Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Those With Claws, Those With Toes

The king of the night callers is the great horned owl. He comes on clear and cool, long and hollow --  Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoooo. A five beat basso singer. There is a dignity in his call, a certain restraint, as if he knows, no matter what, he's soon to dine.

I love hearing them. But I'm mindful of what they do when, soundlessly, they fall upon prey. Not even a whisper of wings to warn rabbit or
flying squirrel that an arsenal of claws is about to land.

That's a swamp rabbit's tail in the picture. And the claw marks of the great horned owl in the sand. He landed right, this particular owl, but swamp bunnies will fight for their life, and this one surely did.

I found no other evidence of his loss than this brown fluffy tail. But during the day I saw him sitting in the sun, seeking to heal his wounds with kindly sunlight. He was alive and would live but he was damaged. The fur along his spine was ripped clean. He hopped away when he saw me.

Predators don't always win. Crows kill owls during the day. They first harass them with raucous noise, and then they come in number and chop the owl, blinding him first. I've seen it happen and have written of the encounter in the broadside poem on this page.

It's all give and take, in nature.  All creatures giving and taking, different times of night and day. The whole hullabaloo of life and death, chance and change, luck and pluck. Pity the bunny? Praise the owl? If there's a moral in all of this, Great Maker forgot to tell us. But he didn't forget to give us five fingers and five toes, which to my mind is way better than claws. 

Pencil drawing by Sid Hausman
 Poem broadside originally
published by Giligia Press,
Fresno, California in 1968

Friday, November 14, 2014

The sun comes up and the moon follows

The riddle of life yields more answers as you get older. You begin to see the pattern of beautiful repetition. The sun comes up and the moon follows.

My riddle of the morning came to me with a voice I heard in my head.

The book awaits, yet waits not. The corn sleeps to make more corn. The egg is armored but easily shelled. The song sings though the singer is gone. All is well and not undone.

The tendency is to think that everything is coming undone when, in fact, it only goes out to come back in. All of life is a riddle and a cycle that can be solved. For some it comes at the end of life. For others it begins at birth. For a few it occurs when a small pebble knocks against a column of bamboo.

As to my personal riddles, here shared ... I gave many storytellings over the past twenty years where I was paid with corn. The book is coming: the love  letters of my father and mother. It has taken a few years to edit them, but we're nearing completion.

The significance of the egg is not a secret, but if you take a cold egg from the fridge and place it against your eyelid, it soothes the eye more quickly than Visine. My brother learned this from a Taoseno named Tieflo a long time ago. But I should add that Tieflo used round river stones about the same size of his eye sockets. Tieflo said if you did this quiet meditation for a few minutes every day you would never need to wear eye glasses. In my case I take them off after a long day and cool my eyes with cold eggs, in the belief that something may grow without my knowing it.

The singer and the song -- everyone has a secret song of some kind, an exalted and uplifting melody with lyrics that soothe the heart no matter how many times the song is heard.Some songs I only heard once yet I hear them over and over in my head and remember the day the words were sung.

The empty mirror needs polishing, again and again, every day. You will not see yourself in it. The mirror will only reflect emptiness. And in that emptiness the sun comes up and the moon follows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Another Way of Looking at Jan Wiener by Joseph Koch

Once in a blue moon, if then, something in a story resonates to such a degree that it becomes a life-changing moment. As Jan Wiener changed my life, Joseph Koch was changed by a story about Jan. I wrote the story in 1994 for an anthology edited by my friend Roger Zelazny. I remember when the book came out Jan read the story and smiling said, "Well, you romanticized me but that's all right. Don't worry, I'll never tell." My turn to smile, I said, "It's fiction, no need not to tell." We both laughed.

If You See Your Past On The Road, Kill It
by J. Koch

“You don’t seem to understand,” he said, “that you are alive. Who cares about your handicap? You must turn your injury into something vital, a weapon to cancel the past.” -- Jan Volta

I have been carrying the above quote around in my head since 1995. It has been like a personal koan for me. I found it in the short story "Eye of the Falcon" by Gerald Hausman which was published in an anthology Warriors of Blood and Dream edited by Roger Zelazny  Recently Mr. Hausman told me that Jan Wiener was the real name of the character in his story. I suppose by calling his friend and teacher by the fictitious name of Jan Volta, the author got a little distance and some added poetic license when he wrote his tale about the martial arts. What attracted me to Volta though was his tough, brazen disregard for self-pity of any kind.

