The False Karass is Your Friend

Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the false karass from his masterpiece Cat’s Cradle (1963), has assisted me to understand how things work, and don’t in social events.

Vonnegut’s definition of the false karass, (or granfalloon) is a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. (A karass is a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.)

That Vonnegut, however cynically admits to a divine purpose in his book is remarkable in itself.

How this concept has played out in my life may best be illustrated by two small examples.

When visiting friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina an evening ‘out at the clubs’ was planned. My hosts determined that I should borrow some clothes so as not to look “too American” and thus avoid becoming a target of the pickpockets known to frequent train stations and other gathering places.

Suitably disguised (in a shirt and blue jeans), we set off for the evening. While standing on the platform awaiting a train, I assumed what I thought of as an ‘Argentinian stance’ to better blend with the crowd.

Out of nowhere, a ‘man on the street’ news reporter and camera crew approached me and abruptly thrust a microphone in my face. She urgently asked my opinion on who knows what? I was busted. All I could do was stammer that I didn’t speak Spanish in broken Spanish.

Our best efforts ended up signaling every pickpocket within fifty yards that an illiterate foreigner was primed for fleecing. However, we drew so much attention that anyone with malevolent plans steered clear of our party.

//////

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to a costume birthday party to be held for the American drummer of what was then a prominent English rock ‘n’ roll group. Jane, my date was high school friends with the drummer’s wife. It sounded like it might be fun. Jane always insisted that one of their hits was about her.

I was told the planned theme of the party was for everyone to dress as the ‘minister of a church’. There didn’t seem to be much to that requirement. Having lived in the South, I thought I could do a funny version of a huckster – Southern preacher/snake oil salesman.  I found a loud, plaid, polyester jacket to go with a straw hat, string tie, spats and some other details.

When we arrived at the party, I was chagrined to see everyone dressed in long black robes as ministers of the Church of England. One was dressed in drag as a nun. The theme was in the vein of what Monty Python might do.  It made perfect sense that an English band would play with that theme. I didn’t get the memo.

Of course, everyone ignored me. They didn’t know me and it was a party for a member of a close knit group. I had no standing. A non-entity, I felt as appropriate as a beach toy at a baptism.

Then came the big surprise. Jane’s ex-husband arrived carrying a cheap prop cross and dressed to look like Jesus Christ.

He didn’t dress according to the rules either, but being long-time friends with the group, he got a pass. It annoyed me since I was technically dressed as a minister – perhaps in the uniform of another team, but hey…

I always maintained a standard that if dressed in costume one should try to be ‘in character’. When the ex and I were introduced I mustered up my best Foghorn Leghorn, southern drawl and delivered a line that bordered on ironic genius.

“Ah’ve heard a lot about you but I don’t believe we’ve met.” If he was in character, his graceless portrayal was too subtle for me. I offered my hand to shake but his cross was apparently too cumbersome for him to reciprocate.

And not one seemed to notice the brilliance of my delivery.

The rest of the party has faded from memory. Like many parties, the most interesting moment is when you realize you have no reason to be there.

////

Nowadays I side-step any false karass that looms on the horizon. I have a strong sense of those with whom I am cosmically linked. The evidence is irrefutable.

2015 Faves and Raves

I cannot believe I have been blogging for over a year now, averaging about three posts per month.

My purpose in blogging is to share examples of storytelling or sharing from my own life, by way of example, for those who might be interested in writing a memoir, or for seeing how they might re-capture old memories to share with interested parties.

Below is a short list of some popular posts you may have missed, and some of my favorites which you might find worth revisiting.

My video memoir company, Storyography: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/no-one-can-stop-time-but-hearing-those-stories-again-slows-it-just-a-little/ , is another way to share stories which captures individual performance as part of the storytelling experience and not merely the words shared.

The biggest hit, which surprised me some, was “Mandatory Moon Bathing in Minnesota”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/he-was-naked-as-a-blooming-orchid/

I’m not sure why that one grabbed so much attention over others. Maybe the title intrigued.

Another relative hit was “The Best Cab Driver in Buenos Aires”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/long-may-he-ride/  which describes some of my experiences while working in that charming city.

Some of my posts are more autobiographical than others. Other posts are more opinion oriented. My favorite of these which didn’t get the attention I thought it deserved was “Greenman Died for Your Niblets”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/to-our-surprise-cheers-and-salutations-greeted-our-approach-to-the-gate-green-man-was-a-star/

Some of my posts amounted to musings about the human condition as viewed through a prism of my own experience. One example of this, which didn’t attract the attention I had hoped was “Swings”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/swings/ ,

or “Taxi Driver Uber Alles”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/each-second-is-a-threshold-to-eternity/ which I thought deserved more attention.

The Territorial Imperative” was about my encounter with a very assertive spider: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/i-cringed-at-the-memory-of-what-i-yelled-that-night-during-my-desperate-search-what-had-i-wrought/ .

That was a companion piece to the popular “The Company You Keep”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/to-say-this-house-was-infested-is-like-saying-forests-have-trees/ in which I recounted my futile war with cockroaches while in college.

