Category: Art

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Terry Ehret, Poet, Former Sonoma County Poet Laureate, interviewed by Davi...

Terry Ehret

November 7th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Terry Ehret, Poet, Former Sonoma County Poet Laureate

interviewed by David Garyan


Terry Ehret’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: With Valerie Berry, Margaret Kaufman, Jacqueline Kudler, Diane Sher Lutovich, Carolyn Miller, and Susan Sibbet you founded Sixteen Rivers Press in 1999, a non-profit collective that aims to give alternatives to traditional publishing platforms. Can you talk a bit about the foundational process?

TE: The idea of a San Francisco Bay Area regional publishing collective started in 1996 when I was attending the Flight of the Mind writing workshops for women in Oregon. So many writers, including myself, wondered about all the money we were spending to not get published, and I was thinking out loud about writers pooling their resources to launch a publishing venture they would run themselves. Ruth Gundle, one of the directors of Flight, pulled me aside and told me that what I was musing about was something called a publishing collective. She put me in touch with one of the founders of Alice James Books, which was at that time a regional collective in the Boston area. It took three years to gather the founding members and launch Sixteen Rivers. We imagined ourselves as a kind of West Coast Alice James. Building an all-volunteer collaborative, consensus-based collective from the ground up was exciting. We’re still excited to be producing beautiful books 24 years later. Part of our mission is to mentor other groups interested in the collective publishing process, so we’ve been able to offer the documents, contracts, timelines, and other materials (some of them years in the making) to help presses launch themselves without having to reinvent the wheel.

DG: The press must have gone through many changes since its founding in 1999. Can you speak about these changes? What is different? What has stayed the same?

TE: We continue to be a nonprofit, non-hierarchical, all-volunteer organization. The authors make very little money (they are paid in copies of their books), because all our profits go towards publishing the next year’s books. It’s an unusual business model, but it seems to work.

Our first change was one we’d always planned on: opening the press beyond the founding members through an open manuscript selection process. We don’t do contests, nor do we charge a reading fee, holding to some of the original vision we had for the press. After a few successful years of publishing women (and after much discussion), we decided to open up the press to men. Since then, we’ve worked at creating a collective with poetic voices as diverse ethnically and aesthetically as the Bay Area itself. It’s been a vital but slow transformation. Perhaps too slow. But we’re committed to this. One way we’ve succeeded in being more inclusive is through the publication of our anthologies and chapbooks, which don’t require authors to make the three-year commitment to help run the press, and which allows us to promote the work of younger authors who might not be ready to submit a full-length book manuscript.

DG: How has running a publishing house influenced your own creative work?

TE: I’m not sure I’d characterize Sixteen Rivers as a publishing house. More of a cottage industry. We don’t even have a physical location. Until COVID and zoom made online meetings possible, we met for business meetings in members’ homes. I’d always hoped that the work of running a collective would free our writer-members from the mill of manuscript contests and submissions, and maybe encourage our poets to take some risks with poetry that might not fit the mainstream publishing expectations. That has been true for me, especially the press’s support of the translation projects I’ve undertaken this past decade. I really love the creative freedom and authorial control each author has over design and production. I also think it’s empowering for writers to be their own publishers.

DG: From 2004 to 2006, you served as the Poet Laureate for Sonoma County. Can you talk about the experiences you had during those two years?

TE: When I first moved to Sonoma County from San Francisco in 1990, I was struck by how supportive and non-competitive the writing community is here. Everyone’s success is celebrated. The writers here encourage and lift each other up. So being selected Poet Laureate of Sonoma County was a tremendous honor. During my two-year term, I had quite a few projects; one was to create a literary bridge between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities. I started by helping to create a bilingual Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading that has become part of my home town’s annual El Día de los Muertos celebration.  I also revived our county’s Poetry on the Bus project, placing poems on county transit buses and featuring work in Spanish and English by writers from all walks of life, both adults and teens. I also envisioned an online literary arts bulletin board called the Sonoma County Literary Update. We launched back in 2006 and the website is now an online fixture in the community. It’s where local writers go to find a monthly calendar of events, calls for submission, county-wide announcements, workshops, etc.

DG: On September 23, 2011, you read a poem called “How Fascism Will Come,” which you wrote specifically for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change reading. The beginning line of the last stanza reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will enter on the winds of our silence and indifference and complacency.” It’s been twelve years since you read the poem. What inspired the poem and how do you feel about it today?

TE: I am not a rant kind of gal, so this poem is somewhat out of character for me. I hadn’t intended to write a poem in this style. I started with the quote, sometimes attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” With Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, and with the political shifts to the right in our country, it was clear to me that fascism had already arrived. I guess that’s what provoked the rant. The poem is composed of images and fragments of online articles I found when I googled the Sinclair Lewis quote, and I framed it all for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event, which brought together poets from all over the world, reading and ranting in their own countries and communities. Since then, it has made the rounds of the internet and been reprinted in many blogs and newsletters. Apparently, and unfortunately, readers still find its message relevant.

DG: Along with writing and publishing, you’ve also hosted regular poetry workshops. How have these experiences not only enriched your understanding of poetry but also what poets themselves are capable of?

TE: For most of my writing life, I’ve earned my living by teaching developmental reading and writing and basic composition. But I have also had the opportunity to teach creative writing at various local colleges and universities. In 2000, I was invited to offer private workshops on whatever topics I wanted at the Sitting Room, a community library focusing on women writers and their work. Those workshops were amazing and deeply satisfying. Many friendships were forged there, and the Sitting Room has an ever-expanding shelf of book and chapbook publications by workshop participants. Some years I would choose a particular theme, like the prose poem, poetry and mythology, prosody, silence, creative revision; other years, the focus would be on a text or author, and we’d spend months together in a deep dive into Beowulf, the Romantic poets, H.D., Ann Carson, W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Dante. I invited guest poets to talk about their creative process and read their work. Each week I’d come up with writing prompts based on the work we were reading and discussing, and we’d all write together. I love the mysterious way that writing in a group creates cross-fertilization and images that seem to leap from one poet to another. Many of my own poems were drafted in these sessions. Sometimes the workshops would be followed by a field trip—two weeks in the west of Ireland or Wales or Tuscany. How lucky I was to be able to choose my teaching topics and pursue them without the burden of grades or homework or any of the aspects of academia that can dim the natural pleasures of teaching!

DG: Apart from your own writing, translation is also a part of your repertoire. You’ve talked about discovering the “Mexican poet Ulalume González de León in a workshop on the prose poem at San Francisco State in 1982.” Can you speak a bit more about how your translation efforts have developed since then? Any chance for a full-length collection in the future?

TE: Frances Mayes’s graduate workshop used the text The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, edited by Michael Benedikt. It featured a long prose poem in fifteen parts, “Anatomy of Love,” and I was instantly enthralled by the language: richly erotic imagery blending anatomical and scientific vocabulary in an unconventional syntax. To discover just how this poem’s magic worked, I experimented with the seventh part, “a la recherche du corps perdu.” I dismantled the language, organizing the words by parts of speech; then I assembled them in new patterns, rather like the process of recombinant DNA, to create a “mutant” poem. This became “Lost Body,” the title poem of my first collection.

Thirty years later, wanting to read more of González de León’s work, I Googled the name, not knowing at the time that this mysterious poet was a “she”—a confusion she apparently didn’t mind and even courted during her life. Oddly enough, the first entry that came up was my name. I had no idea how this could be, until I realized that the one reference to her name in English on the Internet was my poem, with its epigraph referencing González de León. Immediately I wanted to rectify this and find a way to bring this poet’s life and work to a wider English-speaking audience. Working with fellow Sonoma County poets John Johnson and Nancy Morales, we set to work translating some of her poems. Our project began in the fall of 2012, and has resulted so far in two published volumes of UGL’s poetry. A third volume is in the works, and should come out in 2025. I love learning the nuances of the art of translation, and I’ve come to appreciate the responsibility my partners and I have undertaken to be the first to bring this author’s collected published poems to an English-reading audience.

A full-length collection of my own work in the future? Oh, yes! I haven’t published a book of my own work since 2011, but I have many poems waiting to be assembled into one or two manuscripts. I can’t wait to turn my focus back on these poems!

DG: Who is the one poet you turn to most often for inspiration?

TE: I am always inspired by the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. His work is endlessly resourceful, and he so skillfully manages that balancing act of suspension between the conscious and the unconscious.  A prose writer I frequently reread is Jane Austen, and another, more contemporary is Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I was fortunate to know as both a mentor and a friend.

DG: What are you reading and/or working on at the moment?

TE: I’ve just finished reading, for the first time, Ursula Le Guin’s six Earthsea books. I knew her when she was writing the last three in the series, and I see in her characters, narratives, and dialogues so much of what she was exploring with us in our workshops at Flight of the Mind.

In addition to poetry manuscripts in the works, I have a long languishing novel (don’t we all?), which is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War, revisiting the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey, but in order to unearth the female-centered pre-Hellenic world that can be found under the surface of those epic poems. It’s long overdue for a major revision, and I’m looking forward to getting back into that world.

I have always been interested in ekphrastic poetry—writing in response to visual art—and have enjoyed working with artists I know. In particular, I have quite a few poems inspired by the Slovakian abstract expressionist painter Andrea Smiskova Ehret (who is married to my nephew), and she has created a number of paintings in response to my poems. I’d love to bring out a volume of these collaborations.

Author Bio:

Writer, teacher, and translator, Terry Ehret has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey, and translated two volumes of poems by Mexican poet Ulalume González de León. She is a co-founder of Sixteen Rivers Press, and from 2004-2006 she served as poet laureate of Sonoma County. In the summers, she offers travel programs for writers.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Suzanne Bruce, Fairfield Poet Laureate, interviewed by David Garyan

Suzanne Bruce

November 4th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Suzanne Bruce, Fairfield Poet Laureate

interviewed by David Garyan

Suzanne Bruce’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: You’re the current poet laureate of Fairfield, CA, a position you assumed on July 1st, 2022. Can you tell our readers what the last year and a half has been like for you?

SB: First, it was a true honor to be appointed by our city council with mayoral approval. This past year and a half has been extremely busy, but full of excitement and elation! When appointed to the position, my main goal was to give community voices diverse opportunities to be heard through creative writing. On the logistical side of achieving this, opening communication with organizations, and coordinating venues within our community took time, but I was so appreciative of the welcome I received to set up various collaborations. The real joy is when people come and feel comfortable sharing their poems! The support I have received from the city, our libraries and other establishments has been much appreciated.

DG: A big passion of yours is ekphrastic work, and you’ve worked extensively in this genre. How did you become fascinated with art and when did you decide that poetry would be the best way to describe it?

SB: I have always loved eclectic styles of art. My husband was in the military and during our many reassignments, we always purchased an art piece that would remind us of the place where we lived at that time. We feel these pieces each tell a story of that part of our lives. I became more serious about my interest in writing poetry when he retired. Then the idea of putting art and poetry together intrigued me. In 2005, I, together with an artist friend I met in yoga class, attended an ekphrastic workshop to see how we could work together. It was an automatic and natural match. We began working closely together sharing the various stages of her artistic creations and my poetry. It was a catalyst for me to see “beyond” the art and express my feelings of it through words. She and I have continued to work together all these years. We have two published collections of many of those works: “Voices Beyond the Canvas” (2007) and “Her Visions Her Voices” (2015)

I have also written some ekphrastic poems with other artists within our community and surrounding cities. And I have started an ongoing ekphrastic collaboration with our local art association so that experienced as well as aspiring poets can write poems to art for each of the scheduled exhibits. Participants read their work inspired by the art at the exhibit’s reception. It is so thrilling to see others excited about ekphrasis!

DG: Apart from poetry and art, you’ve also taught for many years. How has this work influenced what you do in your creative life?

SB: Being a teacher is a profession that is more than merely explaining subject matter. It is about inspiring and motivating students to become aware of their own potential and apply that to all aspects of their lives. Yet as a teacher, I learned so much from my students as well. Watching their uninhibited selves through language, movement and artistic expression was enlightening. I ask myself, why do we as adults not keep that honesty and spontaneity as we age? What can we do to keep that spark, that inner voice, unfettered? Writing poetry is often that link for me—letting my real-self speak rather than the one I think others want to hear.

DG: To promote the work of others, you’re also doing a monthly poetry column to help aspiring writers gain a platform. How is the column structured and what type of work have you received so far?

SB: When I contacted our local newspaper about this idea, I wanted to feature student poetry. I entitled it “The Poetry Connection.” I think it is so important that we let our youth know their voices can be heard. I reached out to local schoolteachers to see if they had students interested in sharing. I have received responses from various high schools, both on relevant themes, such as Black History Month, as well as non-themed writing. I have received work from Community College students studying in creative writing programs.  Fifth graders who wrote about various colors and then decorated their poems were also showcased, as well as the winners from our library teen poetry writing contest. This past summer I attended a youth art camp to discuss how they can combine art and words. Those attendees wrote haiku to their art projects. People have come to my open mics and told me how much they appreciate seeing youth poetry represented and how it actually encouraged them to write.

All the poems that are submitted to me for newspaper publication consideration are then hung in our locally owned downtown coffee shop. I change the poems out once a month to give all contributors an equal opportunity to have their pieces seen and read.

DG: Many of your poems deal with identity and how that identity either blends or resists any given community in which its situated. This work tends to have a different feel compared to your ekphrastic pieces. Do you analyze any given setting, then write about it, or is this work more internal?

SB: It is a little of both. I am an observer and try to take in all views. I am also one who internalizes what I am seeing. When I feel impassioned about a situation, I am compelled to write—a need to creatively express with wonder and curiosity. Without trying to place words in poetic form, I simply write down what I am experiencing. Sometimes it is just a need to put those emotions onto paper. Later I go back and re-visit my thoughts. That is when the process of writing a poem begins.

But I also want the readers of my work to take their own journey with each poem. How I felt or shared sentiments does not mean that this is how the reader must take them.

DG: It’s been known that you prefer, first, to write in longhand. Can you talk a bit more about your drafting and editing process? Is it fairly consistent, or does each poem require its own steps?

SB: Yes, I start with pen and paper because that is the way I feel writing poems which come from my heart down my arm and through my hand. Once I have the core of the poem completed, then I will go to the computer and type it, playing with various line lengths/breaks/form. Each poem is unique. Some come right away, and I may only do one or two revisions. Others I leave alone and let them “rest,” then I come back later and see how I feel about them. Some poems get as many as ten or more tweaks and rewrites. Most of the time I do not know how I want the poem to end until I am there. It is as if the poem writes its own ending.

DG: Another one of your projects has been mixing hiking (and the outdoors in general) with poetry. Physical activity as an analogue to intellectual pursuits used to be a staple in the ancient world, but we seem to have lost this connection. What are the main aims you’re hoping to achieve with this program?

SB: Nature can be an impetus for writing. I am so happy that our Land Trust has been open to helping set up hiking adventures so I can encourage writers to come and explore. I decided to call these events “Hike and Write” because that is what we do. I research poems that go along with the season and the terrain and type those poems into a handout. We read a poem or two, hike a bit, then stop and write—continuing this on throughout the duration of the hike. Docents come along and talk about the history as well as the plants and animals that continue to live on the land we are hiking. I am hoping these opportunities will not only help people become more familiar with our open spaces and beautiful land, but that individuals can also use this time to let their own creative voice wander. Participants send me their final pieces about 2 weeks after each hike. I share them with the Land Trust and all the other participants with the hope that each poet feels their writing inspired by nature is heard and shared.

DG: Being so closely situated to San Pablo Bay, and having plenty of green spaces surrounding the city, is there perhaps a location that inspires you in particular?

SB: Yes, going to the coast. I have always been drawn to water and in particular oceans. The Pacific Coastline here is rugged and very compelling. I find energy and peace there at the same time. It is a good balance for me because when I go there, it is as if time stops. It feels like I am in a completely different world, one so opposite from my daily suburban routine. I often write about the ocean and the beautiful surroundings. Sometimes, however, the space and time there helps my mind revisit things that are difficult, and it offers me the safety to be able to think and then write about them. Or sometimes it lets things I am exuberant about run through my spirit and I can celebrate.

DG: What are you reading and/or working on at the moment?

SB: I try to read some novels in between writing. Right now I am in the middle of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. But I also go to poetry books as I believe reading poetry strengthens one’s own creative writing. I have recently read our CA State Poet Laureate Lee Herrick’s “Gardening Secrets of the Dead” and also our US Poet Laureate Ada Limon’s The Carrying. I have just started Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame.

Much of my personal poetry work is on hold right now. As Poet Laureate, I write poems for the city proclamations and other special events, which is a very different kind of writing. I am concentrating my energy on setting up various venues and events for others to come and share their work. However, I am still involved with a poetry group I have been meeting with for almost 20 years. We share weekly prompts to help boost our skills and inspire us to try new forms. It is a good way to keep me motivated to write poems that are not connected to my poet laureate duties.

I continue to journal and jot down ideas and thoughts. I look forward to having the time to back through them and create new poetry. It will be like putting my hand back in the cookie jar!

Author Bio:

Suzanne Bruce holds a B.S. in Education from the University of Tulsa and did graduate work in Behavior Disorders at Wichita State University. She taught in various schools across the county during her husband’s 22 years in the Air Force. Suzanne has been the MC for the Solano County Library Foundation’s Authors Luncheon for 6 years, introducing many nationally known authors. In 2022, she conducted an on-stage conversation with author Amy Tan. Her poems have won several prizes and she has been published in numerous journals, such as Copperfield ReviewPhati’tudeSuisun Valley Review and Jessamyn West. Her books, Voices Beyond the Canvas (2007) and Her Visions Her Voices (2015), are ekphrastic duets with artist Janet Manalo.  She is the current Poet Laureate for the city of Fairfield, CA, setting up ongoing ekphrastic events with art groups and ‘hike and writes’ with the county land trust, writing a once-a-month column for the city newspaper featuring student poetry, as well as hosting monthly open mics.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler, interviewed by David Garyan

John Brandi

October 9th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler

interviewed by David Garyan


John Brandi’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: I’d like to begin with your most recent book, A Luminous Uplift, Landscape & Memory, a project which spotlights forty years of your writing career. Included in the collection are also new writings. The work is set to be released on October 31st, 2023. Can you give readers a sneak peek? Are the pieces arranged chronologically? How did you choose what to include, what to leave out? In addition, did the compilation/writing of this book cause you to see your experiences in a new light, or perhaps make you remember something you’d long forgotten?

JB: A Luminous Uplift is subtitled Landscape and Memory. Recollection is where it begins. Books, maps, human and physical geography, the idea of walking into a landscape and recording something about it were all part of my early upbringing. The book proceeds into how that background affected my creative focus as an adult. My parents came to Southern California in the early 1930s as Michigan transplants. My father found work as an accountant at the Los Angeles Examiner. Photography was his hobby. His favored camera was a large-format press camera. He and my mother were enthusiastic about their new environment of mountain, desert, and seashore—dad with his camera and wooden tripod, mom as a supportive partner. I was the back-seat kid traveling with them on their road trips. It was they who gave me pencil and paper and asked me to draw whatever impressed me, and to write a line about it: a bear invading our camp, Indian pictographs on a rock, an ocean wave that knocked me down. When the drawings and writings accumulated, my parents gathered them up. “Now you have some pages, all you need is a cover and a title.” So I would do that and they would staple the pages and cover together, and hand them back to me. “Now you have a book.”

Thinking about the many times I told this story when students asked how books became part of my life, I decided I was ready to collect some memories. Luminous Uplift begins with my mother reading from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Treasure Island, the Scribner’s edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Later I was gifted books on natural history, geography, and famous paintings. Often we would peruse scrapbooks of my father’s photos and notes taken while serving as an army private in the India-Burma Theater. Thatched villages, stone temples, saddhus, street markets. In his darkroom I watched magic images—the Taj Mahal, minarets of a mosque, a multi-armed goddess appear as he swirled the paper in a tray of solution. As a teenager I discovered John Muir and Steinbeck after hiking the Sierras and driving the Baja coast. Early college years I was interested in oddball Indian saints, Ramakrishna, and Tagore. A bit later: Watts, Suzuki, Japanese haiku masters, Spanish poets, the American Beats, notebooks of Paul Klee, and all sorts of lost-in-the-shadows renegades who published their poems in mimeographed editions. In South America I read James Agee, Orwell, Baldwin, Graham Greene, Conrad, Gide, Barbara Tuchman, and others packed into a foot-locker the Peace Corps provided to keep you sane in your bamboo hut. Books! No little handheld screen to keep you occupied.

The core of A Luminous Uplift consists of published and unpublished prose. Landscapes that affected me as a poet-painter. A section called “Somewhere in the East” is devoted to haibun sketches, essays published in small mags, excerpts from limited-edition books. The Himalayas, India, Ghalib’s house, Khajuraho, Sikkim, a Balinese trance dance. A second section focuses on the American Southwest: Hopi sky villages, Río Grande Pueblos, Nanao Sakaki, details from homelife in northern New Mexico, my evolving haiku practice.

DG: You were friends with the notable Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. As a walking, wandering writer, there are many stories about him—even that he once walked from California to New York and back. Can you talk about his influence on you, and conversely, to what extent you think the American West influenced his own perception of the Far Eastern culture from which he came?

