the "A" Train and "The Golden Rocket" and Elvis riding his "Mystery Train"... well, almost anyone over 30 could list page after page of train lore.

Anyway, I wanted to celebrate trains past and present this time. They used to, and maybe some still do, take you to faraway places and strange folks. There's a famous and remarkable railway that rolls straight across the Outback of Australia, from Sydney to Perth. It's a train I was glad to board; and here's the relevant section from my 1986 around-the-world journal, with most details likely still similar today.))

April 6

The steel wheels are rolling, and the steel rails humming, as the famed "Indian-Pacific" hurtles west. I decided I had to see Perth--and this train--even though it means a three-day trip across the full width of the continent. And even though I'm sharing this roomette with a young virologist from Edmonton, Alberta, who seems a combination of nerd and know-it-all. (He probably dislikes my grumpy taciternity too.)

Spent the morning and early p.m. wandering Sydney's main museum and rambling expanse of park. I learned about the Aboriginals, peculiar flora and fauna Down Under (dangerous spiders, for example), the continent's geological history. Most fun was a film and exhibit on the dubious duck-billed platypus, which I hope to coax into a poem sometime.

So far we've chugged up and over the Blue Mountains, which feature 3000-foot peaks, winding valleys, sharp escarpments, and lots of bush, with the population of Aussies getting scarcer by the mile.

April 7

Dawn. My lands, what we are seeing: burning sky, a lake of dead trees, sheep and cattle stations in flat scrub-growth stretching for miles, a flock of flamingo-like birds in flight (some kind of heron maybe), a herd of kangaroos bouncing away from the onrushing train, and a pack of panicky, bobbing emus. The other early risers around me are burning off camera film at a fierce rate.

Later... We stopped for an hour at Broken Hill, a major mining town (silver, zinc and lead) on the border between Aussie states New South Wales and South Australia. I trudged around in the surprisingly chilly air, admired some interesting turn-of-the-century architecture, little else.

Then on across mostly wasteland, with even the animals tucked away somewhere else. And this was the easy part--the desolate Nullarbor Plain still lies ahead. Another late-afternoon stop gave us a quick taste of Port Pirie, a slightly sleazy seaport a few notches up the southern coast from Adelaide. Otherwise, on and on, into the night. No lights or sign of what's out there, but we'll hit the Nullarbor about 3:30 this morning.

April 8

In the heat of mid-day the Nullarbor seems little more than a dreadful desert plateau--not sand, but rock scrabble, with minimal bits of grass, a few 'roos and emus (seen early morning only), and nothing else. Certainly no trees; thus its Latin-derived name. The plain features one stretch of perfectly straight train-track 478 kilometers long!

Anyway, you look out, see nothing but dusty white plain--no land features; a patch of moisture mirage perhaps. Go 20 kilometers on, look again: exactly the same. Perversely beautiful.

I started a poem during the night. Brief stops and side-shuntlings kept waking me up, so then I tried to sneak outside in mid-Outback to see Halley's Comet. But every door was locked tight. Frustrated, I picked up the pen again.

Later... Ten hours after rolling into the Nullarbor, we finally begin to see taller vegetation and then a few trees again. Some huge hawks, birds called gallahs, scrawny cattle, scrawnier weather-hardened Aussies. Braked to a stop about 6 p.m., in Kalgoorlie, in the gold mining region of Western Australia. With a couple of hours to wait, I walked out "downtown" with my meal-mates, a mother and her two children, bound home to Perth from Melbourne.

But only three kinds of places were open: pubs catering to locals and passers-through; the single still-in-operation gold mine, which runs organized tours timed for this train break; and Kalgoorlie's infamous Egan Street, which offers still-functioning bordellos--quasi-legal, or at least ignored by the authorities. Unfortunately (or do I mean fortunately?) not in walking distance.

I've shelved the Nullarbor poem for now--too gloomy. More useful might be a belated description of some of the characters I've been "training" with: roomie Hans and his sister Marguerite, he thin and with a silly gigolo mustache, she stout and aggressive, both of them staking out the club car, holding forth for hours on end. Another peculiar pair, Arthur and his Mum, are too amazing to ignore--hirsute and stout, a bit bandicoot-like; him shy and lonely and awkward, her whining after him, again and again, "Arthur, Arthur..." More charming, but in a gruff way, are "Athos," "Porthos," and "Aramis," our three Kiwi musketeers, country boys heading for farm jobs near Perth: one skinny, one rock-like, one rotund, and all three spending endless hours guzzling beer and telling incomprehensible jokes.

The Aussie capacity for drink has been well-documented, but in person it is truly, shall we say, staggering. Red-faced men, tiny old ladies, young hellraisers, rowdy "sheilas," all with can after can pyramiding up around them--Foster's and Swan, Emu Export and "XXXX," and "Another round here, mate. No worries!" The train toilets, which flush directly onto the tracks, have left a rather wet trail across the, er, wastes.

April 9 and after

Continuing yesterday's brew-haha, I neglected to mention the outlandish number of pubs and pub-hotels, t-shirts extolling beer-swilling, and even best-selling books that picture drunken Aussies partying, puking, and passing out.

I had a sampling of all those cultural wonders as I wandered the streets of Perth today. A happier city than Sydney, I think--smaller but still quite international in its ethnic mix, its shops and restaurants and arts on display. Located on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Perth is actually closer to Singapore than to many of the cities in Oz... full of stately homes, well-tended parks, burgeoning skyscrapers, lovely suburbs arrayed around the sprawling Swan River Estuary, white-sand beaches leading up and down the coast, sparkling sunshine and bustling energy. Its lively spirit derives from strong regional growth, booming oil fields, the America's Cup Challenge going on at nearby Fremantle, and the land's western vantage looking out on a watery frontier. I could live here for sure: the size is still manageable, the folks' outlook confident.

Everything here feels charged up, like Chicago in the days when Sandburg called it "City of Big Shoulders"--a buzzing, brawling, beautiful chunk of urban excitement. The bus driver yesterday could be both cynical and nostalgic for the old days, the Western Australia of farms and towns he grew up in. But to a newcomer, Perth feels like the future.

This is the edge--the edge of a huge continent, of a wide-open ocean, and of a dangerous blade called Progress. Sydney with its sprawl and Metro trains and busy ferry system runs like a well-oiled machine, a New York not yet out of control, while Perth still struggles, experiments, makes mistakes. But is going for it!

((The train trip back across Australia delivered a strange, one could even say mystical, post-midnight moment, which I'll regale you with next time.))