I also published a few practical posts exploring the value of writing a memoir “The Irreplaceable Memoir”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/the-irreplaceable-memoir/

or a distillation of what I presented weekly in a workshop for job seekers on how best to find gainful employment. “The Best Solution to the Problem” was my summary of the workshop: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/the-best-solution-to-the-problem/ .

Godzilla”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/there-is-a-piece-of-godzilla-in-all-of-us/

and “The Show Must Go On” : https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/the-show-must-go-on/ share memories of my career in motion pictures.

My favorites probably fell in my recounting episodes of my life that were fun to write and (I’m told), hilarious to read. “Bad Hair Day”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/i-looked-like-a-psychotic-texas-ranger/ ,

A Knuckle Sandwich and a Side of Steroids Please”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/a-knuckle-sandwich-and-a-side-of-steroids-please/ ,

Sunny Sleepy San Raphael”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/judging-by-her-word-count-the-woman-was-winning-but-we-had-to-acknowledge-he-made-some-very-impressive-points-with-his-rare-interjections/

and “What’s in a Name, Jack”: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/whats-in-a-name-jack/ are my favorites in that genre.

Much attention has been paid of late, to concussions, due in part to the Will Smith movie of that name. My post “Isn’t this Fun?” https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/isnt-this-fun/ deals with my personal experience with a concussion.

At risk of naming all of my posts, I will stop with this brief list of personal highlights. But feel free to revisit some of these and others. They all have something to offer and offer some amusement or a diversion from the tedium of the day.

Please feel free to comment or add to the conversation. I appreciate your input. Thank you for reading.

And you are welcome to visit my Storyography website at: http://www.lifestoryography.com/

See you next year.

 

Take the plunge!

High Flying Professionals

I love to fly. I love soaring above the earth, surrendering to the experience. I once gained serious perspective at the sight of the Grand Canyon and other national monuments looking like abandoned sand castle construction.

There is nothing like the thrill of watching a distant thunder storm light up the sky like a cosmic fireworks show. After surviving a tornado, I’m not fazed by minor turbulence. A bit of a rough ride comes with the territory.

What I hate about flying though, are delays. It is so annoying to show up at the appointed time and be treated like the 250 passengers and I just happened by randomly to no purpose.

My least favorite excuse is the “mechanical issues” excuse, as if the fact that it is mechanical makes a two hour delay acceptable. Of course, I’m glad they found the problem, and are fixing it. Nothing like a “very tiny oil leak” at 30,000 feet to give one pause.

But why didn’t they look for this two hours earlier? Weren’t they expecting to use the plane today? Isn’t the essence of ‘preventive maintenance’ its routine regularity? Why the surprise? On Star Trek, they weren’t constantly putting the show on hold for pesky maintenance. When Capt. Kirk spoke, Scotty got the job done.

If the servicing of the plane resembles the ‘service’ part of the customer service offered in most terminals, we all have something to worry about. Nothing like getting the equivalent of “Go away kid, you bother me,” to raise my hackles. Why should I mind being treated like a child when my time, money and perhaps my life are at stake?

Flying is tiring. Unexpected delays make people cranky. Add fragmentary information and/or rude behavior and the word ‘mutiny’ starts floating into the fuzzy consciousness of many distressed travelers. When these passengers finally board and discover the cramped seating configuration was stolen from the catacombs, you have the potential for mayhem. Ever open a can of angry sardines?

Hardly a week goes by without some news account of an airline passenger ‘suddenly going berserk’ on a flight due to what is described as a minor inconvenience. However, the relentless accumulation of outrage preceding that snap never gets documented. Only the sad outcomes are featured and attributed to ‘madness’.

These events must be terrifying to the other passengers. However, to anyone who read Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” in school, they aren’t entirely surprising.

Years ago (1999), I was on a gig with Matthias, a co-worker and engineer. We were sent from Los Angeles to exclusive and historical Jeckyll Island, Georgia, to record three lines of replacement dialogue from the actress Charlize Theron who was there, acting in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a Southern gothic love story. We were in advanced post production on John Frankenheimer’s “Reindeer Games,” a Christmas themed thriller.

Ms. Theron completed her role in our movie the previous winter so her hesitation in reprising her past role whilst submerged within her markedly different, current one was understandable. But our assignment was to ‘get those lines.’

The hotel granted us a cicada free room in which to set up our recording equipment, and we awaited Ms. Theron’s schedule to open up. And waited.

And waited.

Over the course of the next three days, the production company emailed us a stream of additional dialogue lines for Ms. Theron to perform in our ‘studio’. How could she refuse? She is a professional after all.

When she arrived for her session, about 8pm on the third day, Charlize balked at the list of thirty new lines. I foolishly perceived this as the opening volley of a negotiation. I called the production company to get support. They would get her cooperation.

Just as I got Marty, the producer on the line, Ms. Theron grabbed the phone from my ear:

“Marty?… I agreed to do three lines, right?… So I’m doing only three lines. Understood?… Good.”

She slammed the phone down and said, “Let’s do it.”

It was a brief negotiation.

Within half an hour she was gone. The precious dialogue was successfully recorded. She didn’t invite us to join her at dinner, or schmooze us, or say good-bye.