JB: Nanao was the archetypal planet pilgrim. His address book had no A to Z order of last names. It went by regions, starting with friends in Japan, then Australia, Indonesia, Alaska, Seattle. And so on. Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, New York City, Western Europe, Caucasus, China. Nanao settled in an old school bus below Taos Mountain for awhile, a good base. Once, as I was leaving the bus, he stuck his head out the window: “Come back,” he laughed, “You forgot your footprint!” Nanao was a planetary citizen, but in the unique style of the old Japanese outrider poets Saigyo, Ikkyu, Ryōkan. Creative rule-breakers whose priorities were to get down low, see the world through the eyes of common people. You’d find Nanao talking to a purple gentian on a rocky slope, or singing a Japanese folk song on a New York sidewalk  or along a prehistoric trail in Chaco Canyon. His reputation grew not through a promotional website, clever bio, or a fat list of published books, but by meeting people face to face. No Instagram, Linked In, Facebook. He created dialogue with the likes of bears, humans, dragonflies, and maidenhair ferns. He stood up for threatened landscapes, especially the Okinawa coral reefs.

Nanao was a quintessential drop out. He quit the Japanese mainstream after World War II, organized the Bum Academy, took up communal life on a remote Japanese island with farmers and fisherfolk. When he came to New Mexico, it wasn’t just the unusual topography—mesas, high desert, craggy peaks—that called him. It was the indigenous cultures, their song, poetry, and ritual-drama. Also, the pioneering spirit of the evolving counter-culture that took root in the Sixties. Independent thinkers, especially artists, who had come to live in the rugged mountain valleys. Nanao was at home with the anarchist spirit of northern New Mexico, Indians and Hispanos with a history of standing up to protect their land, water, language, and lifestyles.

DG: You’ve been impressively prolific in the haiku genre, having published almost an equivalent number of books as your poetry collections. Is it an effortless transition, or is poetry all poetry in the end for you?

JB: Poetry, in whatever form the experience, the place, the emotional pitchpoint demands—haiku, prose poem, haibun, enlightened fragments, solitary experience, social experience—is the beginning and the end. An out-of-frame, out-of-time vibration sounded into words. As a poet-painter I have a work space split into an easel room and a desk room. On some days what I can’t write I paint; on others, what I can’t paint I write. Right now I have an exhibit up in Santa Fe, “Wind, Water & Temblor: Geologic Ruminations.” At the opening I’ll do a reading from a just-released haiku collection, The Rain Sweeps Through. Small book, small poems, small adobe gallery that steps down into a little garden. My favorite kind of venue.

DG: Apart from poetry, prose, and translation, you’re also an artist. You’ve held exhibitions in places like the Magpie Gallery in Taos. The work you do is heavily influenced by themes of nature, but the depictions have magical elements to them, especially the collages. Can you speak about the beginning of your artistic journey, your influences, and whether you see art and literature as very much connected, or distinctly separate, specifically in your creative approach?

JB: I’ve already covered some of this, but I could add that I had an early fascination with Wyeth’s illustrations, Ryder’s paintings, Paul Klee’s magically configured kingdoms, old geography books. I loved the contours on topographic maps, following squiggles, copying them, expanding them as an adult, blending the earth’s seismic activity with my own psychic contours. Recently my wife asked me what all the dots and graphite flecks in my drawings were about. First thing that came to mind: “They are particles of air and enthusiasm.”

DG: In your early days, activism was very much at the heart of both your personal and poetic activities. Abroad, you worked with disenfranchised populations, and at home you were well integrated in the counter-culture movement, working with individuals we now consider household names. Do you think those times have anything to teach us about the world we live in today? In other words, would a cultural rediscovery of those ideals, in your view, be beneficial in changing the current world, or do you think we need a new activism—with a new philosophy, or perhaps a hybrid approach?

JB: The Sixties were wide open, a time of loosening, reckoning, opening up, throwing off the old, making new. Michael McClure said it was the very energy that defines poetry. A shifting merge of dream and waking into new structures of verse; new music, new publishing, new ways of living. There’s lots to not just remember, but to reawaken: simple lifestyle; no sell-out to overblown consumerism and corporate sales pitch; absolute resistance to tyrant political rap. A friend active in the drive to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964 reminds me our struggle is even harder now. So-called public debate is infused with mythology like that of the dark ages; politics filled with even more hate and conflict than we faced in the Sixties.

You can step to the side, hide out somewhere. But times have changed. The electronic eyeballs are on us. Wherever we go, we are visible. Better to grow roots in one place, keep things small, base yourself in a circle of progressive individuals, plant a tomato, give away some peaches, maintain a positive attitude. As for the evil voices out there, Lew Welch said you’ve got to have “charms against their rage. If nobody tried to live this way, all the work in the world would be in vain.” He also said “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal Them!”

An artist can disregard social-political commitment and get on with his work. Or regard such commitment as part of his work. In the Sixties I worked with a group of Americans and Ecuadorians to help connect indigenous people who were organizing to take legal action to retrieve their stolen lands. They were Quechua serfs scratching out a living in a visually stunning landscape under the snows of 20,000-foot Chimborazo. Between interviews I began writing poems from notes scribbled in a pocket pad. Some were political rants that ended in the wastebasket. Others brought to the forefront voices of the underdogs, people the media usually kept in the background. Some poems found their way into little mags back home. It was a boost. And I would have missed it had I stayed home like some of my college teachers advised. They said I needed to raise my visibility as an artist, establish an audience. Worthy advice, but I tossed it aside as practical and limiting.

Speaking of small circles, a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert reported on a circle of scientists studying the language of sperm whales, threatened, like most creatures, by climate change. One marine biologist, when asked why research, replied “Inspiration is the key. If we could communicate with animals, ask them questions and receive answers–no matter how simple those questions and answers might turn out to be–the world might soon be moved enough to at least start the process of halting our runaway destruction of life.”

DG: I’d like to speak about your travels in relation to the guiding activities you’ve undertaken with the students you’ve taught. Which fond memories or particularly special experiences do you most treasure?

JB: I loved the outback schools in Alaska where a classroom was more like a living room full of shoes-off students lying about the floor. An extended family. One winter I was bush-piloted into a Yupik village. The fourth graders were out ice fishing along the river. When we got back into the classroom the kids were fresh with the experience of drilling holes, dropping their lines, waiting in the cold, pulling out pike. I had a haiku project in mind. We read wilderness poems of ancient China, then launched into writing haiku while the cafeteria was busy frying up the catch. After we read our poems we had a feast. It was a memorable time!

I got to another Yupik village one weekend, and the men immediately invited me to sweat. Jokes were made about how I was going to be cooked. “You bring d’salt Freddie?” It was a test  to see if I had a sense of humor, a must if you want to hang with Native Americans. When we exited the steam room for the antechamber where we left our clothes, I found my bundle missing. The men smiled and helped me look around. “Don’ see ‘em anywhere, d’you Alex?” I ended hobbling through the snow–a towel around my waist—right into a kitchen where the women and girls were waiting to sweat. Everybody giggled as I stood there dripping. Then one of the men pointed to a kettle of salmon chowder and freshly-baked rolls on the counter. Next to them were my clothes. The laughter was communal. I dressed and sat down to eat with the men while the ladies left to sweat. On Monday morning the same girls who saw me near-naked in the kitchen were still giggling as they entered the classroom for my poetry session.

DG: On your website, you make some of your travel journal available to read for free. One of the many interesting observations you make is about is about the Hindu tradition of Theyyam, best described perhaps, as a mix of ritual, theater, and religion. As you write: “Theyyam performances are remote from the West’s notion of theater on a raised stage. Here, the earth is the platform. Characters roam helterskelter in a courtyard, disappear into the trees, return through the crowd, vanish into mist. As in a Javanese shadow-puppet play, the audience is free to roam. There is no fixed place where one must be …. And that is what lies beneath all Theyyam rituals: unpredictability.” Apart from perhaps the indigenous populations, would you say that there are parallels between Theyyam and any of our artistic traditions, or do you feel that the West, especially, today—with its obsessive need to categorize and rationalize—is much too uncomfortable with unpredictability?

JB: Unpredictability is uncomfortable for all of us. Especially in travel. To get  lost is to become vulnerable. So many of us want it all sorted out before we leave home. No risks. The mythic journey is sabotaged for the rational linear route. In the old days of travel one left home and was gone. No email connect. Hardly a working phone to be found in Mongolia. No web surfing to bring up the next destination. No seeing before going. No checking out rooms online. Travel was a bumpy ride full of conflicts and resolutions. You got lost, had to ask real questions to real people. You floundered and fumbled. Your head got turned around, you came back somebody new. You do the same in poetry. Get lost, fumble, reawaken, find yourself in new territory. Unpredictability drives the poem.

I don’t think I answered your question about parallels between the Theyyam ritual and artistic traditions in the West. In New Mexico the same sacred and profane juxtaposition in the Theyyams—bawdy clowning, serious propitiation of the gods, oracular advice—you find in the Pueblo rituals. During the plaza ceremonies dancers are choreographed into intricate weaves, the women robed and crowned with wooden headdresses, the men in kilts and skins, shaking gourd rattles to call the rain. All the while impersonators of deer, eagle, antelope prance about to a chorus of singers and drummers. Then come the clowns—in breechcloths, bodies earth smeared—hooting, yelling, mirroring bad-mannered humans joking and pointing, refusing to become part of the dance. But soon the clowns begin to see that life is more than fooling around. That is their message for us. They begin to sing with the chorus and learn how to dance from the dancers. And they show compassion. Now and then one will stop to adjust a little boy’s animal skin, or refasten a girl’s headdress.

DG: You’ve amassed a great deal of experiences (both through travel and art). A great deal of experiences, likewise, is yet to be had. Years on the road and words on the page have brought you to the great state of New Mexico, where you’ve settled. Can you talk about the foundation and reasons which made it irresistible for you to choose this road?

JB: Ha, I’d like to get out of answering the question by referring you to the book itself. The final chapter of Luminous Uplift, titled “Finding New Mexico,” was inspired during a phone conversation with Gary Snyder where I found myself complaining that my grandkids had never asked how I got to New Mexico. “Well sometimes you just have to begin telling the story,” he advised. The story begins in 1971 when a friend gave me his pickup and set me on the road. But it really goes back to the first travels with my parents, early discoveries of outriders like Hale Tharpe, a hermit who lived in a fallen redwood. Or meeting poet Eric Barker who had a cabin in the cliffs of the Big Sur. Or Johnny Lovewisdom in the Andes, a writer-philosopher dropout who lived in a stone hut and showed me how to mimeograph my own poems.

DG: In all your travels, what’s the tastiest dish you’ve tried and which New Mexican one would you recommend to a guest from abroad?

JB: I’m trying to come up with something far away and exotic, maybe a jerk chicken on a Jamaican beach; a pulao spiced with pistachios, dried fruit, and saffron at a Kashmiri wedding; a lamb souvlaki in Thessaloniki; or a red curry in the Chiang Rai night market. But my favorite eating experience—one I’d recommend to any world traveler—is right here in New Mexico in the pueblo of Kewa, also known as Santo Domingo. On August 4, the big feast day of dance and ceremony, the villagers open their homes to the public. A communal table is set with food for guests who are called in from a living room decorated with blankets, baskets, pottery, and family photos. At the table you share talk with a dozen strangers between servings of the best slow-cooked red chile with pork, and green chile with beef you’ll ever taste. On the table you also help yourself to bread baked in outdoor adobe ovens, bowls of posole, pinto beans, tamales steamed in corn husks, cheese enchiladas, cold slaw, sautéed squash and corn, melon, strawberry Jell-O topped with Kool Whip, plum pie, and anise cookies called biscochitos.

DG: Apart from getting ready to release your newest book, are you reading or working on anything else at the moment?

JB: Frankly, I need a bit of a break. I’d like to return to Canyon de Chelly for some sketching. There’s also New York, the Nicolas Roerich Museum. And maybe another Aegean island. But with two books out this fall, there is promotion. Plus an archive commitment with UC Berkeley. Let alone the woodpile, planting of garlic, and putting away the garden tools. The first frost happened yesterday, and today’s the annular solar eclipse. So much going on!

14 October 23
Río Arriba, New Mexico

Author Bio:

John Brandi was born in Los Angeles, 1943. Early travels in the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave, and along the Big Sur coast proved to be unshakable experiences from which his world travels grew. After receiving a B.A. from San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), he worked in the Peace Corps with Quechua farmers in the Andean land rights struggle. In South America he began publishing his poems, became an active war protester during the Vietnam era, returned to North America to live in Alaska and Mexico, built a cabin in a remote Southwest canyon, received a National Endowment Poetry Fellowship in 1979, and worked as an itinerant poet in schools, prisons, backland ranching communities, Pueblo and Diné tribal centers, and as a lecturer for students in Mexico, Indonesia, and India. He gave keynote addresses for haiku conferences in Canada and the Punjab, and was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for A House by Itself: Selected Haiku Masaoka Shiki. In 2015 a limited edition of his haibun, Into the Dream Maze, was issued by the Press at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, followed by Planet Pilgrim, his paean to Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. Two books of poetry and travels appeared in 2019 and 2020: The Great Unrest (White Pine) and The Way to Thorong La (Empty Bowl). As a visual artist, he’s been honored with solo exhibits in San Francisco, Taos, Santa Fe, Houston, and Milwaukee. His papers are at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Sit Still! A Poet’s Need to See and Do Everything, by Gary Soto

Gary Soto

October 8th, 2023

Sit Still!

A Poet’s Need to See and Do Everything

Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Memoirist

The start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2021 shut down everything. Without much to do, poet Gary Soto visited his garage and his personal archive, namely eight boxes where he stores programs, leaflets, fliers, and ticket stubs from his outings to cultural events, historical homes and palaces, parks and gardens. From this material—and a way to keep busy—he wrote capsule reviews and commentaries about those entertainments. His literary influence? Samuel Pepys, of course.   

Playbills (photo by Carolyn Soto, and all photos thereafter)

I don’t stay home much. When I do, I’m in my recliner scanning the newspaper or looking online for discounted tickets. What might it be? Theater, ballet, jazz, comedy, classical music, department store opening, political rally, contemporary art museum, historical home, burlesque show, religious service, Earth Day clean up, movie, sporting event, county fair, Fourth of July parade? Three or four times a week I’m out the front door, feeling for keys in my pants pocket as I head to the car.

My wife has had enough of my antsy behavior. “Can’t you stay home?” she asks. “Can’t you sit still?”

No. No puedo.

I recall asking fatigued friends in London, “You guys want to see Ham House?” I described the seventeenth-century home with its formal and informal gardens, plus one-of-a-kind orangery. A Grade 1 listed building, I told them. Their yawns were as large as sombreros. So, I went alone, paid my admission, looked at the furniture and the paintings on the walls, absently plucked a leaf from a box hedge in the formal garden, and made sure to carry away a brochure. This brochure I keep in Box 6 in the garage. I’m up to eight boxes, each one holding mementos of my excursions.

For the sake of play and as an exercise in memory (I’m seventy, aware of the hourglass pouring out its last grains), I outline in diary form my life away from home, using evidence pulled at random from those eight boxes in the garage.


Book Passage, Corte Madera, California. I’m at this venerable bookstore to hear Claire Tomalin, an English biographer and journalist. This particular evening she will read from and discuss her new Samuel Pepys, a biography of the greatest diarist of all time. In his day, Pepys was a mischief maker, emissary of shadowy political dealings, multilingual philanderer (he wrote in quasi-Spanish about his illicit encounters), and chronicler of London before and after the Great Fire.

Ms. Tomalin is in her early seventies. She is organized both in dress and speech, light in her delivery, quick to smile, and explicitly clear about why Pepys’s diary, though seldom read from start to finish, is one of the treasures of literature. In my excitement at seeing the author in the flesh (I’ve read her previous biographies), my monkey mind begins to wonder about her personal life. Where did she buy that scarf? What is her favorite color? Is she knighted, does she live by the Thames, keep a diary herself? Does she know French, German, Spanish—all three? In short, I’m so in awe of her literary stature that I can’t record any of her intelligent musings. But I do recognize her erudite nature. I buy the book (though I already have a copy at home), find myself in a short line, and am tempted to say to her, “I write poetry.” At such a confession, she might touch her scarf defensively, take a miniscule but observable step back in her sensible pumps, and through intelligent eyes that have scoured serious books, think, “Oh, dear. A minor California poet.”

The evidence of our meeting: a faded receipt for a biography that cost twenty-three dollars, before tax.


Oslo, Norway. I wake to the loudest sex ever, and I am not in any way responsible for the anguished noisemaking. I blink in the Norwegian dark, land of fjords, reindeer, Viking ships, and blond people. Our bed is in an Airbnb in a university area. I get up stiffly, part the window curtain and peer outside—rain, of course, rain every wet moment of our ten-day stay.

My wife, now also awake, turns in bed and says, “God, is she using a loudspeaker?” Nasty me thinks, Either he is horse-large or she is clam-tiny—or both. My wristwatch on the table reads 1:35 a.m. Next to my timepiece is a brief guide to Norway’s Resistance Museum. I visited the museum the day before and learned about the country’s stance against a Nazi invasion that began in April 1940 and ended in 1945. That’s about how long the lovemaking seemed to last, years of sweet punishment. The price of entry to the Resistance Museum? Thirteen kroner. The price of my flight to this country to hear lovemaking in another language? About a thousand dollars.


Berkeley, California. An open house on a Sunday. The address is 1992 Los Angeles Avenue, and I have an hour before I head off to see a play called Dry Powder at the Aurora Theatre downtown. I venture into this house—three bedrooms, two baths, a garage large enough for two SUVs. From the table I pick up a colorful brochure, along with a list of upgrades. There’s a mom and son also visiting, and, on tiptoe, they’re opening the kitchen cabinets. Perhaps they have already eyeballed the master bath with its new shower, the new floor furnace, the new redwood fence, the new fixtures and lights in the second and third bedrooms—an impeccable facelift for a house built in 1948.

The realtor, in heels tall as barstools, offers me a quick smile. She acknowledges to herself that I’m nothing more than a curious soul, not actually in the market for a house listed at $1.2 million. That would be a lifetime’s worth of the most expensive theater tickets, with seats not only for my wife and child but also for every poet west of the bone-dry Fresno River.

The house, I discover later, receives bids beyond the asking price and sells within days.


Community Meeting Room, Berkeley Public Library. I’m at a noontime fashion show featuring twenty-three of the fifty-six ethnic groups of China. The air is thick and moist, the public address system from the 1980s. I’m a foreigner in this group, an outsider. In Mandarin and English, the emcee tells us that soon the program will start, that we should expect delightful costumes rarely seen in the Western world.

True enough. Over a forty-minute period each of the twenty-six beauties comes out, one by one. They waltz down a narrow aisle, their hands and arms suggestive and playful. Some of the models are motherly, others of college age. I take in the colorful costumes of the Han, Korean (there are 1.4 million Koreans in mainland China), Gaoshan, Kinh, Blang, De’ang, Nu, Lahu, Mulao, Miao, Bouyei, Tu, and Daur ethnic groups worth Googling.

One of the models accepts my fatherly gaze by lifting the corners of her red, red mouth. Her eyes meet my lonely peepholes, but then pull away—she’s done with me. She is modeling a dress from the province of Zhuang, which I understand is known for its wheat collectives. In that part of the world, they apparently like bells on their cloth hats.

When the fashion show comes to an end, all the models rush out in quick steps to bow to us—the cellphone cameras go crazy. Then the emcee announces first in Mandarin and then in English the next part of the program. I grasp that the two older women standing along the wall will read a legendary poem from the Bai region. Short Chinese poetry I can get behind, but an epic poem about war and love! My response, of course, is to offer my seat to another. Poetry at noon and on an empty stomach? My time has expired.


American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco. A recitation of Roger Rees’s What You Will. Think of William Shakespeare and imagine a meager house. Those present—dressed nicely—are talking among themselves in prosaic human chatter. We’re all waiting to be elevated by the eloquent force of words put in the right order. Then the lights dim; a voice in the dark reminds us of the two exits (heaven or hell, I muse). For ninety minutes, no intermission, we get an earful of refined human talk. Mr. Rees delivers with skill passages from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Henry V, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. For contemporary flair, Rees also plies us with quips from Stevie Wonder and samples of student blogs. The effect on me? Encouragement—because I want nothing more than to read my own poetry with maturity and confidence. Learn from Mr. Rees, I tell myself. The actor’s voice has the pitch of authority. My own voice has the power of a child singing into an empty soup can. I’m envious.

What You Will runs for two weeks and then runs out of town. Ticket sales, I understand, were not brisk. Mention Shakespeare and people stay home.


Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland. This is not one concert but many, as musicians are positioned throughout the columbarium and mausoleum. At different times in the afternoon they will play what I assume is New Music. Is Lou Harrison still considered New Music? In any case, he’s among the composers featured, as are James Tenney, Henry Cowell, and Charles Amirkhanian. Pianist Sarah Cahill is behind this annual scheme in which she assigns musicians to different nooks of the vast Julia Morgan-designed building, with its immense maze of marbled walls. All that interior space is needed because we humans keep dying. In place of a traditional burial or scattered ashes at a public garden, chapel residents receive a dignified cubby for their cremains not unlike a mailbox.

According to my two-page program, there are thirty-five sites where music will reverberate, rooms with names like Garden of Eternal Wisdom, Sanctuary of Dawn, Quietude, Garden of St. Paul, Loving Kindness, Benevolence West, and so on. One piece, I hear, will be performed in a restroom—male or female I’m not sure.

I pay fifteen dollars to meander the Chapel of the Chimes in my Sunday best, attire that could be appropriate for my own burial if I decide to go that route. I use my program as a guide, do my best to appraise the music, and exit before too long. In my foolish heart I think how the music—sophisticated, New Age and not my cup of chai—could wake the dead.