I understood the "who cares?" aspect of Volta's comments well enough, but I wondered for a long time how something I've put up with, worked around, accepted, fought, and wept over could possibly be any kind of weapon. How could a thing I've had since birth cancel my past? That was my conundrum. And it is why I have called it my koan. I had to solve the question.

At age 42, I think I finally have it. 

In Mr. Hausman’s story, the protagonist arrives in Jamaica after many years to run in a marathon. He encounters Jan Volta, master of an obscure, but venerated Czechoslovakian athletics and martial arts regimen called Sokol, or “Falcon”. Our main character is very fit, having welded his body back into working order after a "crippling accident". While they train, Master Volta shows absolutely no mercy at all. The protagonist tells Volta about his accident, the pain it caused, and what he suffered. Volta is unimpressed, our protagonist is offended, and tells him so.  My opening quote is Master Volta’s reply. Master Volta lived through World War II, trained men that fought the Nazis, and fought them himself.

I've had spastic cerebral palsy since birth.  I fall often. Forty years later I’m still painfully embarrassed, to the point of growling things like, “I’m fine!” when people are just trying to help me. I don’t walk well.  I have to plan my movements a piece at a time in my head. Sometimes I lurch about, knocking things over when I reach for them, stumbling, almost throwing myself into chairs when I sit. My first trip to the bathroom each day is always an adventure. Nevertheless, I’ve been drawn to martial arts practice all my life. On the days I can stand, I can throw punches and blocking combinations well enough that my teacher thought I was “pretty fast.”

My wife is a big part of why I understand Master Volta better now. A lesser being would have shriveled up in a corner and died.  Instead, my wife used the need to take care of her daughter, and her poor health to move past what came before. 

Doing daily tasks is harder for us and takes more effort that it does for a “normal” person.  Not impossible, just harder. We have a certain amount of mental, emotional, physical effort to devote to anything at any given time. Filling up too much of our mental/physical/emotional hard drives with, “Woe is me!” makes that even harder.

A disability is a weapon because you can use it, in that way, if you know how, and if you have the will to do it.

We can sit and mope about our pasts, or use our troubles walking across a room, doing laundry, and doing dishes, to cancel the past and keep going. We’re both far from perfect; what I’m telling you doesn’t work perfectly every single day.  But my wife told me something early on that always stuck with me: “Effort always counts.”

As in meditation, “You became distracted? OK, stop and start again.”

We have our weapons to cancel our past. We can always pick them up and wield them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Berkshire Anthology 1972

The Bog Lady photo by William Kadell
The Berkshire Anthology published by The Bookstore Press, 1972

In the days of wine and roses -- or was it bog ladies and bees? -- there was poetry coming out of the trees. People spoke it on the streets and on the phone and you couldn't go anywhere without Poetry happening. Aram Saroyan's whole book of poems, Pages, was read aloud by Edwin Newman on the 6 O'clock News. Think of that -- a book of poems read aloud to millions!

It was 1972 and a lot of that 1960s magic was still going on. In fact, the early seventies was still the 60s, if you know what I mean. As an editor I was amazed the how poets came out of nowhere and just as fast zippered themselves back into oblivion. It was one great hallelujah rebellion. The backdrop was the Vietnam War. Stage front: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. And all of these guys wrote Poetry.

The Berkshire Anthology celebrated this mad spirit of reinvention -- the Gilded Age meets Godzilla. The Pre-Raphaelites crash into Middle America. It was anything you want to name that was crazy and pretty and wore bangs and shoulder length hair and loved -- here it comes again -- Poetry.

Here is a poem I will always remember:


Ambrose, you're dead.
                                  Your underbelly
covered with mold, your sides cracked,
spitting black seeds.  
                                  No wonder
I've been waking at 4 a.m., your
fumes were the center
of these tortured weeks.
                                    How could you do it to me?
Remember how we used to ride around together,
looking at the bombed out gas stations?
The kid I didn't have, whom I named you after?
The nights I stroked your bumpty sides,
thinking of another orange-hued lover?
I haven't paid much attention lately but
                                                          Ambrose, Ambrose
                   the pain it gives me
to abandon you to waste basket history,
                                                          your stalk
never to be caressed
by cleaning ladies.