Matthias and I packed our gear and we caught the next plane.

We had a layover in Chicago. I hadn’t slept in about 24 hours.

A voice came over the PA system imitating someone gargling through a snorkel. The plane was experiencing ‘mechanical problems’ which were being repaired. Boarding would ensue shortly.

Ha!

Five times over the next three hours, we were beckoned for boarding only to be told “Thank you for your patience and sorry for any inconvenience but additional safety tests are being conducted and we will soon be boarding at your earliest possible convenience.” Passengers started repeating it with her in a ragged chorus.

Someone asked for details and she made a joke about the fire department being called. No one laughed.

Exhausted but unable to sleep, Matthias and I got coffee. Soon after we set up camp, a pilot entered and sat nearby.

Introducing Matthias and myself, I confirmed that he was our pilot.

I’m sure what happened next was due to my frantic need for sleep (and perhaps the lingering effect on me, of Ms. Theron’s abrupt treatment).

Shaking his hand, I thanked the pilot for taking his job so seriously by ordering so many safety checks, time consuming as they were. Leaning in, I then told him I was concerned about what I heard from some other passengers.

The pilot also leaned in with concern on his face. “What are they saying?”

“That you’re a wimp.”

The pilot sat back and nodded with narrowed eyes. Matthias’ attention was suddenly drawn by a travel poster he hadn’t seen before. A chill descended on the café.

The pilot exited.

We heard the boarding announcement and the boarding ensued without further delay. The rest of the trip was uneventful and restful.

When disembarking the plane, the pilot caught my eye. I thanked him for the excellent flight and he nodded.

Sunny, Sleepy San Raphael

The drive up the California coast is one of the most beautiful journeys in the world. My wife and I drove it a while back, and we still talk about it.

We planned to tour the wine country around Sonoma. I was pleased to discover a reasonably priced hotel located in the ‘gateway to wine country,’ San Raphael, CA.

Ah, San Raphael! It sounds like a sleepy little village, populated with charming neighbors and tasteful tapas bars. By day it is an attractive town. But don’t let the sun set on you in sleepy San Raphael.

More likely, those villagers lack sleep because of the revving of motorcycles in the wee hours of the night. Should I have been concerned that the motel’s website is spelled ‘villainn’?

San Raphael may be the gateway to wine country, but it is also the back door to San Quentin Federal Prison, ‘freeway close’ as they say.

San Raphael appears to be the ‘other city by the bay.’ This is where the prison guards and other service personnel live. It is also where friends and relatives of inmates await their release. And, I suspect it is the first ‘home away from home’ for many who do exit from San Q.

Incidentally, San Quentin is legendary as prisons go. Many of my favorite jazz musicians made their residence there. How bad could it be? Yet, as finishing schools go, I wouldn’t want my daughter to attend it, nor to date any of its residents.

The scenic neighboring town of Tiberon appears to have more lawyers per capita than any municipality outside of Washington DC.

That morning, I awoke with the distinct memory of the word ‘sloat’ appearing in my dream. This is not a word I commonly think of or dream about. However, as we drove up to our quaint motel in San Raphael, directly across the street was a gardening nursery bearing the name “Sloat”. How curious.

On check in, I inquired about the restaurant, across the parking lot, which advertised Basque style food. The restaurant was closed for business and only served our complimentary breakfast from 7-10am. But the proprietor assured me the bar, also on the property, was open and very popular. Oh, good.

My wife and I joked about the convenience of having a popular bar in walking (and hearing distance) from our room. It was kind of like whistling past the graveyard.

Our jocular tone soured a bit on entering the room itself. Where do I begin? Our first impression was that a contest had been held in there. The winner smoked fifty packs of Lucky Strikes in the previous 24 hours while the loser had smoked only forty-nine. That the housekeeper neglected to air the room was surely an oversight.

Our suspicions were confirmed by the copious cigarette burns on every piece of furniture in the room. I have never understood why people rest lit cigarettes on arms of upholstered chairs. Then it hit me. This being a ‘non-smoking room,’ there were no ash trays available.

At least the stale smoke discouraged any bedbugs from setting up camp.

It was too late to find another motel. I assured my wife that all her fears were unfounded and we went to dinner. We found a place downtown that was good but I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding about our stay. A bright moment in the evening was our discovery of a good book store, something that Los Angeles struggles to sustain.

We returned to the motel and joked about expecting motorcycle gangs to congregate in the parking lot. I pulled the blinds for privacy only to discover that the previous tenant’s chimpanzee had attempted to make a dress from the curtain. It would not shut. We could not see out but anyone could see in.

I solved that by deftly propping our luggage against the window, securing ourselves against prying eyes. Piece of cake.

My wife slept while I stood first watch. When the motorcycle revving started around 11pm, I looked to ensure my wife was still asleep. I hated to think she would win the bet. She didn’t stir.

But when our immediate neighbors started pelting our common wall with objects, punctuating the increasingly shrill argument, all bets were off.  This marathon went on from midnight to about 3am.

Judging by her word count, the woman was winning. But we had to acknowledge he made some very impressive points with his rare interjections. With each well placed comment, the girlfriend would tally his score with another barrage of items thrown against the wall.