Friends of Negro Spirituals, West Oakland Senior Center. A cool October afternoon, curled leaves of sycamores spiraling in a westerly breeze, an unsung song in my heart as I climb the steps of the senior center. I’m there to hear music—and hear I do. First, Ashante Ruth Rasheed Forte, eight years old, dressed in a knee-length pinafore and white lacy socks. She is accompanied by Othello Jefferson, dressed for the occasion in a church suit. Ashante’s voice is steady, her presence beloved—the beads in her hair have their own kind of music when her body begins to sway.

She is followed by Yvonne Crosby Young, a soprano in her youth, but now, in her mid-fifties, in possession of a strongly articulated, almost baritone holler. I’m in the second row seated next to a college student from China. The program in my hand vibrates from Young’s delivery. This is new for me, a voice that can move not only an audience but physical objects as well. I sense that Young is aware that other gifted singers are anticipating her performance. She might be telling herself, I better be good.

I’m at the thirteenth Annual Negro Spirituals Heritage Day. Honorees for the Heritage Keeper Awards are soprano Shawnette Sulker, gospel radio personality Emmit A. Powell, Paul Robeson, and the “Kalimba King” Carl L. Winters. All are present, including Paul Robeson, undeniable hero to the audience—present, that is, in memory and influence. Each of the recipients in the room receives a framed certificate and each has the opportunity to display his or her gifts or comment on preserving Negro spirituals. Among them, I favor Guyana-born Shawnette Sulker, who is a classically trained soprano, an actress, a researcher, a doer. I can’t take my eyes off her as she sings “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” Indeed, at that moment, I believe in miracles.

The hostess is Dr. Helen Dilworth who, as the program’s paragraph-length biography tells us, is referred to as “Dr. Diva.” She is elegant and in command. An instructor at San Francisco City College, she calls on her students to add their voices to the afternoon. The college student from China and two young white women seated along the wall stand up. The trio arrange themselves nervously in front of us—us being mostly older black Americans, older white Americans, and me, an older brown American. The singers gaze first at each other, then at Dr. Dilworth, then at the audience. They gather courage in a “here goes” moment. They sing like new birds and rarely look at us—sing mostly to the floor or the popcorn-textured ceiling. Only when they finish and the audience begins to clap do they scan their admirers. We are all smiles.

One of the functions of the Friends of Negro Spirituals is to entice the world. And that is what has just occurred. At the end, we all sing “In Dat Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’,” a spiritual that is far too short but allows us to hum its melody as we draw up to the refreshment table. We break bread with new friends.


Proposed Site of the London Library, London, California. Never heard of this town that shares a name with a world capital? Think forty-five miles southeast of Fresno. Think population seven hundred. Think of a cluster of houses surrounded by mostly vineyards. Think of orange and lemon trees in every backyard. Grapefruits? They’re there, too.

My wife and I drive there to see a hopeful young man’s plan for a library and discover a double-size lot with a ramshackle house scheduled to be razed. On this parcel are weeds up to our thighs, a walnut tree, tree stumps, and the remains of an abandoned tractor—along with tires, chicken wire, cats, and dogs. Two dogs, mutts by any description, greet us by sniffing our ankles with wet, shiny snouts. We pass inspection.

As we have given money for the project, we want to see firsthand this young man’s intentions. We walk the small plot, the dogs like security at our sides. This takes all of ten minutes. For a few more minutes we talk to a neighbor, who stands behind his chain-link fence. He also has dogs, plenty of them, of different shapes, breeds, and ages. One is sort of a German shepherd but not really a German shepherd. One is a terrier but not really a terrier. Yet another one is a Chihuahua but not really a Chihuahua. They are mixes of dogs that never existed until now.

When I call the youthful visionary on my wife’s cellphone (I don’t own one myself), he picks up right away. He is excited that we have driven 235 miles to see where the library, still a blueprint of a dream, will be located.

“We had a race last week,” he exclaims.

He describes a fundraising event in which adult runners, some elite and gazelle-fast, ponied up a twenty-five-dollar entry fee. Kids participated for free, of course, and ran a few blocks to show the citizens of this community their adorable selves and Sí, se puede determination. But the adults ran five kilometers, mas o menos, following the signs and orange cones that marked the route through town. They ran past a market, a church, six blocks of houses, then out onto agricultural acreage, and back.  

As he continues to tell me about the race day, a dog begins to nibble my pant cuff. I lift my leg to shake him away, then remark to my friend on the phone, “London seems to have a lot of dogs.”

At that observation, he tells me more: because dozens of the dogs in this Mexican-American community are strays, he had asked the county to come in and tranquilize them for the occasion of the race. Dogs running after the elite racers (mostly Caucasians), snapping at their ankles and drawing blood, might’ve brought a lawsuit.

Tranquilize the dogs?

I picture Animal Control—or whatever agency he’d called—with rifles raised, eyes squinting for accuracy, and then the dart-like projectiles puncturing the hides of the dogs. I picture dogs leaping from the pain, sharp but brief, and then racing down the street until they wobble to a stop. Shivering as the chemicals speed through their lean bodies, they finally fall over, their feet in the air. They are hauled away for the day, then released the next morning, none the wiser.

I get off the phone. I look at my wife and tell her what I’ve heard from the young man, whose voice revealed no irony or humor.

“Yeah,” she remarks, “let’s donate more.”


Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All seems right between two couples: Muslim American husband and white American wife, and a Jewish American husband and black American wife. They relish their station in life, a few strata above the struggling lower classes. These couples are well-educated, engaging, handsome, loving, secular, fair-minded, well-dressed, and financially successful. The dramatic shift occurs (got to have conflict) when religion is invited into the conversation. As they sip from their glasses of wine—from a region of France the rest of us will never visit—the topic of 9/11 is brought up. Each couple is politely dismissive of that tragic day and Bush’s eventual warmongering response. After all, these people have evolved; they embrace a higher intellectual standard and standard of living. In fact, they are drinking in a swanky condo that allows them a view of the huddled masses below.

Then a hurtful word is said. And that word is enlarged to a phrase, a sentence, a longish diatribe, and then some shocking name-calling against Jews and Muslims. Despite their Ivy League educations, the couples find that their disputes turn illogical. They side with their respective racial profiles—yes, they have profiles. By then, face slightly lowered with embarrassment, I’m peering through my fingers. I’m thinking, Man, I’m glad I’m Mexican. These people are prejudiced as the rest of us.

The playwright’s timing is perfect: the couples become ashamed of themselves as the hatred recedes. They apologize to each other—Jesus, what has gotten into us? They chuckle, they wag their heads at their uncouth behavior. Another bottle is uncorked, wine glasses topped off, and then, once again, a screaming match ensues between the couples. The high-rise condo is nothing but a shanty of bigotry. The playwright goes whole hog, throwing both white and black Americans into the trough!

By the end of the play, my armpits are damp from worry. In my book, bodily responses—tears, sweat, laughter, frowns, farts—are perfect evidence of successful theater.


Teotihuacan pyramid, outside of Mexico City. I walk the Avenue of the Dead to get to the pyramid, which seems to grow as I get closer and closer. I’m with my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law, all of us in quiet awe because this is architecture, heritage, religious vision, and hard work. To move stone, to lose a finger or toe from stone, to budge the stone to greater heights, and at the order of a priest sitting under an umbrella woven from palm leaves. At night, the dark skies winked their cosmology.

We arrive and hug the shadows of this great pyramid, which is pre-Aztec, pre-Columbian and built, I later learn, 250 CE when the area—a valley—was made up of reeds that possibly whistled in wind. I imagine the birds, some possibly extinct, and the rivers that ran with fish, also possibly extinct. But what’s not extinct: tourists. I learn that every year three million visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My daughter suggests, “Dad, let’s go up.” I shrug and we climb a third of the way up. It’s all wind at that height, wind and sun and low-lying trees in the distance. We rest, drink from our bottles of water. I look at my watch. Ten minutes have passed. I think, Ten minutes? We climbed these uneven boulders that took, perhaps, ten years to fit into place—and by a thousand workers?

Nobody I know disparages Mexican labor.


The Bellevue Club, Oakland. This private club is located on Lake Merritt. The interior has an ornately painted ceiling, a chandelier in need of dusting, slightly worn chairs, mirrors hung far too high (I can only see my scalp), and reproductions of famous European paintings. It’s old world in other words, a suitable setting for the statuesque soprano, Angela Dean-Baham, with Alexander Katsman, piano accompanist. Dean-Baham is brightly lit by the chandelier, which mirrors everything good about afternoon recitals. Unlike the reproductions, she’s the real thing. She has studied voice in Cincinnati and has played roles in operas and summer musicals. This afternoon she intends to sing Schumann, Barber, Fauré, Puccini, Rodrigo, Arlen, Kern, Massenet, and end with “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands,” as arranged by Margaret Bonds. The presence of Mr. Katsman, equally talented and conservatory trained, is worth noting, but Angela Dean-Baham is the centerpiece. She has been selected for the Bellini Foundation’s 2008 International Vocal Competition, and today’s concert is a fundraiser for her trip to Sicily. Our intention is send her off to the baroque city of Ragusa-Ibla in style.

Dean-Baham sings, smiles after each song, and banters with us, an audience of mainly older patrons. Her presence is mature, her voice strong yet lyrical. After six arias and a few words about the competition, a donation hat is ready to make its way around the room.

I hoist a drink, drop three twenties into the hat, shake hands with our soprano, and leave the Bellevue, whose art deco bronze-and-glass doors are a challenge to push open. Just beyond the worn marble steps, I am greeted by three smirking geese. Lake Merritt is home to hundreds of these feathered creatures, Canada geese that have lost the will for migratory flights. I don’t blame them:  after eons of heading south, then north in wind, I’d stop flying too.

They honk at me and flap their wings. This is a holdup. They want one of the sandwiches that were served inside. I shrug my shoulders and say, “Parjitos, no tengo nada.” They step back as I walk past them, one honking with displeasure.

Birds, I think, now that you ain’t flying north or south, you gotta stop honking and learn to sing.


Margaret Morgan, “How I Got from Here to There,” San Francisco Public Library. Ms. Morgan is an English calligrapher. Her work, though contemporary, often evokes an ancient spirituality and can surpass even the splendidly illustrated medieval Bibles revered in that island country. I’d observed her religious temperament in a copy of her well-known commissioned piece, “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” impossible instructions for minor poets such as myself. Morgan is in San Francisco to teach a master class. I’m here to view how calligraphy works, for I, a pretender, have taken it upon myself to improve my penmanship. As a Father’s Day gift, my daughter gave me three handwriting workbooks. It’s never too late to learn, right?

The Saturday workshop is held in a lower level of the library. Secretly, I harbor the hope that I might get good at this time-honored art. But I know better; no need to fool myself. All the inkwells in the world could not improve my penmanship. I lack the rhythm to draw a proper P, a dignified L, or a royal ER.

I’m here to listen and observe, not to pester an exclusive set of practitioners. I gaze down at the surface of the table where three of us—all older learners (in other words, the jobless)—sit in rumpled clothes. We’re leaning our elbows on graffiti of the nastiest kind, rendered in black-hearted Sharpies! No doubt some teenage boy was here earlier. What a bonehead! Dolt! I want to use my spit to erase the word “kunt.” The little asshole can’t even spell.


Fashion and Textile Museum, London. My wife says, “We’re going to see fashion today.” I say, “You think we are.” She says, “It’s an exhibit of bras and panties.” I say, “We better get going.” In truth, I’m not much of a voyeur, but I am playful with my wife, a high-end clothing designer with a limited clientele—meaning me and sometimes our daughter. During our forty-year marriage, she has made me coats, pants, scarves, berets, and shirts—lots of shirts. So on a Wednesday morning we take the Tube to Waterloo station, then hoof it through an industrial area of London (very chic), and arrive at the museum. I pull open the glass door.

It is, as my wife described, an exhibit called “Undercover: The Evolution of Underwear.” I don’t wish to appear excited or nasty-minded, so I enter with the seriousness of a professor of philology. I shadow my wife. I pick up a brochure that says, “For centuries women’s bodies have been shaped, defined, and even controlled by underwear.”

Is that right?

I’m not above learning about bras. So I learn, for instance, that American socialite Mary Jacob patented the brassiere—she was upset at how the old-fashioned (and bulky) corset was visible beneath her expensively designed evening wear. This was in 1914, when women were still being laced up in hurtful garments that left red marks on their skin. Intended to accent a woman’s bottom and push out her breasts, the corset eventually went the way of the horse-drawn carriage—and rightly so. Unfortunately for Ms. Jacob, she sold the patent for her “backless brassiere” for fifteen hundred dollars to Warner’s Clothiers. Within years, that company earned just north of $15 million.

This is a valuable lesson for any entrepreneur—don’t sell a good idea short. But a professor of philology—or your quickly aging poet—could care less about dollars and cents. So I continue my study of social history. I learn about flappers and the flat chest (1920s), the return of cleavage and the “sweater girl” (1930s), the “make-do” austerity of World War II (1940s), bullet bras and pinup girls (1950s), the waif-like Twiggy look (1960s), the “no bra” bravery of the early 1970s. The bra and its antecedent, the corset, function as repressive articles of clothing that pinch a woman’s body and spirit—can’t argue with that.

I follow my wife from display to display and find myself agreeing with another thesis of the exhibit: that bodies come in different sizes. Then I pause under a large reproduction of a sultry Liz Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She stands, one hip out, a glass of whiskey in hand, with an attitude of defiance—Men, this posture asks, are you big enough for me? My Adam’s apple goes up and down as I admit that I am not.

A sudden memory. I close my eyes to conjure the bras on my neighbor’s clothesline. It is 1957 and I am an immature five years old. When those mysterious objects move in the breeze, I am moved to ask, What are those things?

In the summer of 2009, at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, I got a full explanation.


Salvage, Kinetic Arts Center, Oakland. The theater space, a former warehouse, is windowless. Natural light enters only when the door swings open for new arrivals. The door is closed at the moment. I’m in the bleachers with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water. Since I am alone, I keep my mind active by looking around. I assess the three trapezes, the ropes, the pegged walls, the hoops attached to ropes, the actors, the bathtub—bathtub? I then read the program notes from the director. What I am about to experience concerns global catastrophes such as environmental failure, disease, nuclear war, and out-of-control asteroids. This is serious stuff, I think. If matters are really so bleak, I should be downing a proper drink instead of sipping water from a bottle refilled at home. And this bag of popcorn in my hand? I should request a prisoner’s last meal instead and a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, 2005.

The program begins. There is a dance of sorts, wall climbing, a make-believe battle between the dancers (aerialists?), musical noise, mayhem, and then something like the hokey-pokey. If not for the director’s program notes, I wouldn’t have guessed that the piece is about life-changing catastrophes. It seems to be more about agile young people getting off by climbing walls and ropes, prancing through hoops in search of themselves to futuristic-sounding music. That’s how I see it—actors moving like mimes. I’m all for the display of youth and their contortionist bodies. And I’m also in favor of the audience—including me and the families of these young people—using our imaginations. Still, I don’t get it. Baffled, I squint at this passage in the program: “Even if a large asteroid collides with this blue planet of ours, the popular theory now is that Earth’s surviving bacteria will be launched across the galaxy, spreading life to other planets. Imagine that!”

I, an antsy bacterium, launch myself out of the bleachers at intermission.


I’m Through with Love, The Garret at the Geary Theater, San Francisco. At first, I’m skeptical. Maybe I can buy into stripped-down love stories by singers in their thirties and forties, but not as performed by MFA students of American Conservatory Theater. I mean, come on, you’re only twenty or twenty-one years old! Through with love? Nada mas? Done with boyfriends? Girlfriends? Both? Moved your sadness to a nunnery on the coast of Brittany or a Trappist monastery in the hills of North Carolina?

In the back of the theater, the performers yak giddily among themselves, laugh, check their phones one last time before curtain. (Although there is no actual curtain at the fifth-floor Garret, just a stage illuminated by canned lights.) The pianist, properly attired in coat and tie, waits for his cue. There’s a nice shine of brilliance on his forehead.

The storyline takes place in the uncomplicated 1950s when (in this instance) love occurs in and around a museum in New York City. Each of the singers—eleven by my count—is in love, out of love, or about to be in love. There’s nothing new here, of course. That’s the beauty of this hour-long production—after one purchased beer, some weepy sentiments, and the loveliness of voice and youth, your heart is replenished with hope. We know in advance that the story is mush, but how can you go wrong with songs written by Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Adolph Green, André Previn, and Rodgers and Hammerstein?

One student after another skips onto the low stage, belts out a song, bows to applause, then springs away. It’s encouraging to view all this young talent from the vantage of a small table, the hour moving along at a fast clip. The last song, sung by the full cast, is “The Colors of My Life.”

After I finish clapping, after I leave by the elevator, after I open the door and find myself on Geary Street, I’m further entertained by the world. I am buttoning my coat against the cold when I encounter a doo-wop foursome, dressed to the nines, in front of the theater. They are doing a finger-snapping rendition of “Down by the Riverside.” I watch and listen. The world doesn’t know when to quit! Twenty dollars for I’m Through with Love, and three dollars in the open violin case set on the ground. And where is the violin? In my heart.


Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon. The English poet Philip Larkin was famously attached to a daily routine in which he left his house for his job as librarian at the University of Hull and returned home without even a stop for a quick pint. He liked this routine and he liked his house. He was once asked, “If you were willing to travel, where would you go?” After pondering the question, he answered, “China. As long as I could go and come back on the same day.”

I understand Larkin. I also adhere to a routine—two cups of coffee in bed, ten minutes of scanning the newspaper, some looking out the window, and then I dress for whatever awaits me outside the door. Like Larkin, I will never visit China. But at the moment I’m in an authentic Suzhou-style garden, with brochure in hand. I pause on a narrow wooden bridge. Koi are meandering below the surface of the pond. Pines and bamboo rustle in the breeze. I read a passage from the brochure, declaring that this setting is “your window into Chinese culture, history, and way of thinking.” The text encourages visitors to imagine sixteenth-century China, using the words “peaceful,” “soothing,” “inspiring,” and “spiritual.” I agree with the brochure’s estimation of this lovely three-acre garden—though the occasional roar of a jet interrupts my transport.

But the modern urban noises do not erase the pleasures of this garden. Its artistic scheme and the names of its features elicit a different world: Courtyard of Tranquility, Hall of Brocade Clouds, Moon Locking Pavilion, Tower of Cosmic Reflection, and a boat-shaped pavilion called Painted Boat in Misty Rain. Most of the materials—the rocks and boulders—are from China.

Portland and Suzhou are sister cities and the garden echoes this relationship. The sounds of Portland and Suzhou are combined to form Lan Su. In Chinese Lan is a word for “orchid” and su is a word for “arise.” Together, they may be translated as “Garden of Awakening Orchids.”

Sister cities? Think of the trade and cultural deficits we could erase.


Oakland Zoo. This rainless autumn I’m facing a lone chimp—a representative from those picking lice in the corner? He strolls over with rust-colored leaves crowning his head. He shakes his head and the leaves tumble. Instead of pushing a begging hand at me, his small, whiskery face shows worry. Has he heard about my failed movie deal? My portfolio of mutual funds flat as Kansas? The bag of groceries that I left on the car roof as I pulled out of the parking lot of Safeway market? Forget, forgetful old man I’ve become. What’s next? Showing up at the bank in pajamas?

The chimp rattles the fence. He offers a smile, teeth crooked as dice, and gestures with his hand–no, with a finger. On the end of his digit, he offers a dab of moist snot. Is this a delicacy in the primate world? He stretches his arm through the fence, as far as it will reach. I shamefully step back. He, in turn, withdraws his arm. Are his feelings hurt? Or is he just teasing me? He tastes his snot, eats it with gusto, then pushes a finger back into his nose. Somewhere, in another cage, a water buffalo is snorting. The toucan continues to clack its beak. When the peacock cries, a chevron of birds hits the sky. The foxes pant and the hyenas chase their tails.

I look back at the chimp and smile. His offer is the most generous I’ve received in a long time.


National Portrait Gallery, London. A lot of art—like poetry, like novels, like music, like fashion—can be jive ass, puro pedo, bullshit, but not the fifty-six portraits in the juried show of the 2009 BP Portrait Award. The gallery is packed with a mix of Londoners and travelers. It’s a shoulder-to-shoulder melee of onlookers, where the air you are breathing was in someone else’s mouth seconds ago. Because this is a competition, there is a winner: Changeling 2 by Peter Monkman, a schoolteacher. The subject is his daughter, age thirteen, dressed in a blue sweater with a green camisole. Her complexion is peachy (this is the actual color, reader). Behind her, a stand of trees, with a faint light coming through them. Her yellowish hair is pulled back, her mouth is faintly red with lipstick and closed. At that very moment, she has nothing to say, but the look on her face is more than worth a friendly conversation.

Since the gallery is so crowded, I can’t speak to her expression. Instead, I’m pushed away by the hooligan museumgoers—ten seconds is all I get to view the portrait. But I learn that the portraitist will receive twenty-five thousand British pounds, plus commissions for years to come, not to mention the free pints from admirers. My suggestion, dear schoolteacher, is this: Don’t show up to work on Monday.


Body and Soul, Diablo Ballet, Walnut Creek, California. My wife and I subscribe to the ballet. On this evening the first piece is the pas de deux from Mercurial Manoeuvres, with music by Shostakovich and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. This piece was initially performed by the ballet company in 2012. Now, in 2017, it’s Mayo Sugano and Raymond Tilton’s turn to mimic each other’s steps (the French pas de deux literally means “step of two”). An elegant five minutes in length, the dance includes an entrée, an adagio, variations on the adagio, and a coda. The dancers wear traditional costumes—he a leotard and she a tutu—that reveal the splendor of their bodies as they leap, swoop, hop on their toes, and pirouette. There’s also a coy flirtation between the dancers—how could there not be?—as they touch, smile, and glance suggestively at each other. Having found love, they can’t believe their luck.