S.P. Wonder                                           

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the curious incident of the man in the mcdonald's men's room

There are times when peace and quiet are inviolate in a city and you go into McDonald's and there it is -- Peace and Quiet. And fries.

But then you go into the men's room and there is a young man in there doing something funny with his head. He's not washing it exactly, he's wetting it down, getting it good and wet. His explanation makes sense. "Hot out there," he says. "Couldn't cool down. Had to get a headwashing." I stood in the floor puddle he'd made, waiting for him to vacate. But then, while drying his head under the hand-dryer, and looking very much like Taz, he eyed me and asked, "You got .94 cents, brother?"

I said, "Whatever I have in my left pocket is yours." Truth is, I had no idea what was in my left pocket. Well, dug deep and pulled out .13 cents. "This is all I got," I said. Which was true except for the 100 dollar bill in my wallet which was pledged to another brother.

My new headwashing brother studied the brown coins (three) and the sort of silver coin (one) and shook his head, flinging beads of dew in my face. "That won't do it, bro," he said. Then, "Gotta get down to the bus."
I imagined he was taking the bus to Tibet but he said he was just going across the Caloosahatche river to Fort Myers. And that was it, my brother left me standing there with an open palm of very short change.

It was only later I realized that my new brother had turned reality up on its ear. He had put a big tilt on my day. Everything had been so much the same and he had turned it upside down and inside out by being nothing other than himself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Water Mumma

I don't collect folk art. It collects me. This female figure is called a water mumma in Jamaica, also known as Mama Erzuli in Haiti. In the southern U.S. various native tribes celebrated the power of the mermaid. The Biloxi and Pascagoula people considered her to be a deity. They say you can still hear her singing in the Bay of Biloxi at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is believed that you can gain her assistance if you drop a silver cross into the water. In Jamaica, water mumma watches over natural springs. She is said to have gold hair and her offspring travel around her in a gyre or a silver circle of small fishes. She holds a golden comb in her hand and that is her power. You must be careful not to look her in the eye because people who do that become crazy. This particular water mumma was carved by Uton "Ernie" Hinds from Oracabessa. She stands fifteen inches high. Thanks to Mariah Fox for the "Jamaican barrel painting" behind the mermaid. Some viewers may remember Ernie as "Tall T" in the novel, The Jacob Ladder. Others may actually know him from our Jamaican summer school at Blue Harbour, Port Maria, St. Mary, JA. Ernie sent us this mermaid last week and she now is on a stand in front of the big fish tank in our living room. We know she likes it there. I do not look directly into her eyes out of respect. I am already crazy and don't need any more help in that direction.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Orange Alligator and the Life Hereafter

I have seen a white coyote but I never saw an orange alligator until my friend Ross LewAllen painted one and when I raved it about it he gave it to me. Now it graces a wall in my office. I look at it every day, especially now that Ross is gone into the great dreamtime, a place he often talked about. I have had at least four encounters with him in the spirit world or what some call "the next experience."

I dream, in other words, and he comes into the dream. But there have also been times where he has done something out of my dream. Usually, he "tricks" me, plays some little fun game like kicking me gently behind the knees. Once he made the shovel I was holding -- while I was shoveling doggy poop in the yard -- do a jitterbug in my hands. Whenever he comes around, or comes back from the spirit world, there is some little trick afoot and afun. He always said he was a trickster and now he's proven it.

A couple of nights ago, I woke out of a dream in which he was present. It was 3AM. I looked at the clock and mysteriously felt the need to see Ross' painting of the orange gator. But before I got out of bed, the lights in the kitchen came on and the room burst into an eerie shade of orange. I got up, turned the crazy lights off, and standing in the dark, said, "Ross, I love your orange alligator and you too, you devil."

How many times does the average human need to be "awakened" into the truth that we do not die? That life goes on, and on. This is no consolation for some especially those who wish to go off into that good night and not be bothered with anything they might have done, or not done, in what we insist is the one and only life, the material one we slog through day after day.

My father-in-law was the greatest skeptic when it came to afterlife, as he called it. But one time when we had a heated argument, I told him, "There is only life." And he said, "If you say so." After he passed he came back twice. Once in Prague where he tapped my forehead the way he did when he was alive. And another time in Florida, when he sat at the bottom of our bed and said very clearly, "Gerry, you were right. There is only life."