I would have liked to have been the proverbial fly on the wall but I know that flies like to get their sleep.

Eventually the motorcyclists revved off into the night. Our neighbors wearied of their dispute and slept like the just. And we, having nothing else with which to entertain ourselves, also found rest.

Our breakfast was ample and satisfying. We debated about who of our fellow diners occupied the room next to ours. No one seemed to fit our composite picture. Perhaps they were snuggling the day away.

We left on our tour of wine country determined to find other accommodations for that night. As we drove through Novato, my wife spied a Best Western near the freeway and made reservations by phone.

I have never had a better night’s sleep.

Car Flipping & Car Stripping

How difficult is it to flip a car? Success at this dubious endeavor might best be achieved with training. You don’t want to depend on happenstance in such matters.

However, I once climbed to the crow’s nest of the pirate ship in Tampa Bay, just in time to see some guy lose it on the Bay Drive. I’ve never seen a better triple flip, even in the movies. He was airborne. I wished I had a camera. Nothing bounces quite like a car. It was spectacular.

And amazingly, everyone walked away from it. Pretty good, for an amateur.

Then, the time my boss’s daughter wrecked the company van. She hit a telephone pole, twenty feet above the pavement. How did she do that? Luckily, she was unscathed.

They always call it an accident, but I think you almost have to be trying. It isn’t that easy.

Driving on ice takes a particular skill. In high school, a friend hit an ice patch just as we entered the first bend of a dog leg at the base of a hill. That ’58 Caddy spun 180 degrees and miraculously didn’t collide with anything. We just drove back up the hill, turned around, and tried again.

**************

“Hang on!”

What a way to wake up. I rolled onto the floor in the back of the old Buick. All I could see was a spray of mud, sod and uprooted trees flying by.

We slid to a stop. Upright. We didn’t flip. Life is full of surprises when driving 70 mph, in a snowstorm.

Just hours out of Minneapolis, heading east, it was Easter break. My friend Paul and I were accompanying our high school buddy, Jim, to New York City for an acting audition. Paul and I had no agenda, except to not get arrested, or killed. So far, so good.

Jim got the car going again, slammed it into drive and, followed by a rooster tail of mud, we made our way off the grassy meridian and back onto the freeway.

It’s embarrassing to go careening off the freeway like that. I didn’t sign up for a demolition derby.

When we got to Newark, we stopped at a pay phone to call his cousin Ed for directions. Jim repeated them, I wrote and read them aloud, as we drove. We turned right and passed a cluster of young scholars, stripping a car.

We were driving in circles. We passed the group again. They watched us as we drove slowly by, watching them.

We were lost, and the natives did not look friendly. The third time we drove past, the car was abandoned. That club of Future Mechanics of America didn’t know who they were dealing with. Hah!

We found our way to cousin Ed’s three story townhouse. Bars were on all the windows, including the third floor. One of us guarded the car as we unloaded. Ed also had us remove the car’s battery, and bring it inside. Ed was not paranoid. It’s hard to steal a car with no battery.

Before taking the train into ‘the city,’ Ed’s wife fried up a monumental breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Every time I cleaned my plate, she doubled the serving. Our trio must have consumed two dozen eggs and at least as many pancakes. She only stopped cooking when we left the table.

The park near the subway station was festooned with graffiti, compliments of a group identified as the ‘Pythons’. I don’t think they were the ‘Monty Pythons’.

That night we saw a concert at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. Emerson, Lake & Palmer headlined. The bands, It’s a Beautiful Day, and Curved Air warmed up. Amazing show.

We got back late. Ed picked us up at the station, saving us a walk through ‘Python Park’. He took us on his personal tour, indicating the points of interest in the historic city of Newark; where a politician’s body was found, the mob bar, the front, the bridge built with inferior concrete, where so-and-so was murdered, where what’s-his-name was kidnapped… All the touristy spots.

We hit the road again, north to Montreal, a most beautiful city.  We re-entered the U.S. at the upper peninsula of Michigan with only a small hang-up over having no proof of citizenship. Who brings birth certificates?

A week into the trip, we were on two lane blacktop. Paul drove while Jim slept in the back. Spotting a gas station, Paul hit the gravel drive too fast and lost traction. We yelled “Hang on!” The car slid sideways and landed in the narrow ditch, hung up at each end by the bumpers. All four wheels hung free, like in a cartoon. With no ladder handy, we had to jump to the ground.

But we didn’t flip the car.

Occupants of the nearby tavern emerged to offer advice on our predicament. “Looks like you overshot the turn.” “Could you do that again?” “Planning on staying awhile?” “You can’t park there, you know.”

With the tow truck driver paid, the gas tank filled, and the car undamaged, we resumed our journey home. No one died. We kept tires on pavement, the rest of the way home.

Smoke gets in Your Eyes

“Nobody inhales! That would be insane.”

Having heard about firefighters succumbing to smoke inhalation, I felt it was too obvious that smokers couldn’t be inhaling. Why would they do that?