This piece is followed by Trait d’-union, also five minutes in length, with music by Fauré and choreography by Sonya Delwaide. The cellist is Janet Witharm, the pianist Aileen Chanco. The dancers are Amanda Farris, Oliver-Paul Adams and Felipe Leon. The theme, according to the program, is: “Why do our differences have so much more power than our similarities?” The question is arguable but the talent not at all: the dancers are exquisitely bold.

The evening continues with two challenging pieces, and then, for me, a real challenge—to keep myself from going giddy when the dancers line up in the foyer to thank us for coming. This is an opportunity to shake their hands, a brief touch of flesh that says we, as patrons, are connected to art.


“Frida Kahlo,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One-of-a-kind Frida dolls, Frida rings and necklaces, Frida puzzles, Frida aprons and potholders, Frida limited-edition prints, Frida calendars and notecards, Frida pottery, Frida purses, and—if you have the time—three Frida biographies: two for adults and one for children. These items are all available in the gift shop. Not one is discounted because her value as an artist is good as gold.

But couldn’t we do better? I believe we could. I’m beginning to see how this global icon could become even more commercialized. I would add three shades of Frida lipstick, a Frida hair bun, Frida paints and brushes, Frida rebozos, Frida eyebrow pencil (to fill in the space between her heavy brows), and Frida’s own blow-up Diego Rivera doll. Then you, too, with Frida rings on each finger, could knuckle-punch that philandering frog of a husband.


Obon Festival, Buddhist Temple of Alameda, California. My wife and I arrive as the Eden Aoba Taiko is ending its performance in a flurry of drumming. Electric lanterns hang from the trees. Kite-like banners wave from the temple eaves. The aroma of chicken teriyaki twists through the courtyard. People? Lots of them, some in Hawaiian shirts, others in haori jackets or in street clothes, one or two in kimonos. Among the throngs, I spot a young woman that I have christened Hello Kitty Girl. She’s one of the singers in the San José Chidori Band, which was formed in the 1950s and carries on the tradition of the big-band sound, Japanese style. Hello Kitty Girl is dressed kawaii, which is all about the culture of cuteness. So she wears a short frilly dress, tall-heeled boots, and black stockings, along with a red ribbon in her hair, a pink bag, a girly keychain, and a pouty red mouth. She’s playing up Lolita.

The Obon festival celebrates ancestors and has its roots in seventh-century Japan. As the legend goes, July 15th (or thereabouts), a greedy mother was released from hell and her son, a Buddhist disciple, prepared a party of the finest delicacies to welcome her return. These days the celebration, while vaguely religious, is a time for the Japanese American community, Buddhist, Christian and Konko, to come together. While we festivalgoers can expect ikebana, taiko, big-band music, and prayers from the priest (Reverend Zuichi Taniguchi), along with food and drink, we look forward to the eleven dances of the Obon Odori, which begins and ends with “Obon no Uta.” The head dance instructors are Michiya Hanayagi and her daughter, Michisuya, who, I understand, began dance under her mother’s tutelage at age three. These two women are elegant and true dancers, as are their students, all gathered inside the temple, away from the festivities. They are getting ready to begin, attired in matching kimonos, with makeup that renders them pale as ghosts. They are beautiful.

My wife and I enjoy a meal—curry for me, steak for her—and then a visit with her cousin, Larry, a professional model who is often hired to play the stereotypical Asian pharmacist, Asian pilot, or Asian car mechanic (work is work). He isn’t offered speaking parts in these assignments, but he does speak to us, offering us a blow-by-blow account of the year since we were last together. He is seeing someone new this year, and daughter number two is about to get married. His mother—Carolyn’s auntie—has been healthy, then not healthy. She is addicted to Korean soap operas; “the men are so handsome,” she justly claims.

I let them discuss family matters and make my way to the social hall, where the ikebana arrangements are appropriately spaced on draped tables pushed against the wall. I am friends with the ikebana teacher, Jane Naito, who has earned the flower name of Suiei. We talk briefly. She is recently remarried, her first husband having died five years ago. She now lives in Sacramento—hot, breezeless, the summer air heavy as wet towels! She misses San Francisco, where in summer it’s always sweater weather.

I view her students’ arrangements. No matter the school you follow (there are six), form, mass, and color are tenets that determine the success of a creation. Practitioners of ikebana believe that if you live without flowers, you live without beauty, and I have to agree, though I regularly fail to brighten our house with blooms. I view each of the twenty arrangements and each one is different. None is too showy, none is sloppily done—form, mass, and color are evident.

I return outside where the master of ceremonies asks for quiet, for attention, for the beer taps to stop. He doesn’t have to ask twice. Then Reverend Taniguchi welcomes the crowd, says a prayer, invites people to Sunday service, and introduces the head mistress of the Hanayagi Dance Studio.

Now the dancing will begin for the young and the old, some in kimonos, some in haori jackets, some in zoris and getas, some with fans and towels. All eyes are on the teacher, Michiya Hanayagi. This is the moment when the devilish mother in the Buddhist story is delivered from hell in an outpouring of celebration.

Or so the legend goes.


Chelsea Physic Garden, London. I need to rest and what better place than among plants. To do this, I pony up eight pounds, the price of a sandwich, chips and a soft drink from Marks and Spencer. I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I forgo lunch and park this old flesh of mine on a rain-dotted bench. My brain is suffering from the change in time zones and from the three pints of the night before. Three pints! For many Londoners that would just be starters.

Now my brochure. I discover that the garden sits on four acres and was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. The society’s intention, if I’m reading this right, was to round up medicinal plants. Its location was ideal—adjacent to the Thames, where ships could arrive at the garden’s backyard. By 1700 the society had developed a global seed exchange scheme called Index Seminum—forward-thinking people, these English, to cast seeds in scientific order. One of the garden’s major benefactors was Sir Hans Sloane, an upstart who also founded the British Museum. Sloane purchased the original plot of land and his offspring (many generations removed) continue to lease the property to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. The symbolic five-pound lease is paid annually to Sloane’s survivors.

The botanic garden is a pretty place to while away an afternoon. I close my eyes, relax. I imagine lab coats (and scientists inside those lab coats) grinding, by old-fashioned mortar and pestle, seeds that could relieve the pain of humankind. The California poet, for example, could use some help. Suffering from the combined effects of jetlag and a mild hangover, I consider lowering my face into any one of the bushes, not unlike a goat.


Roy Orbison Returns, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. I’m ready to slide into an evening of Orbison hits that include “It’s Over,” “Claudette,” “Candy Man,” “Running Scared,” “In Dreams,” “Crying,” “Only the Lonely” and the high-tempo “Pretty Woman.” I’m in an audience of boomers born from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. A few walkers are parked along the wall; mine, I imagine, will soon debut, shiny as a spoon and possibly self-guiding (as in self-driving cars). You never know.

These feisty boomers are the real thing. They saw Orbison live; they heard him on transistor radios in the early 1960s, then maybe—just maybe—tuned into the music of the Beatles. The British Invasion separated one generation from another.

The older man next to me is clapping but missing the beat, his reflexes slightly off. Will this be me fifteen years from now? After all, I’ve gotten a jump on old age. The hair once on top of my head has migrated to my ears. My taste buds favor oatmeal. And my eyes? Lunatic red after my third beer.

For now, however, music drummed out of time is music nevertheless.


The Ibsen Museum, Oslo, Norway. We arrive in rain and, like ducks, shake the water off our backs.  Because the museum has yet to open, we are forced to wait under an awning. I look at my watch: a single raindrop like a tear on the crystal. I think, Does time cry? Does time sob over our humanness? No, time is heartlessly dark as an anvil. This thought—and other thoughts—are stirring inside me when I hear a key in the lock, then a thunk. Like clockwork the museum opens. A young man, humorless as Ibsen, pushes open the door and we, along with another damp museumgoer, step into a dark space. The young man turns on a light and hurries behind the cash register. He flicks on another switch. The miserly light barely casts a shadow on the wall.

A few steps into the museum and already I know that the furniture will be heavy, the drapery heavy, and the lamp on Ibsen’s desk heavy. The place is gloomy as a horse-drawn hearse.

I don’t know much about Ibsen as playwright. I’ve seen Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, and The Master Builder sounds familiar, so maybe I’ve seen it too. The brochure in my hand reports in heavy prose that he was the first dramatic realist and that, after Shakespeare, the most staged playwright in the world.

Really? The most staged? It’s not that Hamilton guy?

The brochure also asserts how his childhood was at first amply rich (lots of buttery sauces) and then amply poor (lots of thin soups). His plays are psychologically complex, brooding, long as rabbinical beards, and often set in households that feature unhappy couples. His work had a major influence on Chekhov—this, I can see. The Russian playwright is like going barefoot in snow: cold and not a lot of fun.

We proceed by following a map. Each room is darker than the next. The floor creaks below our slow footsteps. Rain runs in the gutters. The heating ducts vent a cold, ghostly draft. What’s behind that dark door? I wonder. Cadavers thin as coat hangers? Knee-length coats cut from the hides of very cute reindeer? A dead rat that never saw the light?

I’m sorry, Master Ibsen, but we don’t purchase as much as a postcard. We leave the museum after only twenty minutes and walk three blocks to the Norwegian National Library, the rain now a sprinkle, then climb steep and numerous steps to a revolving door at the grand entrance. We catch our breath before we enter. Immediately inside we are confused: the aroma of breakfast—or is it lunch?—wafts through the air. For a second we’re not sure if we’re in the library, but the information desk in the corner says that, indeed, we are. We stroll to the balcony that overlooks the foyer: a long—Viking-ship long—buffet table is set as if for hungry sailors! At the end of the table stands a chef’s helper in a tall white hat with an apron that falls below his knees.

We can’t resist. We find a way down to the lower floor, take up trays, and recklessly choose small dish after small dish. At the end of the buffet, the chef’s helper puts each of our trays on a scale. We are charged for our meal by weight. The soup is hot, the breads and cheese delicious. The reindeer meat warms us after the cold, shadow-filled museum of Ibsen.


The Early Music Ensemble of Kiili, Ottawa, Canada. My wife and I are out to enjoy a performance by Estonian youth ages nine to eighteen. We’re dressed for the occasion: a white suit for me and a flowery dress for her. The music is from the Renaissance, with guitars, flutes, recorders, percussion, and voice. Admittedly, I’m not fond of this musical period, but I am fond of my lifelong friend Jon Veinberg, who is Estonian and speaks the language (or used to until his mother died). Although his heart may be Estonian through and through—ah, the Baltic herrings!—he lives in Fresno, our hometown. We’re here in his honor and plan to report back to him. We’ll sit in his backyard, uncap our beers, and tear open—with our teeth—bags of chili-flavored pork rinds. Jon was also my best man at our wedding. For a wedding gift, he gave us a carving knife; that knife has been sawing through chicken and steaks for four decades.

We get a program in dual languages. Here’s the Estonian: “Kiili vanamuuskiannsambel on arendanud aktiivset ansamlimagukontserttegevust alates 2003.” Translation, please: “The early music group Kiili has given concerts since 2003.” I first heard Jon speak Estonian when we were roommates living on chili beans, saltine crackers, and a huge block of cheese that lasted our first semester of graduate school. I had already known him for two years when on one day I thought my amigo was sloppy drunk. But, no, he was sober: it was midmorning and we had just eaten our daily bowls of cereal. Ever secretive, Jon hadn’t let on (to me at least) that he spoke a very, very different language. Could he communicate with reindeer? Talk herring onto a plate? Stop a marauding Viking ship with double consonants? Anything seems possible in that impossible tongue.

We are very pleased to listen to this ensemble. When the concert ends after an encore, my wife and I stand to applaud. The performers are young, beautiful, and full of hope. They rush toward us and swarm us like bees! They believe we are ambassadors from another country because of our ethnicities and elegant dress. They speak to us in halting English and we, in turn, convince them to autograph our shared program. They love us and we love them. Their names? Eeva Vahtramae, Ingrid Kaur, Birgit Kukk, Tiina Mae, Kati Meibaum, Annika Aas, Marten Meibaum, and Heili Meibaum.

For Jon, we buy the ensemble’s T-shirt—the best purchase in the week-long stay in Ottawa.


“Bay Area Now,” Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. I pony up nine dollars, the senior rate, and stab the stick-on ticket to my chest, a medal for supporting the arts. I wander around artwork that doesn’t strike me as artwork. I walk around things with wires and electrical gadgetries, Lego-like models of what might be houses, unpleasant photography, found objects that should have been left where they were found, clay sheep, iron sculptures like metal-shop projects from junior high, a gloomy video installation, and goggles that you put on to see some despairing images. Within ten minutes I arrive at a conclusion. Sorry curator, I’m not moved, I’m not inspired, and I’m not curious except to wonder what my nine dollars were for. I would describe in detail what I see except I don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings—artists, after all, are hurting. Why make it worse?

I squint at the brochure that I picked up at the front. It describes the exhibition as offering a fluid understanding of gender, infrastructural systems, delicate optimism, rejected dichotomies, roving research, interactive technologies, ever-recombinant content, and—now we’re talking my language!—a place to pee. On the patio, elevated above the noisy traffic of Mission and Second Streets, there is a half-open and colorful tent. I enter, look around. I read that male patrons are encouraged to pee into a funnel that will drain into a large plastic depository to the right of me. I wince sourly at the large tank of other men’s piss—piss that was once coffee, bottled water, beer, wine, orange juice, protein drinks, tea, unshed tears, potential gym sweat—all the liquids that whiz from dicks of varied lengths, widths and coloring. I look behind me—two pigeons are the only witnesses. With hand reaching for my fly, I figure that I should become part of this installation. I have always wanted to be a street artist.


Walnut Grove and Locke, California. I sit in the third-row pew of a Buddhist temple. I’m there partly for the service, but mostly to speak to Mrs. Kawamura, widow of a man who, along with his brother, ran a barber shop in this town from the 1940s through the early 1980s. This is Walnut Grove, once a Japanese American community of about twelve hundred issei (first-generation immigrant). Before World War II, the community was bustling. Then its citizens were uprooted, like productive fruit trees, when they were forcibly removed under Executive Order 9066. These and other Japanese American families were transported to concentration camps—Poston, Tule Lake, Crystal City, and Manzanar mostly—where they would remain until near the end of the war. Once released not everyone returned to Walnut Grove. Instead, some settled in Sacramento, thirty miles upstream, or in Lodi, also upstream, with its fertile farmland on both sides of Highway 99. Not until the sixties did the families begin to talk about their lives in the camps.

How thriving was Walnut Grove at one time? Here’s a litany of its businesses and social groups: Maeda Chop Suey, Maeda Fish and Bait, Kobata Bait, Watanabe Soda Fountain, Kobuke Rooming House, Yagi Rooming House, Hamada Pool Hall, Miyazaki Bath, Adachi Bath and Barber, Kawabara Garage, Fuji Garage, Nomura Dry Cleaners, S. Saito Insurance Company, Ito Cafe, Hatanaka Tofu-Ya, Hirotsu Tailor, Walnut Grove Japanese Association Theater. There were many other businesses and churches, plus a segregated “oriental” school constructed in 1936 under the Federal Emergency Act. All gone now, every one of them, the former owners buried in the town’s cemeteries, with some honored monthly in prayer at the Buddhist temple. In a way, I’m trying to honor them too. Let me explain.

I’m at the temple to speak with Mrs. Kawamura about renovating the barbershop. I’m foolishly nostalgic and I admit it. But first I attend the Buddhist service, which lasts only long enough to heat up the temple for the nine congregants, including a few lifelong residents of Walnut Grove. Much of the sermon is like a Christian service in that it presents forgiveness as a tenet one must follow on the path toward righteous living. And as at a Christian service, few are actually giving the sermon their full attention; instead, other attendees, all women, are rummaging through their purses or writing notes (grocery lists?) to themselves.

I listen dutifully to the visiting priest then follow the others outside, where on the front porch—is it called a porch?—we each ring the bell seven times, a symbolic number I grasp. Service is then officially over.

This is when I ask Mrs. Kawamura, now in her late eighties, for a sit-down talk, and she agrees. She already knows why I’m there—rumor has a way of leaping like a cricket. She knows that I’m going to address my worry about the barbershop and my argument for its historical value. Couldn’t we spiffy it up and make it a small museum? Think of the visitors! Think of the thing called local pride!

We meet in the temple kitchen, with her daughter at her side. The daughter, mid-forties, beams at me—she’s happy, so happy. She’s a teacher familiar with my books for younger readers. I return her smiles but am mostly determined to convey how I, an outsider in every way, would be honored to restore the barbershop and make it into a museum. I’m explaining this vision when the priest comes in. He opens a cupboard, he looks into the refrigerator, and he pats his pants pockets as if searching for his car keys. Not once does he look at me, or at us collective three.

After my pitch (ten minutes to get it out of me) Mrs. Kawamura agrees that the barbershop should be saved, that her late husband would have liked that. She scratches the Formica surface of the kitchen table (I judge the table to be Smithsonian-worthy) as she gathers her thoughts. She then tells me that the property belongs to her niece, Cheryl, who lives in Fresno and who seldom visits Walnut Gove—Mrs. Kawamura doesn’t drive anymore. For her, Fresno is as far away as Japan.

That will be an easy roadblock to maneuver around later. But for now we talk—or I mostly talk and they listen. We leave the kitchen and head outside. I walk them partway to their house on Grove Street. We shake hands, smile, then separate, they to their home and I to the barbershop. I first saw the shop in the fall of 1982. I had come to Walnut Grove with others in an effort to save the old Japanese Methodist church there. I was a young father with black, black hair. I recall wandering the town and seeing Mr. Kawamura seated in his own barber chair, a light on, waiting for the next customer. This was a time when long hair was the fashion, so he must have waited a lot. How I regret not having my hair cut there, with the radio tuned to his favorite station.

Hands cupped around my eyes, I gaze into the barbershop this Sunday afternoon. The overhead light is off, but I see that the pull string still hangs there. One yank by a nostalgic poet like me, and the light would come back on.

Next I drive a narrow but speedy road to Locke, also on the Delta. Locke, established in 1915, is something like Walnut Grove: in other words, immigrant ethnic. In this town, however, the immigrants were Chinese Americans who worked in the fields or for the railroad. At one time, the town boasted sixteen hundred permanent residents. But during harvest season—pears were the most abundant crop—the town expanded. There were once shipping wharves on the Delta, along with four restaurants, half a dozen markets, two slaughterhouses, four mills, five brothels, an opera house, three barbershops, five gambling houses, and, during Prohibition, a speakeasy. In 1990, Locke became a National Historic Landmark—you can’t add or subtract a shingle on the central street without written consent from the U. S. National Park Service, though the townspeople often ignore that edict.

I have visited this town many times and my visit is always the same: I stop at the Locke Boarding House Visitors’ Center, which has small rooms that approximate the lodgings of the early boarders—beds, chests of drawers, a large kitchen stove, living room furniture, dated calendars, and children’s drawings, with dust from the previous decade smothering everything.

I next take a peek at the Chinese school (still in operation), the Dai Loy Museum (gambling paraphernalia), then stroll through the leaf-strewn town of ninety people, twelve of whom, my brochure says, are Chinese Americans. But I don’t see any of the Chinese Americans, or any other residents either. The place is a ghost town. The apples on the trees go unpicked.

The lone barbershop is boarded up, and the light is not coming on any time soon.


The Christmas Ballet, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. It’s December but the weather is stuck on fall—no rain last week and no rain forecast for the coming week. The temperature is warm enough for a sweater, if not a long-sleeve T-shirt. Still, Christmas season is bright as Rudolph the Reindeer’s nose, and I’m once again at the Smuin Ballet Christmas performance, my fifth year in a row. Except for two or three new dances, the program is a repeat from last year’s offerings. My wife no longer goes with me; she’s had enough of this predictable holiday cheer.

Program in hand, I’m seated in the middle of the front row and not in the least embarrassed by the childish songs that include “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Sleigh Ride,” and the Jackson Five’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Catchy songs all; but, at my age, one would think Handel’s “Messiah” might provide a reverent earful of more sophisticated music.

Lo siento.

The dancers outdo the music—this is clearly why I’m here for my annual favorites, particularly “Santa Baby,” a playfully naughty number with a story. A single girl has been good all year and, as the rhyme goes, all she wants from her sugar daddy is a yacht—that can’t be asking for a lot. The rhymes are not real poetry, but her kitty-cat coyness is worth my afternoon. The dancer pouts, bats her eyelashes, scrubs her eyes, wags her bottom, and heats up the place. At that juncture of the performance, I take off my Mister Roger’s sweater.


The Back Room, Berkeley. Sunday, inside a small club with seven couches that face the stage, and I’m in the mood for jazz with a Lithuanian touch. Viktorjia Gecyte is young but her delivery suggests a smoky night club of the early 1960s—think Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson, think sophistication, think vintage Chanel suit and a trio of backing musicians in coats and ties. No grunge here, no tattoos, no bathtub plugs in the drummer’s earlobes, no fishing tackle in a beautiful singer’s nose.

I touch the fabric of the couch I’m seated on—the feel is familiar. I had a couch like this circa 1978. Could this be the same one? Nah, I think, but this could be my buddy’s sofa. That buddy, Tomas, stored the couch in our garage after his girlfriend asked him, none too politely, to get lost. I shrug my shoulders, sink into the couch, and crack open a single beer brought from home. (At the Back Room, booze from home is allowed if not encouraged.)

Ms. Gecyte scans the audience—not many of us. Still, she’s a pro. She runs through a few numbers, all heartbreak and breakup songs—nothing too whiny, nothing too confessional, just sighs of regret. She sings, “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me,” “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s,” “Tenderly,” and other lounge standards. If I had a second beer, I would have a crush going—she’s tall, beautiful, and potentially sort of liking me.

The midafternoon set is just over an hour long. I purchase her CD, titled No Detour Ahead. I leave, my eyes cast down because the sky is hurtfully bright after the darkness of the club. Not a block away I spy a couch on the street—very Berkeley, very cosmic. One can nearly trip across the stuff discarded on the street; it’s a communal giveaway, certified junk if truth be told. Who needs that chest of drawers with no drawers? Who needs that mattress with a bloodstain in the middle? The mini-fridge with a single bottle of warm ketchup? But I pause and think. It could be mighty right of me to pull this couch, like a baby elephant, to the Back Room. It would be a favor to the owner—more seating!

But I decide otherwise. On closer inspection, I see busted springs and cotton stuffing that might be host to bedbugs, fleas, lice, ticks, or a mouse the shade of a lost wallet. I step away from the couch, locate my car, and drive home, mostly in second gear. There I’ll unwrap my new CD and, with a glass of wine (two if I get really sentimental), sit on my own clean couch and let my heart break over “The Days of Wine and Roses.”


Winchester, England. No ticket needed for what is described as the Keats Walk—John Keats the poet, who lived in Winchester during the summer and fall of 1819. He was so delighted by the landscape there that he penned his famous ode, “To Autumn.” Keats walked daily from the Cathedral Close to St. Cross, a church on the outskirts of Winchester.

Dutifully, as a poet many generations removed, I follow his footsteps on the two-mile ramble that begins at King Alfred’s statue in the center of town. I pass Winchester Cathedral, cut through the Inner Close, freeze briefly in the shadows of a lovely building called the Deanery, get through the arches of Kingsgate, then pass the building where Jane Austen finished Persuasion and died shortly after. Then I’m hustling along the ruins of Wolvesey Castle before I’m finally out of the city and rambling along a stream called River Itchen. I admire a deep green lawn used for cricket by Winchester College and note a large hill from which a full moon must rise dramatically. I study the brochure in my hand: it’s St. Catherine’s Hill. By now on this trail there are only the occasional fishermen in waders or persons with unleashed dogs muddy from frolicking on the river’s edge.

The two-mile journey demands an hour of nonstop English rambling. At the end is the Hospital of St. Cross—not a medical hospital but a refuge where penniless older men, known as “Brothers,” many of them scholars with no means, come to live out their days. The hospital, founded in 1136, is and has always been a charitable institution. In previous centuries, when a traveler arrived at its doors, he or she could ask for the “wayfarer’s dole”: bread and ale. The secondary name for this institution is Almshouse of Noble Poverty. Noble poverty? Most poets in the States could—or should—apply for entry. We all know that there are no jobs for us.

The Brothers are recognizable by their black robes, with hefty silver crosses pinned to their fronts. They are required to do odd jobs around their residence, but mostly, because they are old, they confine themselves to the benches set in sunlight. They are encouraged to reflect and, through reflection, to pray. I don’t dare approach any of them, though I do have questions concerning their scholarly interests. Do they ever arrive at conclusions to their lifelong studies? I would like to know because I’m not far off myself.

I visit the small shop, buy a jar of local jam, and fit it into my jacket pocket. Then I visit the Norman-era church—lots of cold shadows here, with wind whistling through the windows. I stroll through a walled garden and look at brown cows on a far hill. The cows, munching hay, return my gaze. The sky is as blue as blue can get. Crazed blackbirds scream from the trees. It’s the middle of summer; the rose bushes require deadheading. Wind tampers with the flowers in the nearby meadow. A fox? I swear a fox is eyeing me from a far row of hedges.

I am hurrying back to the church when I see one of the Brothers. I begin our conversation by asking about one aspect of the main building—the porter’s lodge. I listen to his reply, then don’t listen, then grow distracted, as I notice that his silver cross is missing. After he finishes with his description of this noble place, I ask about the absent cross. He frowns, his mouth the mouth of a sad fish. He tells me that not more than a month ago, as he was on the trail to Winchester, a teenager ripped it from his breast—and disappeared past those hedges where I saw the fox.

I return to the City of Winchester, the jar of jam in my pocket, John Keats on my mind, and with a brooding heart. How could someone do such a thing in a lovely setting?    


’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Impact Theatre, Berkeley. The theater is located beneath La Val’s Pizza and almost every theatergoer—there are thirty of us—has an oversized pizza slice hanging over a durable paper plate, along with a beer in a red plastic cup. This is a not a gluten-intolerant group. We are an audience not unlike the one that first saw this play in 1633 performed by Queen Henrietta’s Men at the Cockpit Theatre in Old London Town. That is, ordinary loud citizens soiled by the day and ready for entertainment. We’re here for language, for a story, for an excuse to wet our whistles and chew our bread.

The theme of the play? Incest. Giovanni, a university student, has fallen for his sister, Anabella. Anabella, shocked but not wholly surprised, must fend off not only her brother’s advances but also those of other men—both lords and upstarts—with names like Bergetto, Grimaldi, and Soranzo. I have a sister. The notion of courting her ruins the pizza slice presently in my paw. Still, I’m curious. I paid my twenty dollars and will stay put to hear the musical voices of another era. After all, Impact Theatre has yet to stage a clunker since its first production ten years ago in 1997.

I scan the program. The cast and crew are numerous enough to row a ship to Italy, but the cardboard pillars painted to look like marble are the best they can do to suggest an ancient setting. I see that most of the actors are graduates of UC Berkeley—good for them. And most have college degrees in employable areas like economics, statistics, and biology—just in case theater doesn’t work out.

On the last page of the program, there’s a graph and a large, practical question: “Theatre in the basement of a pizza joint—how much does it really cost?” The graph shows a pizza—pepperoni, I surmise—that provides us non-economist types a visual on how much the theater requires annually: $17,400 for rent, $8,550 for artistic salaries, $14,525 for production, $7,490 for administration and marketing, $2,800 for insurance. To the right of the graph is a list of the donors by category: Splats ($25-49), Solid Hits ($50-99), Smash Hits ($100-499), Explosions ($500-999), Craters ($1,000-4,900) and Deep Impacts ($5000+). For the last three categories, shamefully, not one donor.

At intermission I approach the upstairs counter for a second beer. I am tempted to go whole hog with a calzone, but in a fit of common sense I decide not to become a glutton. Another pint is enough to keep me occupied. I return to my seat, sip my beer, and get ready for the second act. Throughout the performance, we hear the kitchen staff above yelling orders like, “Steve, Steve, large sausage pizza!” The noise fails to throw off the actors; they are pros, youthful and optimistic, plus resourceful. The management even has a deal for those willing to pay more: a dirty couch that was dragged in from the sidewalk and draped with a bedsheet, a nice hygienic consideration. Right now three young dudes are seated there, each with his own pitcher of suds. I’m proud of them, beer drinkers in love with underground theater.


Cecilia Edefalk, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Ms. Edefalk is a much-admired Swedish artist who works in oils, watercolors, photography, and bronze sculpture. She has a recent interest in the Roman emperor Aurelius, evident in the centerpiece to her show, Silver Roots. Here we have roots sprouting out of his imperial forehead. The meaning for me, casual stroller in this warehouse-large museum, is guesswork. And the nails in his cheeks? Additional guesswork. The expression on Emperor Aurelius’s face is of static indifference—daily the emperor must view his ever-squabbling underlings, knowing that the world is what it is, dangerous and greedy.

Edefalk also sees value in the common dandelion. She lives not far from a meadow, where in the slightest breeze this much-maligned flower sends up seeds to bloom in other fields—or in the cracks in driveways, sidewalks, stone walls, paths, and patios. Dandelions have a way of angering backyard gardeners, who often greet the migrants with weed killer. That the artist is interested in this particular flower is not unexpected; earlier in her career, she set off on a three-year pilgrimage with a botanist friend to paint watercolors of coastal flowers in England, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Portugal. Like a dandelion, she has gotten around, set roots briefly, then flown back home.


“Untold Stories: Early American Quilts,” Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. I’m here for Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical I’ve seen several times. Arriving early, I drift into the gallery adjacent to the theater, where on display are quilts from the collection of fiber artist Susan Brooks. The quilts—forty or so—hang from the walls or are suspended like flags from the ceiling. They are stitched narratives from the 1880s through the early 1900s—that is, they have stories to tell about the slave era, the Underground Railroad, the Mormon and Oregon Trails, and the temperance movement.

I learn a new term: “quilting bees.” During the colonial era, such bees were cooperative efforts in which women—always women—gathered to stitch a quilt for an infirm neighbor, a bride, or a toddler. Additionally, these bees allowed time for neighborly gossip. What did they talk about? My bet is family, illnesses, recipes, and perhaps the distant fist-shaped rain clouds that might ruin a wheat crop.

I walk among the quilts then halt in front of one. For a moment, I’m not sure of its narrative. Then I get it: a wine goblet is turned upside down, the work of the temperance movement of the 1910s. I blink at this quilt. I blink and frown. I don’t agree with the suggestion one bit: a quilt that advocates prohibition? I would rather sleep without warmth than abide by its message.


Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations, play by Mae Ziglin Meidav, Berkeley City Club. The playwright holds several degrees in mathematics—advanced ones, I assume—as well as a Ph.D. in sociology. I wonder about her transfer of interests from the hard sciences. Did she spank her hands of chalk dust, having had enough of egghead equations, and suddenly decide to punish herself by going into the arts? Ms. Meidav is the founder of Brookside Repertory Theatre, which is producing this evening’s play. What should we expect? Letters recited by the actors, I gather from the program’s description, letters that move the play along in a narrative manner.

Numbskull me, I admit that I have never read any of Kafka’s books; true, I started The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis, but put each one aside. Too brooding for me. But it’s time that I give this literary figure his due. I figure that tonight I, poet of greater maturity, will hear Kafka as channeled by Ms. Meidav. In preparation for this evening, I checked out the library’s copy of Kafka’s diary, which smelled of cigarette smoke. The entries were longish, dense complaining and difficult to grasp—no wonder librarian patrons smoked while reading his diary. And what did I find on page eighty-nine? A few strands of grayish hair—a creepy encounter that I shook from the pages into the toilet.

A troubled writer who wrote troubling books. No question there. I mean, who writes a novel about a man who wakes up as a cockroach? Me, I would tell the story of a man who wakes up as a Chihuahua in a glass-strewn alley of Fresno, California—no, wait a minute, I’ve already done that!

The play has a cast of eleven, some veteran actors on the local scene and others recent university graduates. It moves from Prague to Berlin to various sanatoriums and then finally to Muritz, a spa town situated on a German lake. The span time: 1888 to 1924. The play begins with “The Doorkeeper,” then is followed quickly by “Childhood Memory,” “With Nanny,” “First Publication,” “The Supervisor,” and “Meeting Felice,” each letter advancing Kafka’s life in perplexing spurts.

I decide to bail at intermission, for the second half of the play looks to be even longer than the first. I was in a pretty happy mood before the play began. Now a liquid called Despair has leaked into the bags under my eyes. I don’t look pretty and I don’t look like fun—though the acting is superb and the writing excellent. Tonight, however, I want joy.

Hand on the bronze railing, I make my way down the marble stairs—the City Club was designed by Julia Morgan and has a noble structure in its bones. Immediately outdoors, I encounter a Kafkaesque street-person gray as ash. I gaze at him as he mouths a batch of nearly silent words. When he opens his palm, I fill it with the price of a theater ticket. Then I reenter a city where every third homeless soul is a character from Kafka.


Olga, a Farewell Concert, Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. I’m not sure why Olga must leave us. Where is she going? Who is bidding her adieu? Will she keep in touch? Then I read the synopsis: Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova is the eldest sister in Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters. With both parents dead, Olga must assume the role of matriarch by default. This evening she is played by Beth Wilmurt, actor, musician, and singer. Three Sisters is an old play, if 1901 can be considered old in the literary canon.

I’m by myself, second row, and am ready for her voice, ready for songs by Harry Nilsson, Phil Ochs, Brian Wilson, Gillian Welch, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Cash, Rufus Wainwright, and the unidentified composer of “The Internationale.”

Ten minutes late, Olga appears from behind a curtain. She bows and smiles wanly at our welcoming applause. She is in her mid-forties, lithe, attractive, and smartly dressed by Berkeley standards, that is, not in unglamorous Birkenstocks but in glossy black pumps. She begins with “Wasting Time” by Nilsson.

From the get-go I’m entranced by her voice, delivery, and stage presence. I have a little crush going. There’s little comment between numbers, just the songs themselves, which are mostly full of melancholy. After a slowed-down version of Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” she introduces her accompanists, the guitarist, the bass player and the melancholic harmonica player. I forget their names immediately for my attention is fully on Olga, whom I understand must leave. But for where? Back to Russia? War-torn Ukraine? Or is her rent-controlled apartment in Berkeley up for sale?

Then it’s farewell for good, really. I get up from my chair, applauding, stiff-legged, then manage a set of carpeted stairs. I will not see her again. I hum Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” in an effort to continue the evening. No matter—I will forget her voice, her face, the seriousness that has pleated her brow with worry lines. Our relationship is, like, over.

Out on the Berkeley streets, in the craziness of urban life, I look down at my one-sheet program—Olga, a Farewell Concert. Now what was her last name again?


The Last Five Years, a musical by Jason Robert Brown, Village Theatre, Danville. I should keep this date of November 2017 private, but I can’t help myself. I confess that I, an occasional playwright, had hopes of having my young-adult play, The Spark and Fire of It, produced here. The Village Theatre is small—small in that the director likes to harness the talent of really little kids, ages five to sixteen. This evening I’m to see a musical that features mostly seventh graders lamenting heartbreak and emotional despair through song.

Oh, really?

Before the start of the musical, a kids’ rock group is onstage, braying their hearts out primarily to parents, siblings, service dogs, and classmates chewing candy bars. More heartbreak in A, G, and F chords, the audience sucking up the syrupy mush like soda through a straw! As I am a few minutes late, glass of wine in hand, I don’t catch the name of the group. But this I know: they are enrolled in School of Rock San Ramon. They are good, with stage presence and glamour, with a little grunge in their attire. They sing octaves above the drums, bass and guitars; they have every intention of being heard because what they have to say is totally important. Occasionally the female lead singer looks in my direction. She must be thinking, Old Hispanic lecher in the third row.

The things a playwright must do! While the music startles the hair in my ears, I glance at the biographies of the kids in the musical. There’s not that much to say as they are only twelve or thirteen years old. Of the cast of seven, five really like playing video games in their spare time. There’s Courtney, Sean, Morgan, Ryan, Kelly, Emily, and, the most theatrical name, Kiernan.

The rock group’s performance ends. My wine is gone and my freighter of hope has struck an iceberg. Earlier in the week I’d sent my Shakespearean play—ideal for this age group, I thought—to Shayna Ronen, the person behind Village Theatre. When I arrived this evening, I introduced myself with a friendly smile, telling her that I was the mysterious playwright. Her reaction? A quick smile and a thank you. That was it. My audition was, like, over.

Now back to the musical, The Last Five Years, and its unlikely casting. A boy actor, age twelve, plays a novelist whose book is on a trajectory toward bestseller status. Opposite him, a girl actor, also twelve, plays an actress on the way down. And me? I’m the foolhardy playwright in the audience, assuming the role of a sixty-seven-year-old literary relic. Evidently, I have insufficient ambition—or else why would I be here? With third-rate wine in my veins, I don’t even feel sorry for myself. Go ahead, kids, sing that I might smile and also weep, the thespian shields of our desperate art.


St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. The lunchtime concert presents Zvonecek-Praha, translated as Prague Little Bell, featuring singers from ages five to sixteen. I’m here—at a church with much history—to escape a sudden summertime cloudburst. I gaze at the program: Czech, Moravian and Slovak folk songs. I admire folk music and prefer it to classical, New Age, rock and roll, salsa, and Tuvan throat singing, in part because authentic folk music reminds me of simple villagers. I learn that the regular home of Prague Little Bell is the Prague School of Music. The student body is over two hundred strong—lots of singing there, lots of happiness. The group has performed in several musical festivals and won regional competitions. They have produced two CDs, neither of which is available this afternoon—or at least I don’t notice a merchandise table.

The foreign songs (foreign to me) fly above the audience, not unlike birds. The singers’ bodies sway. All of the music is what we would call uplifting. Not a downer among the eight songs in a span of thirty minutes—well, perhaps, one has a slight tone of disappointment. Prague, like much of Europe, has faced governmental turmoil, racial bigotry, famine, plagues, and the terror of war.

The lunchtime concert begins promptly at 1:05. The suggested entry fee is three pounds.


BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells, California. I’m up in the nosebleed section of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden’s Stadium 1 to watch the match between the often-injured Juan Martín del Potro and Roger Federer, the most celebrated tennis player ever. But I’m not here to talk about them; I have something else to report. So let me get it out of the way and say that Mr. del Potro defeats the legend in three sets and under a sun sharp as scissors.

Now my turn. I’m in Indian Wells to play in the Super Senior Cup. And what is meant by “super senior” depends on where you are in life. To teenage boys, super senior means some geezer with a car from the 1970s. But in this tournament super senior means sixty-five and older.

I’m here for the state doubles championship with my tennis partner Gary Wong, a baby who only just turned sixty-five. Both of us play out of the Berkeley Rose Garden, site of sloping courts, splintery benches, and crotch-scratching old guys who can’t ever remember the score. Gary and I have played tennis together for ten years. It was me who convinced him to go to Indian Wells—the pair of us heading southward like two skinny birds.

I’ve spent money foolishly before, but maybe not this foolishly. There’s an entry fee, hotel, meals, beer and wine, tennis gear, the gas for the ten-hour drive from Berkeley to Indian Wells—and the return trip home with or without a trophy tied to the roof of the car. All throughout the drive, Gary’s mantra is, “How did you talk me into this?”

“Gary,” I argue, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

When the ten-hour-drive ends and we’ve arrived at our bed-and-breakfast, Gary ditches his mantra for mine. “Yeah,” he says, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Gary and I were recruited by the Vacaville Hawks, meaning that their captain, Tony Mras, heard about us and asked us to play against his team. When we defeated our opponents handily, the Hawks, all older than us, muttered, “We gotta sign ’em up.”

At Indian Wells we and the other Hawks play at nice venues against other California teams, including the Old Fokkers, Omaha Kids, Corn Dogs, and Over the Hill Gang—the names themselves reflect our age. I notice in our program that the women’s teams are cleverer, with names like the Double Shots, Volley Girls, Shady Ladies, Ms. Fits, Lob Lob Land, Sunsational Señoritas, and so on.

Lots of sun and lots of playing time (three matches a day) mean weary legs, faces lathered hourly with sunscreen, and aching shoulders, thighs and knees, with hurt egos if we should lose our matches. I will cut to the chase (if, in fact, old guys can still chase). Our team, the Vacaville Hawks, was not favored for the first-place trophy—or any trophy—yet we win the state championship. I could offer details of our play but would come off as a braggart. Let’s just say that Team Gary (Gary Soto and Gary Wong) were dubbed “the Rabbits.” What might that mean to you, reader?

During the finals, the sky is full of drama. There are dark rolling clouds, lightning and thunder in the far mountains where the tennis gods dwell. We Hawks are pitted against the Sacto Seniors, perennial champs, and each of our two sets is sort of close—7-5, 6-3. In the end, Gary and I dispatch their number-one team, while our number-three team pulls out a very, very close match. All we need is dramatic music à la Chariots of Fire and the pop from a bottle of California champagne, with the golden liquid poured over our heads. To celebrate we take numerous group pictures and hit unsigned tennis balls into the courts (no fans bother to run for them).

Gary and I shower and then, like camels, drink a lot of water before getting into the car. On the drive home, Gary’s mantra becomes, “That was an once-in-a-life experience.” We are giddy with victory, and also buzzed on highly potent caffeinated soft drinks. It rains hard all the way home, all ten hours.

Once, near Patterson, we stop to pee on the side of the freeway. By this time, we’re so tired that we don’t notice the wind whipping in our faces. So that’s what victory smells like, I think.

We plan to go back next year.


Spring Foundation’s 2017 Philanthropy Dinner, Berkeley. Occasionally I wander onto the Cal campus and visit the tables set up in Sproul Plaza by student club members—the song-writing club, the kayaking club, the Latina/o club, the Filipino-American club, lots of dance clubs, business and engineering clubs, et cetera. Today I stop at a table with a butcher-paper drape in front that screams, in the color of at least six different Sharpies, “Spring Foundation.” I learn from the young women, Michelle and Rachael, of the foundation’s efforts to educate the rural poor of China. Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with educating the poor in general. When they say, “There’s a talk tonight,” I buy two tickets, each priced at twenty dollars. They are youthfully giddy and optimistic, their faces pink as those of farm girls from the province of Sichuan. I playfully ask one of them, “What’s for dinner?” Her smile grows bright as a peony. “Chinese food, of course!”

That’s how I spend my evening, listening to trilingual speakers and, with chopsticks in hand, poking around the noodles for shrimp. I only find three.