I like the smell of tobacco. The rituals accompanying it attracted me. My Mom would have a friend over for Folgers coffee. I would listen as they talked, and watch the languid stream of smoke rise like a cool clarinet solo. Then, that ethereal jazz dance would agitate and disperse into cooler air currents. Still, tobacco’s allure was a mystery.

My parents were away for the weekend. My friend Toby and I conducted an experiment on “why people smoke?” The results would be anecdotal at best. And our procedures wouldn’t pass the most basic of musters. But we were dedicated guinea pigs, seeking the truth about smoking.

It was in the news. The surgeon general spoke out about tobacco giving you cancer.

Everyone smoked.

Something had to be done. I was ten.

My folks smoked Pall Malls, in that very distinctive red pack. This was before filters were introduced. I filched a pack from the carton and met my friend at the abandoned culvert amidst the tall grass and cattails. Redwing blackbirds sang their song.

Divvying up the cigarettes, we discussed inhaling. It just made no sense to me. How could anyone do that on purpose? No evidence supported it. That would be crazy.

We lit up and attempted sophistication, mimicked smoker’s mannerisms, flicked ashes like pros, adopted tough guy attitudes, and practiced blowing smoke rings. It was a mystery.

After furiously smoking ten cigarettes, (but not inhaling), it remained obscure to me. What was the attraction?

Not long after that, my Dad quit. He said he was having lunch in a restaurant, when a man came in wearing a breathing tube and pulling an oxygen bottle behind him. “I won’t do that,” he said. And he quit cold.

My brothers and sister each took up smoking. After cajoling our parents to quit, they all heard the call.

I would flirt with it, but never let it become a habit. I didn’t want to take orders from a cigarette. I rolled my cigarettes to think about each one, rather than just lighting up another, and another, unconsciously. How many people blow through a pack and don’t even remember it?

‘Drum’ rolling tobacco was my brand. It was quality, aromatic, flavorful, shag, tobacco. I sound like a commercial.

After graduating from college, I went camping in Glacier National Park with my friend Paul. One evening, the neighboring tent was occupied by two women from the Netherlands.

Our foreign visitors kept exclaiming they were “scared of the beers!” After a few minutes puzzlement, we factored in their accents and realized it was the ‘bears’ from which their terror arose, not a bad case of Budweiser. They were terrified by the warning signs posted depicting the ferocious grizzly bears lurking in the forest.

The American grizzly cares nothing about Walt Disney. And Hanna Barbara’s Yogi Bear was nowhere to be found. Grizzlies are truly scary. Not one is named Whinny.

Desirous of exhibiting good old American hospitality, and of an opportunity to promote healthy habits of diplomacy and foreign cultural exchange, Paul and I did our best to salve their fears.

Initially we feigned bravado and spoke grandly about the bears being more afraid of us, than we of them. Wisely, they didn’t buy it.

Taking advantage of the language barrier, Paul made silly puns at their expense such as, “the saucy natives of the Netherlands are referred to as ‘the Hollandaise’”, going dutch, and vague references to Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ‘bear’ for love. It was embarrassing, really. I wouldn’t have done that.

Then I hit upon the fact that bears are afraid of fire. I pulled out my rolling tobacco to defend against any rampaging grizzlies. When they saw my pouch of Drum, the women started exclaiming excitedly, “Droom! Droom!” It turned out Drum was manufactured in the Netherlands and was their leading brand. I became an instant hero.

Common ground was established. Cultural barriers melted away, and soon, a pungent haze of fine tobacco smoke rose lazily from the tent, while we chattered the night away.

The bears knew to keep their distance. And a mystery was solved.

Is That All There Is?

Attempting to ease the pain of my second divorce, I joked that the divorce court is a great place to hang out to meet single women. Oh, you could meet women alright. But consider your timing and purpose in meeting them.

There might be worse places than that to meet single women, like in a women’s studies class. Such classes contain many attractive and accomplished females, but again, consider timing and purpose.

I remember when I was on campus after a mid-term. I had pulled an all-nighter studying.  Sitting outside, alone, I tried to clear the brain fog while recovering from the test. I needed a dose of strong coffee.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain as someone smacked me up the back of my head. I turned to see a young woman covering her mouth in shock. She apologized, saying she mistook me for a friend of hers. For his sake, I said I hoped she didn’t find him. A vague recollection of local feminists staging a “Women’s Strike” that day, came to mind.

So that was what the ‘women’s strike’ was about? In grade school, such behavior would be seen as proof the aggressor had a crush on the victim. This didn’t feel like a crush, more like a smack. Once past the clumsy introduction, she was pretty nice. I didn’t ask for her number.

The summer before my senior year in high school I worked on a resort on a lake up north. Late in the season, a family of four rented one of our cabins for a week. The couple had teenagers, a girl and a boy about my age. The girl was bored, and having just graduated, was mortified at being stuck in nowhere, with her parents no less.

Sensitive to her plight, I offered her a diversion besides gin rummy with the folks. The activities available were pretty modest. Our remote location and my work schedule limited us to watching the sunset while sitting on the boat dock and playing pool in the lodge. It rained one day and there was a double rainbow. She wasn’t interested in fishing.

Although we shared a mutual attraction, a romance was not our destiny. She lived in another city. Even with letters, phone calls, and occasional visits, long distance relationships wither on a diet of hope. Life intervenes. We became “just friends.”