Dry Powder, Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. The play is written by Sarah Burgess, who is young, if the photo in our program is current, and as a playwright is wise beyond her years. The play—four actors, one minimalist set, ninety minutes no intermission—is about Stephen A. Schwarzman’s sixtieth birthday party. This is the Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group—we’re talking big money here. The year of the party is 2007, before all hell breaks loose the following year when banks and equity firms collapse, and nine million people lose their homes through foreclosure, along with their jobs, cars, families, and self-respect, in that order.

I correct myself: the play is really about a financier’s attempts to purchase a high-end luggage company. Still, there’s a reference early in the play to a lavish party in which an elephant, possibly with bells and a carpeted back, is paraded around the CEO’s compound for no other reason than to show that the birthday boy has money to spare. Guests at the party? Michael Bloomberg, Barbara Walters, and Donald and Melania Trump, among untold other famous types. The entertainers for the evening are Patti LaBelle and Rod Stewart. In other words, not your average birthday party in which bottled beers are thrown down the hatch on backyard lawns. That’s what happened on my sixtieth, when a smartass poet friend gave me a birthday card that shows a middle-aged guy on the beach sucking in his gut as two babes in bikinis approach him, running. On the inside of the card, after the babes have passed, he has let his gut back out to the punchline: “Why settle for a six-pack when you can have a keg?”

The play is as quick as those split-second decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange. The characters are rich and wish to be richer. For them time is money; thus, they must yammer at a pace that keeps our eyeballs swiveling from one character to the next. There is the CEO, a tall figure, and his two hirelings, each with venomous MBA opinions on whether to purchase that luggage company. The audience doesn’t have enough information to judge whether to loathe them or just to accept that such types exist.

Now back to the elephant in the room. The CEO recalls, several times, that his extravagant party became tabloid material and the gossipy stories incorrectly reported that he had two elephants! He feels wronged. “No,” he shouts, “for God’s sake, there was only a single elephant!” (For the record, Mr. Schwarzman did give himself a lavish sixtieth birthday party and an even grander event when he turned seventy. On that evening he hired Gwen Stefani and the cast from the Jersey Boys, along with trapeze artists and camels.)

What’s the meaning of “dry powder?” Money that’s not tied up, meaning greenbacks ready to use in the battle for an acquisition. In the war of greed, dollars are the weapons.


“Miss Africa Beauty Pageant” and “Gonna Rise Up Singing,” Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. With my wife, I’m in Los Angeles for a major book fair at USC. The trunk of our car is weighed down with boxes of books, all mine, all ready for readers, all needed to save the world from stupidity! Occasionally the merchant inside me wakes up from his recliner and whispers in my ear, Get busy. This is one of those times.

Since we’re bunking at a B-and-B across from this small Catholic university, we venture onto campus and dine at the student cafeteria. Our eight-dollar meal? Mexican food on a square plate: two red enchiladas, beans and rice. We eat on the patio, a riot of black birds in the jacaranda trees. As I am parting my second enchilada, I notice four young Asian women wearing long black dresses. I recognize that they are singers, get to my feet, and hurry to ask them where they will be performing. One says, “Doheny Mansion,” and another says, “You can come.”

The performance is at 7 p.m. I look at my watch: 6:10. We finish our dinner while the campus cat nudges our legs for attention and scraps. I flick some rice onto the ground—the cat sniffs at the meager handout and turns his back, tail up. The furry dude is insulted.

Mount Saint Mary’s University (I knew it when it was a college) is set in the middle of Los Angeles, on Twenty-Third near Figueroa. The demographic is all female, mainly Latina, first-generation college students. It’s a tidy campus and movingly beautiful at that hour when the branches of eucalyptus trees splinter the western sun. If I taught college, it would be here—provided they would have me.

My wife and I walk among the trees and amble toward a banner that announces the “Miss Africa Beauty Pageant.” We decide to go. We climb the steps of Ahmanson Weingart Hall and peer in, expecting students in every squeaky chair. But there are only a few in the front rows and certainly no one at the door to take our ten-dollar entrance fee. We tiptoe inside, seat ourselves in the back, and quickly absorb that there are only three contestants. None of the beauties is from Africa; instead, they’re from the Los Angeles area and presently (and nervously?) representing Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and Nigeria. We’re late, very late, so we only get to hear from Miss Cameroon as she describes from prepared notecards the lifestyle of that country. She emphasizes the typical dishes and the role of women in society. At the end she bows to applause and joins the other two contestants on the side of the stage.

As this is a beauty contest, there are judges—faculty members and administrators, I assume. They tell the audience—sixteen or so in all—that they will meet to decide on the winner. Then they gather at the end of a long table, their heads nearly touching as they confer. I don’t envy them. There are three contestants, a dozen or so spectators, and all of Africa waiting upon this moment—or so my poet’s mind imagines.

We leave before discovering the winner and hurry to the choral concert at the Doheny Mansion, which was built in 1899 for the Oliver P. Posey family; two years later it was purchased by the oil baron Edward L. Doheny. The building unites elements of Gothic, chateauesque, Moorish, and California Mission styles. It’s an overly grand mess of marble, stained glass, ornate fireplaces, statues of winged figures on pedestals, beveled windows, lacy curtains, and fine wood paneling. I pony up thirty dollars for the two of us then we head to the Pompeian Room, with its domed ceiling, mosaic floor, and honest-to-goodness marble columns. I learn that the room is occasionally used as a set for Hollywood movies. It does look familiar. Was The Last Tycoon filmed here?

Soon the singers file in from a side door. Once again the audience is sparse, with perhaps twenty of us, mostly family members, faculty, and friends. Maybe a few music majors? And, yes, there they are, the singers we met on the patio. I grasped from the program earlier that they are exchange students from the cities of Jiangxi, Nantong, and Shanxi. Plus, there’s a singer from Shiga, Japan. The rest are from the good ole USA. They are conducted by Therese Fassnacht, with Zach Neufeld on piano and Brian Boyce on percussion. The songs include selections from Venezuela, Canada, Nigeria, China, and the southern United States. There’s also an adaptation of Psalm 23.

We enjoy the evening and receive added enjoyment when we descend the steps of the Doheny Mansion and are again greeted by the campus cat. The rascal rubs his head against my leg. He will not take no for an answer. Where’s my grub, Big Spender?

But Big Spender has only a tickle for his scruff and the salt of a bookseller’s hand.


An Ideal Husband, California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda. Oscar Wilde, a satirist in several literary genres, was known to poke fun at English high society (he was Irish). Like many authors before and after him, he could never keep his trap shut. At the drop of his beaver top hat, he would duel with the less verbally equipped on just about any subject.

There’s a moon over this outdoor theater, and my date for the evening is a large bottle of Guinness. Unlike Wilde, who favored crystal stemware, I enjoy my drink right from a paper sack. One sip and my own usually talkative tongue goes quiet as a lizard; all seems perfectly acceptable. I’m about to enjoy a play that I’ve seen—though not read in print—several times. From the get-go, we get that Wilde is lampooning the notion of an ideal husband, as no such domesticated animal exists. After a few years of marriage we husbands are curdled milk; we’re parrot droppings on the bottom of a cage; we’re short-sighted sots; we’re nostrils sucking up bad air. Now why didn’t I bring a second bottle of Guinness to extend my observations about husbands?

Because I weigh 138 pounds (much of this flesh comprising my old-man jowls), I’m easily affected by alcohol. I’m a cheap date, easily exploitable! Touch my knee, and I will pet your palm and suggest that we visit my parked car—what do you think? But I become an angry date when I suddenly recall that Mr. Wilde was arrested in 1895 for “gross indecency,” presumably a homosexual act, during the run of The Ideal Husband. At his trial, his own actors turned on him. He was convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor. Upon release, he chose exile. Can’t blame the hombre one bit.

Now the dinner scene where Sir Robert Chiltern banters with his guests, and the hint of blackmail from Mrs. Cheveley. I throw more Guinness down the hatch, judge the taste, peer respectably at the label, peel the label with an index finger, and lament that I can’t pull a second bottle from my paper sack. Life is more doable when you’re buzzed. I look at the bottle, I look up at the stage. The same characters—Sir Robert Chiltern, Lady Chiltern, blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley, among others. The set is exquisitely rendered, the actors all pros, the stage lighting close to magic. Hell, I think, I should become a subscriber!

Cal Shakes is located on the dry hills of tidy Orinda, a community that sometimes votes Republican, sometimes Democrat. The moon is bright as milk, and the cows—two nearly eclipsed by darkness—are mooing. The mooing makes a few of the theatergoers laugh because evil Mrs. Cheveley is a big cow—or at least her fabric-enhanced bottom is.

I close my eyes, get comfy. I hear the play, and then don’t hear it. For an inexplicable reason I think of my late friend, dead three years now, and then, monkey mind me, think of Mr. Wilde with a prison shovel in his hands, the oval-shaped blisters pink and tender. How could they punish him? The Irish, not English, genius who suffered for his natural inclination toward what he found pleasurable.

The cows moo, the people laugh. I have no more Guinness to raise to Mr. Wilde, whose last words from his deathbed were, “Either this wallpaper has to go, or me.” The wallpaper stayed.


Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. My wife and I take the Tube then a bus to a museum that specializes in anthropology, natural history, and musical instruments. It is set on many acres (children play, mothers push strollers, young men argue over a cricket score on the lush lawn) and the sky above is blue as some of the china tableware on display on the museum’s second floor. Most intriguing are a few thirteenth-century bronze plaques from the Kingdom of Benin (part of present-day Nigeria). The craftsmanship is evident, the figures—often kings, priests, and warriors—dignified. Such plaques, I read from the placard near the display, often illustrate the kingdom’s history and, thus, are symbols of unity meant to instruct and offer pride.

Elsewhere in the museum I learn that in 1897 a British vice-consul general by the name of James Robert Phillips, with six other officials plus local porters (day laborers), made a visit to Benin’s capital. They arrived at a time when the city was in a ritual shutdown—no foreigners could enter. The ritual, religious in nature, was meant solely for the kingdom’s own people.

The British expedition ignored the command to stay away, doubtlessly with a superior attitude, and attempted to enter the city. Didn’t the British have ears? Couldn’t they respect an edict? All but two of the Europeans were killed by Oba warriors. (I imagine the terrified porters dropping bundles of English belongings and scattering before the onslaught.) Eight days later, London got word of the killings. The government sent a punitive expedition that leveled the city to smoldering rubble. The houses were burned, many citizens slaughtered, the royalty humbled. Much of the city’s decorative art was stolen right off the walls of homes and these pieces ended up in the hands of British collectors, as well as in museums in Germany and England. Bronze plaques remain the most sought-after works. In the mid-1980s, one plaque was listed in a Sotheby’s catalogue for thirty thousand pounds.

At the Horniman Museum, I size up the booty held in Plexiglas cases, which are well lit and alarmed. Theft is impossible, and I don’t feel good about this. My mind becomes alert to a contradiction. Are these bronze plaques under the watchful eye of a British-Nigerian security guard? The guard is a small man in a blue suit meant for a larger man—the cuffs of his jacket reach his knuckles, the hems of his pants puddle around his shoes. I think he knows these are stolen goods. They don’t belong here; instead, they should be hanging on the walls of his great, great-auntie’s house.

Thieves sometimes get away with murder.


In the Heights, Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito. I imagine Lin-Manuel Miranda, genius of the megahit Hamilton, at the early hour of 11 a.m., buttering his toast and gazing out from a landmark condo in New York City. A crumb tumbles onto the lapel of his monogrammed bathrobe. He shakes the crumb loose and allows it to fall onto a Persian rug.

The crumb in his literary life is In the Heights, which is by no means a statement about the quality of the writing. It’s a fun show, with lots of dancing and singing, boiler-plate sketches, and skirts flaring above the knees, a peekaboo for old men like me. It’s a prelude to what was to come, a dry run for Hamilton. Here in El Cerrito we have a matinee featuring twenty-three—I counted—actors and a live orchestra, all on a small stage, with amateurishly rendered sets. The setting: Latino Washington Heights, Manhattan. The time: July 3 to July 4. The theme: unrequited love. A character named Usnavi, owner of a bodega, is smitten to near idiocy by Vanessa, who does hair at a salon across from his place of business. This is what I mean by boiler-plate: the conflict is established and we the audience are in for enjoyable performances of dance and song.

I’ve written plays—five of them—each of which has earned only a Xeroxed program, one of them in three colors, but, hey, printed on both sides! I’m a rank-and-file playwright who has seen his share of performances up and down California. But when I wake up at 6:45 a.m., my backyard is gray with fog, I drink my coffee and butter my toast while reading the sports section—the Giants went extra innings last night, I see. If an errant crumb falls on the lapel of my robe, I make sure that I unlatch it and put it into my mouth. Every crumb embodies a nutrient called Hope.


Lamb House, Rye, England. Not much to do in this medieval town except stroll its cobbled streets: Mint Street, Well Street, Mermaid Street, Rope Walk, Winchelsea Road. A few miles away, in 1066, King Harold took a Norman arrow and lost his life. This certainly shifted history for the royal types of the time. But the peasants and lower gentry just kept plugging along.

Lamb House was built in 1722 by wine merchant and politician James Lamb. But it is more famously known as the home of Henry James and, later, E.F. Benson. Of these two novelists, I prefer the latter, who writes easygoing prose. He is the author of the very funny Mapp and Lucia novels, which were also adapted for a successful BBC television series.

I purchase our tickets for four pounds each. For this price we get an eyeful of period pieces: a Beatrix Potter watercolor, a framed lease from 1822, a truly old telephone, silver-plated wall lamps, fine furniture, silver bowls, hand-painted vases, wall mirrors, sepia-colored photos of James alone and James with friends, an ornate poker by the fireplace, a drawing of James done by Max Beerbohm. There are also writing desks, inkwells, leather-bound books, biographies of James, and some—just some—personal items of E.F. Benson. Is he the lesser known of the two novelists? Probably.

My wife and I venture from room to room then out into the garden. Not much in the way of a garden—just a damp lawn, aged trees, and a few annuals huddled together against wind and rain. And in July—or at least this July—it seems to rain every other hour. As for the wind, it comes off the sea, bringing with it the scent of tragedy. What fishing boat struggles among the choppy waves today?

I learn that James wrote The Turn of the Screw, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl in either the Green Room or the Garden Room (the latter was destroyed in a bombing during World War II). I also learn that E.F. Benson, briefly the mayor of Rye, wrote his Mapp and Lucia there. The author H. Montgomery Hyde lived in Lamb House as well, as did prolific novelist Rumer Godden, and painter, publisher, and conservative politician Sir Brian Batersford. In short, the place has a creative aura about it, along with a fine little patio where you can have coffee and cake. But first I buy a postcard, then my pick-me-upper sweets, and at a table write to a poet friend, “Chris, you ever hear of Lamb House? Lot of literary ghosts floating about here. And the streets are all cobblestoned. Really bad on our ankles. But you have thick ankles. This is a place for you and your English blood. Gary.”


Shamisen Fujimoto Hideki Kai, Japan Center, San Francisco. How do I arrive here? I have attended a service at the Presbyterian church in Japantown and am walking past the cultural center when I notice a sandwich board. It appears that a midday concert begins in—I look at my watch—twenty minutes. I go inside, am greeted in Japanese, and purchase a senior-rate ticket for fifteen dollars. I’m handed a program entirely in Japanese. I find a seat near the back, a foreigner. I have no reading material except the church bulletin, which I read several times during the service, so it does me no good at the moment. But time hammers away and the concert starts as scheduled, with emcee Todd Nakagawa welcoming us in Japanese and English.

For an hour I listen to the plucking of the shamisen and the bird calls of the shakuhachi, to songs that have repetitious, though never boring, melodies. I figure this: that the songs should be enjoyed while drinking sake, not the tea that is offered. I get an earful of folk songs and beam at the dance groups Hakata Kai and Kiyonomoto Ryu Katsuno Kai.

I stay for the first half then leave with a plum-flavored mochi. It’s a chewy rice pastry that stays with you a very long time.         


Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland. This is a former prison constructed of the coldest stone and a symbol of the Irish Republican resistance to English rule. The heroes of this struggle include Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin, and Charles Stewart Parnell, leaders of the 1916 uprising that found the resisters shooting it out against the better-armed British militia. The prison also held petty thieves, including children whose offenses consisted of stealing apples and bread. I read that there was no segregation of the sexes, that women, men, and children were incarcerated five to a cell. Their heat? A single candle. If the candle sputtered and died, then each other’s bodies were their heat. Hangings? Yes, there were hangings of prisoners but the practice mostly stopped around 1910.

The prison was decommissioned in 1924. This monstrous pile of rocks then went neglected until the 1950s, when the National Graves Association proposed renovation. Not much happened, however, until the Irish trade unions got involved, along with some literary types. A team of sixty volunteers began work in May 1960.

I venture outside to the courtyard. The ground is layered with gravel and each step feels ponderous. The sky is gray, the walls gray, but the birds are glossy black. I stand in front of the wall where the Irish leaders of the Easter Rising were executed. In their honor, I list their names now: Patrick H. Pearse, Thomas J. Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, William Pearse, John MacBride, Con Colbert Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Sean Heuston, Sean Mac Diarmada, and James Connolly. Each was shot in the upper torso and, most likely, the heart. They bled for their cause.

Back inside the prison, I examine a glass case of items made by prisoners, including a leather purse, two crosses, a spoon and, surprisingly, two knives, when I’m shocked by my own appearance. In the glass reflection, I’m horrified at my orange sweater, the color of the oppressors. The color of the Protestants! Of British rule! I’ve been in Dublin for three days wearing this flag? What, am I thick in the head? A dolt?

I head to the loo and peel off the sweater, then my shirt, and reverse the layers: the sweater under my shirt. My punishment? Scratchy wool for the rest of the day.


Ain’t Misbehavin’, 42nd Street Moon, San Francisco. I eat a sandwich on a park bench and then walk two blocks to the theater. I’ve seen this Fats Waller-inspired musical revue several times, but never at this venue, now celebrating its twenty-fifth season. The 42nd Street Moon is all about musicals from the 1930s and 1940s, if not earlier. I’m prepared for what’s coming, the song-and-dance routines. With the show a near sellout, I’m at the end of a row and pressed against the wall. I endure my seat because Fats Waller, unrecognized genius of his time, endured. The book is by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., who pay homage to the Harlem Renaissance, an era when things were smoking hot, especially music, dance, and literature.

Is Ain’t Misbehavin’ literature? It does have structure and a story. And, unlike a lot of literature, this musical has a permanent place in our creative canon—no argument there. The original production enjoyed a long run on Broadway: 1,604 performances. So, with four inches of generic red wine in a clear plastic cup, I’m in for the title song, along with “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Yacht Club Swing,” and others in the first, laughter-filled half. At intermission, I find a new seat—a couple has left, bless their hearts. Released from the wall, I place my coat on the back of the seat and hurry to the snack bar, where I purchase a white wine. I need to bolster myself for the second half, which has my favorites: “Lounging at the Waldorf,” the sultry “Viper Song,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and “Fat and Greasy.”

Because the musical depends on song, dance, and slapstick, plus the finest thread of a narrative, there’s very little dialogue. The audience recognizes that the time—1930s Harlem—is another era and gives in to the sexiness of the dancers. Meanwhile, the characters are near caricatures. (Fats Waller would acknowledge this.) His songs swing rollickingly by way of stride piano, and prompt me to two-fist my drinks: one red wine, one white wine, and possibly a third if there’s mingling afterwards. I’m here for an escape.


Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, England. For as long as I can remember Austen’s novels have been everywhere. She was—and is—a literary icon, and deservedly so. For one, she wrote excellent prose. But she also captured the human nature of England’s gentry when others thought such concerns unimportant. She was a portraitist—this is how I describe her and her lasting works.

I take a bus from Winchester to Chawton and I’m let off at a roundabout on a fairly busy highway. I hoof it a quarter mile down a wet road—English rain, you know, rain on the cows, sheep, ducks, and chickens, and on the dogs who wag their tails at me. Ten minutes later I arrive at the museum, purchase entry for seven pounds and begin my tour of the seventeenth-century house where Austen lived between 1809 and 1817. Illness cut short her stay in Chawton, forcing her to move to Winchester to be closer to her physician. Before this move, Ms. Austen had three novels in draft form: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. Scholars believe that she completed these masterpieces on the premises in Chawton. She certainly wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion in the very room in which I am standing, the living room with a low ceiling. She wrote by natural light and candlelight, and in all seasons, with her mother and sister, Cassandra, by her side. Austen never married, and neither did her sister.

Interesting to note: Austen was forty-one when she died, and the museum celebrates forty-one author-related items. The items? Framed silhouettes (possibly of family members), a cup and ball (a parlor game), a muslin shawl, first editions of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, a bookcase, a letter from Jane to Cassandra, Wedgewood plates, Jane’s ring (blue stone), music books, her writing table, a second letter from Jane to Cassandra, a piano (possibly not Austen’s but of the period), a letter from Churchill to a friend proclaiming Sense and Sensibility an excellent novel.

I go from room to room and then into the yard. I would linger there; however, the benches are dotted with rain. Austen is a much-loved author in England and beyond—her novels have been translated into at least thirty-five languages. She created literature, lasting literature, and her admirers have recreated a home that reflects her time. Admittedly, the museum contains only a few items that belonged to Jane or her family. The originals are all scattered, and where is anyone’s guess.

After her mother’s and Cassandra’s deaths, the house was partitioned into laborers’ quarters. In 1948, it sold for three thousand pounds (about one hundred thousand pounds these days) and is now run by a charity—equivalent to a nonprofit here in the States.

But before I leave, I take a second look at the ring with the blue stone. A docent tells me that it was purchased at auction in 2012 by the American singer Kelly Clarkson. The British government, however, banned it from export, arguing that the ring is a national treasure. It was subsequently bought by an anonymous donor and given to the museum.