Years later, my brother Jeff lent me his pickup truck over Easter break. It was a tough semester and I needed to hit the road. On a whim, I thought I’d surprise my friend at her college in Illinois. I didn’t even know if she would be there.

The trip was dreamlike. Fog blanketed three or four states. Old snow covered dormant corn fields. Towns loomed out of the grey and then were gone. I drove dreary two lane highways on a quest for what? I did not know. I had no expectations but to put miles behind me.

“Killing Me Softly” played constantly on the radio, but the theme of the trip became Peggy Lee’s “Is That all there Is?”

I looked her up and she was happy to see me. We talked over a beer. Our conversation devolved into a silly circular debate, crystallizing around the word “patriarchy”. She asserted that fathers raise their daughters to be submissive to men. I thought that mothers raised the boys who became fathers. It was textbook to her, yin and yang to me. Two people reconnecting became verbal jousting. And so it goes.

Someone put Peggy’s song on the juke box and I could only laugh. Had they heard our conversation? It was time to go.

I expected to sleep in the truck but she and her boyfriend graciously lent me a cot in their attic. She offered me a pillow and apologized for not sleeping with me, because… the boyfriend. Yes, the boyfriend (and that pesky patriarchy).

The cot was sufficient. I slept well. I left the next morning.

Disconnection from reality (not always mine), became the obvious pattern in all my relationships (prior to my current marriage). How does suspending the laws of physics add savor to a steak? I always presumed that observable reality was the base line from which two people moved forward in agreement. What is gained by debating the color of the sky, yet again? Was the egg accountable for producing a chicken?

Things are worth fighting for. But love cannot endure unceasing opposition. People too readily fight for the garnish while losing sight of the entree. Life is too short to always be fighting.

Decades pass. Old arguments and the participants lose importance.

I found the one with whom I can see clearly and share love. What we struggle for, we struggle for as one. What else can one want?

Our Selfish Genes

Have you ever been faced with a choice between two good things? Everyone should have such problems.

I was pursuing a young lady, the youngest of three sisters. My two older brothers had gone out with her older sisters. It was destiny. We were meant to be together. Why weren’t we?

It was those damned selfish genes.

We went swimming in a local quarry one beautiful summer day. The blue water was warm. Floating on my back and watching the clouds billow against the deep sky inspired me. I felt I was floating amongst those clouds.

She told me she believed one should only do what felt good.

Wow! But something went wrong.

That statement inspired me and my brain went into overdrive. I embarked on an hours long verbal riff examining the fallacy of pleasure as the sole virtue. I became so enamored of my verbal cleverness that I completely missed her cues, oh yeah, the goal of pleasure.

We parted company. She was bored silly and I was still jazzed by the philosophical edifice I was building on the foundation of her absurd proposition. My head was still in the clouds and I missed my chance.

The irony was that I possibly derived more pleasure from my mental gyrations than if I had followed her lead. So, was she right?

Early in my film career I worked on a horror movie on location in Northern Louisiana. The director was from Shreveport and knew every creepy location to use. He took us to shoot in an abandoned Tuberculosis sanatorium. This place had not been used for thirty years or more. (Until recently Tuberculosis was all but eradicated in this country.) The building was huge and built of solid beige brick. Seeing it amidst the overgrowth was akin to discovering a lost city in the jungle. Except for a layer of dust it could have been open for business yesterday.  I almost expected to find a pot of coffee brewing in the break room. As if everyone, even the patients just stepped out. The immense silence was eerie as hell.

The rooms housed iron lungs and other obsolete methods to keep helpless people alive. It was a state of the art facility when it was built in the 1930s or 1940s. They cured everyone. One way or the other everyone left.

Who would want to live if they were stuck in an iron lung, for life? That life could only mean suffering. Who would want that for themselves, or anyone?

It is hard to let go of life. One gets used to it after all. It isn’t just another bad habit.

One of the most curious and horrifying objects to be found in the rooms were glass globes holding about a liter of what appeared to be water (salt water or carbon tetrachloride which turns to a poison gas when exposed to flame). Secured on a shelf, perhaps three to a room, their purpose was not immediately obvious.

Then it dawns that these were supposed to serve as ‘fire grenades’, primitive fire extinguishers. Can you imagine the terror at being confined to a room on fire and having nothing but these to protect you? Of course you would have to await an unselfish nurse to come to your aid and throw them at the fire.

But it’s very expensive to house such hopeless cases.

Wouldn’t it be merciful to put them out of their misery?

Oh, those great souls who promote a compassionate death for the suffering while reckoning how this efficiency will fill their wallets. The words ‘convenient’ and ‘efficient’ have become the most terrifying words in the English language because of some who seek to mask the most inhuman practices with the virtues of time and money saved.

The Nazis were efficient to a fault, rationally legalizing the disposal of the less able, the ill, the elderly, the weak, the ‘sub-human’ Gypsies and… the list goes on. All for their own good and for societies’ convenience. Are these really the virtues we strive to promote in our culture?

Churchill and others said variously, “Society is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.

I read of a study where the subjects were instructed to imagine they were aliens from another planet observing our world. They were to report how to resolve common problems our society faces. The unanimous ‘alien’ stance was that of compassion, patience and caring. All the subjects of the experiment drew on their higher selves to emulate the fictional ‘superior’ alien race.

I submit that there is greater evil than suffering.

Yes we are selfish. Dare we do better?

Driving through the West

I grew up on the plains- rolling hills, sloughs with cattails and red-wing blackbirds, wind passing through tall grass like a giant hand through a healthy head of hair, hours spent driving down straight roads and seemingly never gaining on the destination (maybe visible in the distance). Endless miles of rows of corn. Towns, some mere wide spots in the road were made up of a grain elevator and maybe a gas station and maybe a lonely diner.

The scale of distance out on the plains is immense. Crossing it in a covered wagon must have been daunting.

In the ‘70s, I once camped atop a ridge in Montana. There was a thunder storm in the distance and the filtered sunset turned the rough brown grass magenta. Some distance away, at the bottom of the ridge stood the stump of what eons ago had been a mountain. There were no other mountains around, just this remnant, this little hill.

That next morning my friend and I were going to walk down and have a look at it and maybe climb it. We decided to drive to it so we could be on our way and save the walk back.

Two hours later we still hadn’t reached it. It took an hour to drive fully past it. That tiny, baby mountain, that bare remnant, that sliver of what once was, towered two or three hundred feet above us as our car crawled by.

My first trip west was in 1962. Burma Shave signs still gave one relief from that endless asphalt strip. “If hugging – On highways – Is your sport – Trade in your car – For a davenport – Burma Shave. Those and the ever present billboards urging a visit to the Reptile Gardens (world famous!).

Driving through North Dakota’s Badlands was eerie. The landscape was so bleak yet there was something strangely beautiful about the gulley ridden wasteland. Occasionally there would be a shack in the distance that looked long abandoned. One couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would build a shack in such a desolate place. And then I wanted to hike to it, see what was in there, get a feel of the immense isolation of the surroundings.

In Montana every mile or so would be a little cross by the road, sometimes a cluster. I was told they memorialized someone or several who died in an accident from losing control, drowsing, speed, drink. So many crosses!

Mount Rushmore is an amazing monument to our founders. It was envisioned and executed by the son of immigrants Gutzon Borglum, who acquired the site and completed the work with his son and crew, all without government funds. Imagine.

When I was there, a Native American man (we called them Indians back then) stood in buckskin clothes and a full chief’s feathered headdress. His job seemed to be providing a dignified presence representing the region’s past. He did it well. To my eyes, he looked just like the image on head side of the old buffalo nickel.

We kids were in awe of that Chief. It must have been a strange job being gawked at by little kids. My brother’s and I at least knew enough not to point our fingers at him and make shooting sounds like some of the other kids. I wanted to talk to him but what does one say? How do you strike up a casual conversation with someone whose people own such a tragic history? You don’t.

On that trip we also stopped to see the museum celebrating Custer’s Last Stand. It was kind of odd to see so much made of a military blunder made by such an arrogant fool. The movie “Little Big Man” summed up his character pretty well.

The museum displayed lots of dramatic bronzes by Frederick Remington. His work lent stark dignity to the Native Americans, the mountain men and their hard lives.

If my memory serves me, that museum also had quite a display of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exploits. He made quite a career of bringing a romanticized vision of the ‘Old West’ to the rapidly modernizing Eastern part of the country. His shows were an early version of what became the American circus. For his recreations of a buffalo hunt or settlers attacked by ‘Indians’ he employed some of the very warriors who were on the winning side at Custer’s Last Stand.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The Best Cab Driver in Buenos Aires

When I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned quickly that some things are best left to a professional. Thus, taxis were my preferred mode of transportation. I never drove in Buenos Aires.

My time in Buenos Aires was a magical journey to a culture unfettered by those twin gods of efficiency and sanity which rule in the United States. That such a beautiful city could exist when the spirit of anarchy simmered barely beneath the surface was amazing to me. Of course Buenos Aires was named prior to the invention of the automobile.

I was there on business for seven months in the early ‘80s, near the end of their long stifling dictatorship. The exuberance exhibited by the people was infectious. It seemed no one but me worked hard and everyone rarely slept. One only stopped eating to dance, to meet friends, to eat “parilla,” drink wine, sip a coffee. The mass transit system is world class; these trains ran on time, at least until the dictatorship ended.

The primary diet of the average Argentinean is “parilla,” their style of barbecued beef, the best in the world.  Coca cola, coffee and ‘American’ cigarettes follow closely in popularity. I once met a friend at a local café and, arriving on time, was surprised to find him sitting at a table with four empty coke bottles, a coffee and an ashtray filled with half a dozen cigarette butts. He said he was ten minutes early and just “passed the time.”

The Argentinean “waiter” is spectacularly indifferent. He waits to acknowledge you. He waits until you are really hungry to serve you. The restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 9pm. A fast food restaurant in Buenos Aires, is one where, by the time you get your food, you feel you’ve been on a fast. Restaurants in Argentina are designed on the DMV model. But the food is better.