In the bookstore, I purchase postcards and make my way back to the bus stop at the roundabout. The sky is blue and I have to hope it will remain blue until nightfall. At that time, I will begin rereading Emma, my favorite.               


Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. What draws my wife and me to the museum is an exhibit called “Contested Histories, Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.” Right after World War II, Eaton was able to amass a huge collection of personal items belonging to Japanese Americans incarcerated at Poston, Manzanar, Tule Lake, Crystal City, Heart Mountain, and five other prison camps. He began collecting while writing his book about these times. The result was the seminal Beauty behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps. The items themselves were mostly forgotten until a family friend of Eaton tried to auction them in 2013. The Japanese American community objected with fury. How could one sell such a collection?

In the end, these items were bought by the museum, which began to identify them, that is, to determine who made them and to whom they belonged. For instance, there’s a wooden chair built out of scraps by Yorozu Homma at Heart Mountain. The chair is charmingly the work of a craftsman with time on his hands.

On display at this exhibit are watercolors, sculptures, jewelry, vases, lapel pins, painted scrolls, and wooden spoons, perhaps thirty of the four hundred items in the collection. My wife study the chair for the longest time before she asks me, “You remember the radio my grandfather made?”

No need to think deeply to remember. It’s by the fireplace in our rented farmhouse in Fresno, and is made of whittled wood—pine, I believe. The insides are gone but the body of the radio remains. What music must have come from its grilled front during its unfortunate history.


The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. My wife says, “We’re going to see fashion today.” I say, “You think we are.” She says, “It’s an exhibit of Grace Kelly.” I say, “We better get going.” We ride the Tube three stops from our B-and-B and in no time we’re within the exhibit—but barely. The place is overrun with female oglers sizing up her dresses, one hundred or so of them, many designed by Christian Dior. Her waist—very tiny. Her height—tall. Her acting talent—I’ll button my lip. Her style—elegant. Her worldwide stature—arguably the most photographed woman of the 1950s. There is a knot of onlookers around the dress worn in the film High Society. I try to become part of that knot, but not a chance. I’m shoved out of the way—and, what, am I being groped by one of these women? No, it’s a designer handbag against my crotch.

This is a six-room exhibit, along with additional programming: “Grace Kelly, Hollywood and Fashion,” a lecture and panel discussion; “Grace Kelly,” a curator’s talk (with lunch); “The Golden Age of Couture” a lecture; “Haute Couture Hats” a workshop; “High Society Scarves,” a lecture and display of scarves; and a two-week long film series featuring the actress—excuse me, princess.

Grace Kelly, as we know, left the sleazy principality of Hollywood for the refined monarchy of Monaco. She married a real prince—Prince Rainier, who was not as tall as her. Her film career over, she dutifully became an ambassador of goodwill. She also wrote poetry—a fact I didn’t know, and which makes me feel compelled to look up her work. But for now I’m just a penguin among women, a penguin in that my steps are so very short. Again, the number of museumgoers is crazy beyond belief.


The Liar, play by David Ives, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. Clever of Ives to adapt a play of Pierre Corneille—in rhyme, mind you—from the French. The setting is the seventeenth century, a time when social graces were meant for the royal and the rich. The poor could eat cake—sorry wrong century, that would be Marie Antoinette, eighteenth century.

David Ives, a favorite of mine, possesses an observant eye, a good ear, and true, writerly skills. He contemporizes the story of Dorante, an outright flirt, entertainer of wild untruths, and ultimately a fool influenced by physical beauty—boy, I would never fall for that. This is a lively piece with superb acting, a lovely set, and an audience willing to be lied to in jest. I’m having fun, it’s all fun. As a poet, I’m attentive to both rhyme and reason, and I’m rooting for Ives, a master playwright.

At intermission, I wait for a woman to approach me—this occurs more than one suspects and not because I have a roving eye. If a conversation is struck up, I might—no, I will—play up the sadness of being dateless. I will invent a tragedy, such as the passing of my French poodle, Peaches. Peaches gobbled up a chocolate bar—chocolate, our veterinarian daughter says, is a death sentence in the canine world. Yes, this will be my calling card for sympathy. It might get me a free drink. A telephone number. An email address. The appearance of freckled boobs in my parked car? However, it would also be a big fat fib! I have no dog named Peaches. I desire no one on my arm.

I paid twenty-five dollars for a discounted ticket from Goldstar. Now do you believe this?


Jimi Hendrix Shrine, Vancouver, Canada. This is apparently the childhood hangout of the virtuoso guitarist. The building is slightly tilted, as if off its foundation, possibly from the music thumping inside. It’s also painted blue. You don’t need to wipe your feet when you enter this house or close the door behind you. If you light up a cigarette, so much the better. A joint? I think that’s OK too.

We enter, my wife and me, and close the warped door behind us. We are immediately drawn to the doll-like sculptures of Hendrix and his grandmother. Hendrix is holding a signature Fender Stratocaster guitar. He’s dressed in bellbottom pants, a long scarf, a tie-dyed shirt, floppy hat, and, inexplicably, black rubber gloves. His face is photocopied on durable paper. Next to him stands his grandmother, who wears a long white apron adorned with roses. Behind her, there’s a sign that says “Vie’s Chicken Inn” and an old-fashioned stove with cast-iron pots and pans. The sculptures are ragtag; likewise, everything else around me is ragtag—and that’s the beauty of it. This is not a museum but a personal shrine, like a teenager’s sloppy bedroom.

For a few minutes, I stand before a small television watching Hendrix perform “The Stars-Spangled Banner.” He is electric and he is in a groove. I turn away before the maestro squirts lighter fluid on his howling instrument and sends it up in flames—a well-documented moment in rock history. I begin to examine a mishmash of drawings, paintings, photographs, peace signs, T-shirts, and album covers related to Hendrix as well as to his generation, the late 1960s, heyday of the hippies.

We are greeted by the man behind the shrine—no, not Hendrix but a much younger man who invites us to look around. The shrine-maker is Vincent Fodera, who wasn’t alive in the 1960s when real music was happening. Fodera heads out the front door—no explanation—and my wife and I head out the back door. We discover a garden where petunias, marigolds, and impatiens are flowering in decorative pots. Overshadowing us is a life-size mural of Hendrix playing a wild riff on top of the White House. (Is there meaning here?) An even larger mural shows Hendrix hugging a woman (his wife?) and behind them a whirly universe that’s not unlike soapy bath water spiraling down a drain. And beside this mural, another painting of a woman casting a glance at her image in a pond (must be his wife).

Then a moment of deeper reflection: three white boxes with the names Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and Noel Redding. The trio formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a forceful act that can’t be repeated. I touch the boxes, each wet from rain. I then remember a phrase from the 1960s used when we thought something was cool. I say it now: “Outta sight.” I then add a word: “Psychedelic.” That, too, meant cool.

I don’t smoke, but if I did I would spark up a doobie that would stretch back to the sixties.


Marga’s Funny Mondays, The Marsh, Berkeley. Marga Gomez, a Bay Area legend, is the host of this evening of comedy. I’m here courtesy of a comp ticket. I have a play in the works at this club and, suddenly, I’m regarded as family. I get my drink and find a seat among young women, hip couples, a goth trio, an anemic-looking loner, biker lesbians, professional-looking lesbians, college students in flip-flops, a tattoo artist, dreadlocked rapper, skateboarders, and so on. I swallow some of my beer, not unlike the way a stork swallows a fish.

What am I doing here? I ask myself. I’m out of place, a target for banter.

Sure enough, after a few giddy words from Marga, the first comedian bounces onto the stage and says, “We have a Hispanic Mr. Rogers in the house.” The comedian, standing in a small puddle of yellowish light, narrows her done-up eyes at me. I’m dressed in a red sweater, with an accenting blue tie, and black slacks—my getup looked OK at home but at this moment, not so much. I’m every comedian’s easy dream. She says, “Come on, stand up!” I stand up, bow to applause, and sit my skinny ass back down.

The comedian begins her routine. She says that she has a new boyfriend, and, during their month-long relationship, has gotten maybe too comfortable with the fella. She says, “Last night I gave him a blow job without taking my mouth guard out. What does that tell you?” The comedian then looks at me: “How about you, Mr. Rogers? What does it tell you?”

I salute her by raising my beer and imagine her mouth guard slobbering on the edge of the bathroom sink. Soon the evening gets really raunchy. I recognize that I’ve got to make a big change in my lifestyle. My musical for young people, In and Out of Shadows, is scheduled to be performed at The Marsh in three weeks. Forget the revisions that I’ve been asked to do. I gotta get some new clothes.


Period of Adjustment, by Tennessee Williams, San Francisco Playhouse. This playhouse, run by Bill English, moved several years ago from the Shelton Theater on Sutter to its new digs on the third floor of a swanky hotel on Post Street. The move was brilliant—larger stage, more seating, better-behind-the-curtain mechanics, central location, and a sheep-like following of season ticketholders. I too followed in my wool coat and today we have a play about two Korean War veterans reviewing their respective marriages. One of the men is newlywed, while the other has been married five years, resulting in a daughter and some bellyaching about why he married in the first place. I’m not sure what to think about that—seems like a downer to me, for his wife, I mean.

Williams wrote a first draft in the winter of 1958. He completed the play in 1959 and saw it staged in New York in 1960, to some acclaim but not great acclaim. A few newspaper critics complained that Williams was a depressing guttersnipe, boozer, and woman-hater—accolades like that. Still, others applauded him. He opened theatrical closets and out fell the American people with all our faults, lies, and human complications.

I’m in the dark—the play has begun—and in for both serious and comic banter. It’s Christmas Eve, and what better time for a wife to walk out on her husband. Bring out the booze, pound a fist against the kitchen table, and yell how life is unfair! Where is that cute house they dreamed of? The soft, pliable children? The Sunday dinners with family? The Fourth of July barbecues? You get right away that this American Dream stuff is unattainable. So starts the play (it would also become a movie), which starts me thinking why I’m here. I sip my beer, then rush it down. No wonder I stay away from people—and Tennessee Williams, a disgruntled soul if there ever was one. I leave at intermission.


Ragged School Museum, London. I take the Tube from Chelsea and, an hour later, find myself rambling over what was once a meadow but is now an ignored field with bike tire marks etched into the perpetually damp earth—the English rain, you know. There’s also some litter but not much. My destination is a museum where orphans and the abandoned of the East End were once fed and schooled, in that order. The time: from 1877 to 1910. The founder: Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a visionary who achieved tangible results.

Some explanation seems called for regarding “ragged schools,” a phrase that wasn’t regarded as derogative in its time. England had 148 ragged schools, most of them in London; in fact, there was even a “union of ragged schools.” No one took exception to the name, for the schools offered hope. Specifically, they offered meals, an education in trades, and a place to lay your head at night.

Dr. Barnardo had intended to go to China as a medical missionary (he studied for four months at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, hence the title “doctor”). In 1866, he left Scotland and began his training at Dr. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission. Later that year, he was sent to help Annie Macpherson, superintendent of the Ernest Street School in Spitalfields. Not long after his arrival, an outbreak of cholera occurred—more than three thousand died in the East End. Barnardo could see that he didn’t need to go to China to be of help to others.

Dr. Barnardo became the superintendent of his own ragged school when he founded the East End Juvenile Mission in 1868. He next opened the Home for Working and Destitute Lads in Stepney Causeway. He later returned to Edinburgh, where he bought a former gin palace and music hall and established both the Working Men’s Club and Coffee House and the People’s Mission Church. He then married, began to preach, and became a figure in the religious world. His fame influenced others, including Lord Cairns, who helped fund Dr. Barnardo’s Village Home for Girls at Barkingside in Essex.

Dr. Barnardo returned to London in 1877. In that year, on Copperfield Road, he converted two warehouses into schools—one for boys, one for girls—and over three decades fed and schooled thousands of kids. Now this is where I stand, mud on the bottoms of my shoes. I stomp off the mud at the curb and scrape my soles before I enter. The place seems sacred. And the museum is free, just as the school had been free for the orphans—well, almost free. They did have to pony up a halfpenny for bread, but this expenditure was often covered by the Destitute Children’s Dinner Society. Back then, social agencies called themselves what they were.

I buy a couple of postcards. One features a large woman by the name of Mrs. Mary Smith of Limehouse Fields. She’s standing in the street, a peashooter in her mouth. It’s 1933 in the photo; her job is to shoot dried peas at windows to wake up her clients, sleepy-headed workers employed at nearby factories. Mrs. Smith dutifully made her rounds and at each tenement shot at the window until the client waved a hand that he was up. The cost of the service: six-pence a week.

I scan through a few books, then stare up at a photo of Dr. Barnardo mounted on the wall. Serious as St. Peter, he seems to be staring at me. I feel a Catholic guilt inside my vaporous soul. I think of Father Ryan—he was pretty nice. I think of Sister Guadalupe—she wasn’t nice but did teach me subtraction in third grade. With that, I stuff fifty pounds into the donation jar before I head into the first room—fifty pounds my weight when I was the age of many of the orphans.


The Coverlettes Cover Christmas, Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. This is the second time I’ve seen this campy Christmas show but the first time that I’ve approached one of the three singers. She is fortyish, with a beehive hairdo, tight, sequined dress, nearly a tube of lipstick on her mouth, eyelashes like tarantulas, stockinged legs, Doris Day high heels. She and the two others have ended their hour-long set with the haunting “(Remember) Walking in the Sand.” Their other songs, all from the 1960s, included camp versions of “Shop Around,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Baby I’m Yours,” and “Leader of the Pack.” They blow kisses, take their bows, smile for the cellphone cameras, and curl a finger for little ole me to come up. (I have a program in my hand and I’m seeking an autograph.) I’m smitten. I’m a little boy smothered by the scent of their perfume. My Coverlette takes the program and writes, “Thanks for coming!” She blows me a kiss; she’s done with me.

I study the program as I leave, gripping the handrail down the carpeted stairs. I’m particularly drawn to the exclamation mark. Is there meaning in it? Are we about to embark on a relationship? Will it end in court, where she will whimper to the female judge, “Gary said he would give me the moon, but all I got was a set of his wife’s bent spoons!” Followed by some sobbing, then some pitiful honks in a dainty handkerchief, and the judge, her eyes narrowed on me, asking, “Is that all the cheapskate gave you? No complete set of Royal Copenhagen dishes?”

I laugh at myself as I walk down the street, the sidewalk sticky with booze, gum, soda, French fries, and what might be blood but is most likely ketchup. I’m a fourteen-year-old in a fifty-seven-year-old body. If I was in junior high, when these songs were blaring from my transistor radio, I would have pressed the program against my chest and screamed, “Poor thing, she’s in love with me!”


Warriors Watch Party, J-Sei, Emeryville. My wife and I are here to watch the Golden State Warriors spank the Houston Rockets in the first game of a best-of-five series. By here I mean J-Sei, a mostly Japanese American senior center where we take a dance class and occasionally attend lectures. Tonight is nothing like dance class or a lecture—no, it’s game time!

My wife is off in another part of the center. I am on a cushioned folding chair, a plate of sushi and Chinese chicken salad positioned on my knee. My beer is out of reach, but I’ll retrieve it in a minute. I’m lifting some salad with my chopsticks when a guy that I’ve seen at other functions sits down in the chair next to me. He comes right to the point. He asks, “Gary, have you considered serving on the board?”

The question rattles around my brain for a second. Then I get it. “You mean the board of this place?” I point my chopsticks at the ceiling. “J-Sei?”

He nods his head yes, then pulls his eyes from the television screen and looks at me intently. He tells me that things are working smoothly and that there wouldn’t be any need to do fundraising. The board meets once a month and members are friendly. Lunch is often provided at these meetings and, if not lunch, then snacks. He tells me that, after serving for nine years, he’s termed out.

“Think about it,” he says and gets up, leaves. I reach for my beer and look up at the screen—Durant has just dunked over Hardin’s head.

I think about it at home. A board—someone wants me to serve on a board? I see myself in a large conference room making my first decision: yes, we need electric scissors for the seniors, but, no, I’m sorry, I veto the expense of electric staplers. Then I assess my wardrobe. Would I have to dress for meetings? This is an opportune time. I have eight suits, one nearly bespoke, meaning tailored just for me. I also have three out-of-date blazers and an array of slacks, dress shirts, and sweaters—the getup I cultivate to dispel the myth that men my age are slobs. My shoes, all leather, are polished and ready for any venture into public. Maybe I will get my first cellphone—2019 and I still don’t have one in my back pocket.

But serve on a nonprofit board—really? I ponder the possibility in my recliner. Yeah, I could serve J-Sei! It would be an honor! I imagine my cellphone in my hand as I enter the conference room ready to make decisions. Then, I come to my senses. As my wife is well aware, I have an uncooperative nature. I would suffer in a roomful of do-gooders and make them suffer too, no matter how purposeful or worthy the assignment.

I reshape a famous quip for the moment: Whenever I feel the urge to do community service, I lie on the couch until the feeling passes.


Dog Sees God, Theatre on the Square, Indianapolis, Indiana. I’m here in this city to give a talk about the life of Cesar Chavez at a local library. But first, an evening by myself. I’m in the third row near the center. I scan the program—a staple job—and notice the title of an upcoming play: Does This Show Make My Butt Look Fat? OK, Indianapolis will soon address body shaming in a one-woman show. But for now, Dog Sees God. Let’s see what’s up. I read the program thoroughly, even down to the benefactors. The play reimagines characters from Peanuts. They are degenerate teenagers working on personal issues, including drug use, sexual abuse, teenage rebellion, identity issues, eating disorders, obesity, and the general sadness of being alive.

The program says, in part, that Dog Sees God has not been authorized by the Charles M. Schulz Estate. So tonight’s production has knowingly dognapped characters from Peanuts, which is OK with me as the play is obviously a parody. The Peanuts’ characters names have been changed: Charlie Brown becomes CB, Sally becomes CB’s sister, Linus becomes Van, Pig-Pen becomes Steve, Peppermint Patty becomes Tricia, and so on.

Soon the lights darken then a few seconds later come up, dimly. CB, head down, strolls out, none too happy about something, with poorly rendered dark shadows under his eyes. His mouth is grim, his hair a mess, and his shoelaces untied. The pace is meaningfully slow, the acting just slow. The audience offers up a chuckle when the first lines are delivered, then fewer chuckles, and then silence—lots of silence—with at least three suppressed yawns. The play is deadly. Fifteen minutes into the first act, someone behind me moans, “Good grief.”


18 Stafford Terrace, London. This is the historical home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sanbourne, his wife, Marion, and their two children. They lived here from the late 1880s until the early 1900s, and established a very Victorian home—the couches, the tables and lamps, the beveled mirrors, the china and silverware, all scream Victorian! After their passing (Edward in 1910, Marion in 1914), the house was inherited by their daughter, Maud, who had married Leonard Messel, a stockbroker. Together they had three children, among them Anne who, in 1958, founded the Victorian Society.

And, hey, what a coincidence—they had 18 Stafford Terrace, an instant museum. Anne’s forward-thinking grandparents had scrupulously furnished the house with quality objects in the aesthetic style popular during Queen Victoria’s reign. Here I speak of high-end furnishings from Japan, China, Russia, and the Middle East, exotic parts of the world at the time and place. Moreover, the interior of the house hadn’t changed since the 1910s. Good start for the Victorian Society.

For me, the living room is too cluttered. You can’t move without tripping over an ottoman or a Persian rug. And it’s too easy to knock over the three-legged table on which sits a valuable sculpture of a very slender naked woman. It’s also difficult to judge the wallpaper behind the mounted drawings of Japanese landscapes, the hung china, the photographs, and the Turkish lamps. The furnishings are all collectables, which is good for the Victorian Society. But me, I’m a minimalist—a dozen art works, not sixty-four, would have been enough for my eye. One couch, not three; two lamps, not six; two chairs, not five as large as baby elephants.

I’ve become grumpy; why, I’m not sure. I follow my wife from room to room, every step hushed by the carpets and heavy drapery. I can’t help but envision a grand selloff on Antiques Roadshow. I could get rid of it all except one comfy mohair chair, with a silly fringed stool for my feet, and a small table where I could rest the TV remote control.

We stay for forty or so minutes then descend the steps. Outside, it feels good to swing my arms without fear of breaking an antique.


The Humans, by Stephen Karam, Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco. The day is too bright to attend a Saturday matinee, but the play has gotten strong reviews. I got to see it. I take BART from West Oakland and arrive nearly an hour early. Remembering where I am, I hoof it a quarter of a block to the San Francisco Public Library, dodging the homeless, and descend to the gallery. There are often exhibits on that lower level. Sure enough, today there is a show of photographs, “Christopher Felver: The Imagination of American Poets.” I walk into the well-lit gallery, slowly, because I fear encountering one of these poets. I feel a creepy sensation when I recognize the subjects. Here’s R.H. and A.G. Here’s K.R., W.S.M., J.F.N. Oh, look, G.H. And is that his former lover, B.K.? God, I.R, you’ve really aged! Where did your teeth go? And P.B.? Is that you? Did your pointy nose get righteously stained from brown nosing? And L.J.! Is that a tattoo on your neck or a dirt ring? K.F.? How can you be up there? Never known you to read a book. And how did you get hired by a state college and get tenure? The mysteries of life, I tell you.    

The photographs are hung on the walls alongside poems, plus commentaries that equate certain poets with William Carlos Williams. Some of the photographs are as small as the subject’s talents and others as large as their egos. I go from face to face and look each one in the eye. I know you, I tell the photographs. I know all of you.