In Argentina, if you haven’t eaten beef in the meal, you haven’t eaten. It truly is the best meat I’ve ever eaten. The hotel I stayed at served beef as its main course nightly for the seven months I stayed there. Everyone cheered that night the maître‘d stated that we were serving “Escallopes,” until we realized that the dish was scalloped beef, not seafood.  Even the “vegetarians” I knew there ate beef. It was okay because the cows ate grass.

Buenos Aires is said to have more psychologists per capita than anywhere in the world, even Vienna. But I’m told they are all starving because, for the price of a cup of coffee, literally, you can spend the day discussing your troubles at the local café or pub. That’s where all the psychologists hang out. Everyone is very sympathetic. If you ever need cheap advice, buy an Argentinean a coffee.

The traffic there is legendary. According to the American ex-patriots I knew, the freeways were so snarled because “they forgot to put arrows on the lane markers.”  Lane markers are only a suggestion and are never taken seriously. If a car can fit between two others, “Presto! A new lane!” To escape freeway gridlock I saw some drivers charge up the embankment, uprooting small trees to find a surface street unclogged by smoke spewing Citroens and Renaults. Left turn lanes are unknown. Three right turns are saner than attempting one left turn into oncoming traffic.

Jaywalking is an invitation to suicide. Running the bulls at Pamplona is safer.  In Buenos Aires the pedestrian never has the right of way. Even the sidewalks are not a safe haven.  A pedestrian hit by a “collectivo” while standing at the curb doesn’t evoke surprise. They should have known better. They should have seen the bus coming. The buses are painted ornately, each route having its own unique style. The sting of death is diminished considerably being run down by a circus wagon.

Residential streets are unpredictable. Often, in neighborhoods with palatial homes, the streets would be unpaved wallows that Americans would only brave with a four-wheel drive. Yet those stalwart Citroens carefully pick their way through the puddles and ruts. Those little cars made of corrugated tin look like miniature Quonset huts on wheels.

Stop signs are little understood relics. No driver worth his machismo would submit to a brightly colored sign. It isn’t his mother. “Non!” Rather, at each intersection a modern reenactment of the medieval joust plays out with armor on wheels and horsepower under the hood. The polite but impatient “rolling stop” known as the “California Roll” in Los Angeles, would be sneered at as effete in Buenos Aires.

The most an Argentinean driver expects or gives on approaching a stop sign is a slight tap on the brakes; the automotive equivalent of a slight nod. This ensures the brakes are still operative, should they actually be needed and is never interpreted as a genuine effort to slow down. Proof being, an aggressive gunning of the throttle always follows that brake tap lest anyone doubt their resolve. Any hesitation is rewarded with a flurry of horns from outraged drivers en route to a vital cup of coffee.

After the junta lost their grip on the country, even stopping at a red light, in some neighborhoods was an invitation to be robbed. Clean streets are one thing but free enterprise will out.

It was into this maelstrom that I made my daily commute. The cab drivers were… survivors. Eking a living from those streets for twelve or more hours per day takes steely nerves. Everyone drives aggressively and these drivers are pros at gaining ground and holding it; sometimes inches at a time. These men have the best reaction times in the world. They always drive faster, stop quicker and see opportunity better than anyone else on the road.

It was not enough to gain ground but also to keep anyone else from making better headway. The analogy of being a passenger on a bumper car ride is not a stretch. The drivers I rode with were excellent and we never got into an accident. The cab driver is the modern day gaucho and equivalent to the cowboy of the American West. Those squeals and impacts I heard were always behind us. But even with confidence in the driver, I always spent the ride watching every move, anticipating every maneuver.

The day I left Buenos Aires, en route to the airport I had the best ride ever.  This driver kept a moderate speed. He didn’t cut people off and always signaled his intentions.  He left several car lengths in front of him. It was a long ride to the airport and I actually dozed at times. I felt so confident of my security in this man’s car. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting this driver, a man who ensured my ease and comfort. Yes, it was all a myth that every driver in Buenos Aires was either crazy or incompetent. My driver was world-class and could drive anywhere with grace and professionalism. He didn’t pretend interest in light conversation. My driver was all business and watched the road intently. My driver was the best.

When we arrived at the airport he pulled up to the guard shack and gate. The car purred quietly. He spoke to the guard. The guard pressed a button and the gate arm rose, allowing entry. We sat there.

The guard spoke to my driver. My driver was waiting for the gate. The guard pointed to the gate arm, already up.

Then my eyes were opened. When my driver squinted and leaned forward attempting to see the gate, I realized he was nearly blind. The world seemed to stand still.

He thanked the guard and eased forward. We made it safely, the last hundred yards to the terminal. I paid him, tipped him well, and gratefully got out of that death trap. I almost kissed the ground.

That last hour, my driver, a blind man, had chauffeured me through Buenos Aires traffic. But safely! It was the most relaxing ride of my whole trip.

Years later, in one of those filler news items in the L.A. Times, I read of a taxi driver in Buenos Aires arrested for driving while blind. Arrested? They should give him a medal. His condition should be mandatory for cab drivers there.

Or is it?

I felt glad that the old man had made it that long. I salute him. Long may he ride.