I turn my back on the exhibit. I climb the steps into sunlight and the breezy scents of urine, garbage, unbathed bodies, and marijuana—this is San Francisco central, beautifully derelict. I walk around one homeless person and then another—bless them, take care of them, dear Jesus, dear kami, dear Buddha. One homeless soul mutters, “You look familiar. Is you Sam?”

I cross the street to the theater.

The Humans is a one-act with no intermission and encompasses all the passion of family squabbles. It’s wonderful, just wonderful. I would be jealous of Karam’s work if I didn’t know how much it took to create such meaningful storytelling. The work is lasting, the best our country has to offer. And the photographs at the library? I admit my brooding jealousy. They come down in a week.


Filoli House and Garden, Woodside, California. The brochure that I pick up describes how after 1906 many wealthy San Franciscans moved to the Peninsula, that is, southward about fifty miles. They had made fortunes in railroads, mining, lumber, banking, real estate, and the mercantile world, so they had the means to relocate. Mr. and Mrs. Bowers Bourn II bought over 650 acres and built a house and garden around 1917. After their passing, the property was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Roth, who enhanced the grounds until they rivaled the finest English gardens. Parties were given on their wide, green lawns, along with concerts, fundraisers, and family weddings. The Roths then donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These days over a thousand volunteers keep the grounds spick and span. But enough of that kind of reportage. I turn to my brief relationship to the house and garden.

Today is a cold Saturday in January, and I’ve paid my admission to get access to the grounds. I’m here to display three daffodils. As a new member of the Northern California Daffodil Society (it’s a long story, reader), I have been encouraged by the chair of the society to participate in their annual show. When I tell my wife about this invitation, she glares at me. How can I, a newbie, dare display my daffodils among the artisans who grasp (literally) this common flower? Have I no shame?

I tell her, No, I have no shame! Then smirk and ask that she help decide what I should wear. I lead her to my closet to decide which of my suits would best compliment me and my “daffys”—baby talk that flusters her.

Still, she comes along on the outing, a ceramic daffodil pinned to her lapel—my wife has jewelry for all occasions. And she sits in a chair to hear a brief lecture on the history of the daffodil. But her demeanor changes when I point out my three entries, all stagey in slender white vases. My wife is aghast when she discovers that I have moved my creations next to those of the society’s president, a national, if not international, figure in the daffodil world. I’m mingling with the best!

I smirk like a duck. I ask if she thinks my pants go nicely with my coat—I nixed her suggestion that I should wear my blue suit.

Again, it’s a cold day in late January, and made even colder by my wife’s glacial stare. She’s an iceberg with an angry polar bear on top! Do I have no shame? What’s wrong with me? I get what she means. I should be humble—no, realistic. My stint in this society has so far lasted only one month. I move my daffodils to the back of a long table covered with butcher paper.

We have lunch on the premises—a shared sandwich, a shared bag of potato chips, and a shared bottle of water from the car. She’s not really upset. She knows that I positioned my vases next to the president’s just to taunt her. After forty-one years of marriage, I still like to play games with her.

Still, I notice very clearly that her breath is white and cold. This half sandwich might be the only meal I get today.


Sebastian Boswell III, The Marsh, Berkeley. While attending a matinee dance recital in San Francisco, I pick up a postcard praising, in outrageously spectacular prose, a magician named Sebastian Boswell III. I’m intrigued. I haven’t been to a magic show in years—though the word “magic” might not fully describe the arsenal of this person. He calls himself a “mentalist,” which makes me think of a head studded with metal fragments. I pocket the postcard and return to my seat for the second half of the recital. The next dance pieces are called “Breathing Underwater” and “Lifesaving Maneuvers,” both swimmer-like in their watery movements. At the end, after the applause recedes like the sea, I swim through the crowd toward the exit. I walk three blocks to the Montgomery station BART. Fifteen minutes later, I’m delivered to the West Oakland station, where not one window has been busted in my parked car. So far, so good.

I occasionally do two events in one day. This is one of those days. I anticipate being astonished by the magician as I gaze openmouthed at his “astounding demonstrations of mental and physical feats.” Plus, there’s no cover charge, though patrons are expected to purchase at least one proper drink. This I can do.

My own attempt at playing the magician was three years ago at our annual O-Shogatsu (Japanese New Year’s party), where I presented my car-key trick to our guests. In this trick, I throw my car keys out the window and then ask a guest to look in a drawer. This the guest does and, Holy Toledo, she miraculously finds the car keys (a duplicate set, of course). I don’t know, reader, if you have been booed in your own house, but I was booed (in a friendly way) by guests with sushi in their mouths. This is me, of course, making fun of myself.

Sebastian Boswell III is not a disappointment. He’s a tall man, theatrical in dress (tux) and in manner (large hand gestures). He is a parody of a parlor magician. He has card tricks, name tricks, bending-thing tricks, and he has our attention too as we welcome each and every one of these sleights of hand. He is a brilliant narrator of farfetched funny stuff. In one long story, for instance, he writes a number on a bean, swallows the bean, and goes on with a story of a man who could shoot a ten-foot flame from his mouth—a non-sequitur but amusing when he puts the flame out with an equally long spurt of water.

He then asks an audience member—not me, thank god—to pull a numbered slip of paper from a clear plastic bag. The lucky person that late afternoon is named Annette. He calls her to the very small stage. The number is 714. He then gets sidetracked with some puppets—one is Laurel and the other Hardy—before returning to the moment. He tells Annette, “I will present the bean from my stomach,” and asks that she verify the number. But not right away. Next he shows a diagram of a funny mechanical stomach (more laughter) and attempts to regurgitate the bean (he promises that it’ll be dry, not wet). He hawks into a large clear glass—Annette looks away, one hand on her mouth to suppress her laughter. At this point, the audience members pleat their faces in disgust at his over-the-top hawking.

Failing to produce the bean from his mouth, he needs another suggestion. We wait as he walks the stage, pondering with a hand on his chin. He snaps his fingers at an idea. He will try to blow it out of his nose! But the long, awful snorts produce only more pleated faces from us, his audience of ten. No go. So he ponders once again, a hand stroking his chin. He then tells us that the only possible exit is by way of an eyeball. Sure enough, after much theatrical prodding, the bean slips out from the right corner of his eye and Annette, squirmy faced, reads (but doesn’t touch) the bean as it sits on the bottom of the glass. The number is 714.

Dance is like magic but magic is nothing like dance. For the price of a single beer, I am entertained by a mentalist who goes by the name of Sebastian Boswell III.

I drive home for dinner: leftover chili beans and cornbread. God knows where my wife has disappeared to. That night, I eat alone.


Forty Acres, Delano, California. I’m here for the dedication of a National Historic Landmark: the first headquarters of United Farm Workers (UFW) of America, which formed in the mid-1960s. The attendees include Ken Salazar, U.S. secretary of the interior; Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW; Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the UFW; Paul Chavez; and U.S. Representative Jim Costa.

The compound served as union headquarters from 1968 until 1971 when the administration moved to La Paz, in the foothills above Bakersfield. But Forty Acres is where Cesar Chavez fasted for twenty-five days in February and March 1968 to encourage rank-and-file members of the UFW to embrace nonviolence in their strikes against the growers—and where labor history was made.

I first visited Forty Acres several years ago with Jessie De La Cruz, one of the first card-carrying members of the union. It was June, I remember, and desolate. The Filipino workers who once lived there in retirement—gone. The medical clinic—gone. The kitchen that fed all unionists—gone. Only one farmworker remained, a Mexicano who sat in a lawn chair in the shade of the roof’s overhang. He raised a hand in greeting, but was otherwise quiet.

Now it’s a windy day in February, the sun sharp as a grape knife. Prior to the dedication, several local school choirs and a dance group entertain us. Then the speakers, one after another, each repeating stories about el movimiento. The stories continue for an hour. No one moves, no one leaves. If ever utmost respect has been shown, it’s right now.

A movement occurred at this compound—justice for farmworkers, justice for all workers. The valley dust on the tips of my shoes? May it find a way into my heart.


Gorgeous Hussy: An Interview with Joan Crawford, by Morgan Ludlow, Exit Theatre, San Francisco. There’s drama in having to sidestep the derelicts all the way from the Powell Street BART station to the theater three blocks away on Eddy Street. This is the Tenderloin, with drunks and users ghosting on the street and standing or sitting against walls. Drug deals? Oh, yeah. Fights? Only if a pushing match between two heavyset women counts. Soul-depleting detritus? Can we count a wig sitting next to a discarded tennis shoe? In a gallery, this combo of found objects might be considered art. On the street, it’s litter. Who knows, maybe the wig will find a home on top of some bald man’s head.

When I arrive at the theater, I have to be buzzed in. Hurry, I think as I look over my shoulder. A vagrant in a long coat is staggering toward me, counting his fingers in German—or is he just slurring his words? A young woman comes to the gated door and looks at me with eyelashes overly done with mascara. Seeing that I’m here for theater, she opens the gate.

Why risk this neighborhood? While I’m not ready to die for live theater, I admit that I haven’t been out and about in three days. I need a fix. Now I enter the compound, the correct word to describe the Exit Theatre. Like a cineplex, it offers three or four shows on the weekend. You don’t have to purchase an advance ticket on Goldstar. Instead, you can go from one venue to another, inquiring about what’s on offer, and then decide on the spot. Beer, wine, salads, and snacks are available in the foyer.

I’m in the mood for a dose of Joan Crawford as written by Morgan Ludlow—don’t know him but his play has gotten a strong review on the Internet. This evening, the cinematic legend of the 1930s and 1940s returns to life for about a dozen or so of us seated on uncomfortable benches. After a warning about emergency exits and cellphone usage, the play starts pretty much on time. Here’s the plot: a journalist sneaks into Crawford’s Beverly Hills suite because he needs a story to boost his career. Crawford isn’t alarmed. She, too, knows ambition and has a rags-to-riches story behind her own climb to fame.

The journalist is named Roy. She sizes him up. She plays with him, circling him with long sexy steps. She banters with him, drinks, smokes cigarettes, and then strips off her clothes so that he might wear them. (Her robe fits his body better than hers.) In theatrical time—ninety minutes in this case—Roy becomes Crawford and Crawford becomes Roy, an acceptable twist. Fans often want to become their favorite celebs while celebs frequently want to quit being who they are. Though there are exceptions, like the band U2, which earns more than $40 million a year belting out lyrics that their fans consider profound poetry. U2 will never quit, and their fans will always want to be them.

The price of admission is twenty-five dollars: a good value because the writing is first rate and the acting strong—though the stark set is desperate for an interior decorator. Not long after my last swig of beer is gone, a worry grows inside me, like a burp. For some reason, I don’t anticipate a Shakespearean all’s-well-that-ends-well evening. I applaud the actors, get up stiffly, then step out into the windswept street, the iron gate closing behind me. I hurry from the theater, as if it’s raining, and walk with determined steps down Eddy toward BART station.

The Tenderloin is filthy and dangerous. Its neon signs flutter like those in a 1950s movie set in a rundown city. There’s broken glass everywhere, broken chairs, broken people. The syringes on the sidewalks were not used by Florence Nightingale in her battle against tetanus. I don’t want to stop my scissoring legs, but an absence catches my eye. I turn and take a few steps back. The wig that lay like a poodle next to the abandoned tennis shoe is gone. Some guy’s head must be warm at this hour. In theater, that wig would have gone back into storage. Here, on the streets, one can only guess its ending.


Actually, by Anna Ziegler, Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. In the splashy program, there’s an interview of the playwright, who says that she began this work at The Lark Park Development Center in New York and finished it in a week. I’m jealous—no, I’m ready to plug my thumb into my mouth, a baby playwright who spends a week just formatting on the computer dialogue and stage directions so they look like they should on the page. Not only that, Ms. Ziegler adds, “I really just started hearing these two characters.”

Hearing them?

When I begin a play, I don’t hear a fucking thing, even after I’ve cast out all the wax from my ears. She also says of her two characters, “Amber and Tom cycle through clarity and obfuscation not as a way to mess with the audience, but because I think this is how people work, how we think about ourselves: sometimes clearly and sometimes through other, more complicated lenses.”


The play is set at an Ivy League college where words like “obfuscation” are strewn about like leaves in fall. In my prose, I’ve never dropped that word into any sentence of mine—got to think of an occasion to fit it in somewhere between “Hey, you” and “taco Tuesday.” Also, I have never been invited to some place like The Lark Park Development Center—my guess is that a lot of development takes place before lunch and then the writers go about kicking fall leaves just for the fun of it. My plays—all five, not counting a skit about the dangers of eating candy for breakfast—took a year to write and none of the characters, I see now, ever listen to one another. I know marriages like that.

Ms. Ziegler also says in an interview in American Theatre (as quoted by the artistic director, Tom Ross), “I’m often drawn to stories that examine the nature of ‘the truth’ in which multiple perspectives reveal the impossibility of a single definitive version of events.” She adds, “I was interested in . . . how society and personality converge to create combustible mix of self-doubt and the desire to fit in and how, as a result, good people can end up compromising themselves and others.”

I think, God, I hope the characters don’t talk like that.

They don’t. The play is a work of natural storytelling in which obfuscation between characters does not exist—did I get this right?


“Old Masters in a New Light,” UC Berkeley Art Museum. The curator Lawrence Rinder has raided the university vault and brought out, with the help of forklifts, masterworks from the fourteenth century—that is, before Columbus sailed west in three cork-bobbing ships and arrived to drop anchor in the Caribbean. The names of the artists include Paolo Veneziano, Giovanni Savoldo, Sermonta, Cavaliere d’Arpino, Giuseppe Varotti, Augustin Bernard d’Agesci, Garofalo, and eight others, most of them Italian or Spanish. I suspect that these masterworks were commissioned by wealthy Catholic merchants with ducats to throw around—or possibly kings of principalities that no longer exist. While on a quick spin through the gallery of alarmed artworks, I note the abundance of knives, swords, lances, severed heads, skulls, death images, sin (Adam and Eve), religious flights from King Herod, Christ on the cross, Christ brought down from the cross, saints in physical agony, pleading faces raised skyward, and religious fanatics in turbans. None of these artworks is remotely pleasing. And to think that before I opened the door of this museum I was in a good mood. Not no more.


The Chinese Pavilion, Sweden. My wife and I take a ferry from mainland Stockholm to Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO world heritage site, located on a nearby island. For us, the ferry can’t go fast enough because onboard there’s a man pestering passengers to dine at his newly opened restaurant. He goes from single ticketholders to couples to clusters of tourists. In at least three languages, he boasts of his continental cuisine as he hands out small flyers the size of playing cards. When he confronts us, we listen politely, we being my wife, me, and the most handsome young man I’ve ever seen. This is Yang, a Chinese student studying business in Copenhagen; his softness is the softness of a petted swan—or so I imagine if I ever brought that bird into my arms.

The ferry finally arrives and the three of us hurry off the slippery gangplank. Our destination is Drottningholm Palace, which seems to grow large and engulf us with shadows as we approach. Indeed, it is a regal home for the current king and queen. We pay, enter, warm ourselves briefly over a floor heater, then get our bearings and begin to look around. However, it’s an uncomfortable visit because the restaurateur is on our heels. We see him on the staircase that leads up to the second floor, by a window that faces the vast park, under a large painting of one of Sweden’s earlier kings, in the bookstore, at the ornate drinking fountain—he’s just there, this man who won’t let people be!

After only twenty minutes prowling the palace, the three of us make our escape. We walk the park, fistfuls of white breath hanging before us—it’s cold for May, even for locals. We make our way down gravel paths and cut across a lawn, a family of ducks briefly following us. We head to the Chinese pavilion, which has a remarkable history. Constructed offsite, shipped upstream to Drottningholm, and reassembled in one evening, it was a surprise gift from King Adolf Fredrik to his wife, Queen Lovisa Ulrika. In a letter to her mother, the queen writes, “He led me to one side of the garden and suddenly, to my surprise, I found myself gazing upon a real fairytale creation, for the King had a Chinese palace built, the loveliest imaginable.” This was a gift for her 33rd birthday. The keys to the pavilion were presented, in pomp and circumstance, by her son, the seven-year-old Crown Prince Gustavo, dressed as a Chinese prince.

We stand in front of the pavilion. It’s a pretty structure, one built from love and, like love, added onto during their royal lifetime. It’s here that we learn that Yang is also a singer. He tells us that he sang opera as a teen. At learning this, I beg him to sing. He wags his head no, smiles, blushes, and becomes embarrassed by his admission. He couldn’t possibly sing in the park, he tells us. With a gaggle of arriving tourists looking on? He blushes even more deeply, this handsome young man, who adds that his voice isn’t strong these days.

I ask again and tell him that his beautiful voice will make us all happy, the whole world happy, stop wars, heal marriages, reassemble icebergs, ripen fruit, reroute LA traffic jams! Consider how the ducks will stop their quacking, the sparrows settle on branches, the squirrels halt their frantic hunting! Please, I beg.

Yang agrees. He takes off his gloves—why, I’m not sure—then closes his eyes as he assembles a melody and lyrics from memory. He then begins, his voice reaching maybe not beyond the trees but certainly the line of bushes, in a language as beautiful as a songbird from the mythical mountain of Huà Shan. The other tourists stop, listen, and feel themselves grow happy as Yang belts out a high note with dramatic posturing—opera is always about over-the-top hand gestures. We’re transported to a different time, a wholly new place. Somewhere on the planet, avocados are ripening right before a farmworker’s eyes.

Then it all stops, the singing and the happiness. The restaurateur appears on the path, in wide, hurrying steps, flyers in his hand. Like ducks, like birds, like sensible creatures, we scatter.


Sculpture and Civic Monuments, Ottawa. I tell my wife, “We’re going to see sculpture.” I have a brochure from the tourist bureau featuring public sculptures and monuments throughout the city. She says, “You think we are.” I tell her, “Afterwards we’ll have the best lunch ever—Atelier! It’s got one of those Michelin stars, I think.” She says, “We better get going.”

There are sixty-plus sites, and the subjects, sizes, materials, and significance vary. Ottawa, it seems, loves to honor do-gooders and moments in their Canadian history. It has sculptures of England’s royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth II on horseback, and the Famous 5—Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. We all know about the Queen (still on horseback somewhere in England), but maybe not about the Famous 5, as they came to be known in 1928. These women asked why women couldn’t serve in the senate, and the Canadian Supreme answered: they were not “qualified persons.”

Ay, Chihuahua!

The Famous 5 then sailed to England with a justified complaint—Canada, if we recall our history, was part of the ever-shrinking British Empire at the time. The Privy Council (imagine a roomful of bigwigs snorting snuff) reversed Canada’ Supreme Court decision on October 18, 1929. The next day the London headlines read, “Women are People.”

But we don’t visit this sculpture. No, we first visit the 1895 sculpture of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. He is grasping a book and looking westward into the distance—toward the yet to be established provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan? The brochure says of the subject, “Although Hébert (the sculptor Louis-Philippe) portrays him as a statesman, the intimacy and informality of his pose convey the quick mind, humor and warmth for which Macdonald was known. Just as Macdonald appears assured and at ease with his accomplishments, so too does the smiling allegorical figure at his feet . . .” This allegorical figure is a nearly bare-breasted young woman holding a flag and a tablet that might be Canada’s constitution.

I’ll look into this later, I tell myself. But for now, a learning lesson when my wife turns to me. She says under the blue skies of Canada, “Come on, Gary, you don’t like this, do you?”

None too happy with myself, I roll the brochure into a tube and spank my thigh for suggesting such an outing. I look up at the prime minister, then at the woman below him. I tell my wife, “We better do an early lunch, then maybe some shopping?” We walk in direction of a canal. Yes, I tell myself, we can look at the water first, then do lunch. I think I’ll have fish.

Later I learn that the First People—the original people of what is now Canada—loathe Macdonald. This monument is splashed with paint seasonally. The epithet on one occasion: This is stolen land. Murderer, Colonizer.


“The World of James Herriot,” Thirsk, England. Do books influence the reader? Seems so. Because in her childhood our daughter read over and over All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories, All Things Wise and Wonderful, among Herriot’s other books. She also watched the television series, teary-eyed when a dog or cat had to be put down. In the end, she became a small-animal veterinarian all because of these books—or so I believe.

Now we’re here at the home and surgery of the most well-known veterinarian who ever spayed a cat—James Herriot. It’s a museum these days, with rooms that approximate his 1940s household and surgery, and a room with television cameras that might have been used to film the series. I can’t really say, though. But I know that if you, the child visitor, stand in front of the camera, your parents or siblings can see you on the camera’s screen. At this moment, a boy is making faces at the camera—nothing like an educational holiday.

The place, while hallowed for many, is not for me. I’m not much of an animal person—no cats, no dogs, no bilingual parrot raking its beak against the bars of its foul cage. No goldfish in an aquarium either, or hamster frantically running its treadmill.

While my wife wanders off without me, I head to the bookstore. The two cashiers are busy behind their registers, each concentrating as they add up the items on the counter. There’s lots to buy, I see, and lots of tourists to buy the stuff. There are the books and videos, of course, but also puzzles, wool fat soap, prints from local artists, stationery, pillows to hug, pillows to throw, Herriot dog treats (both moist and dry), a James Herriot statue, coasters, mugs, tea pots, fridge magnets, tea towels, keychains, calendars for the coming year, chopping boards and more. I walk among the merchandise, enlightened. For years I believed that Frida Kahlo and Jane Austen were neck-and-neck for merchandise.

Like, no. Like, the race ain’t even close.

James Herriot has these female celebs beat. Frida and Jane are like the hamsters I don’t have, running at great speed on their treadmills but unable to catch up.


Here, by Michael Frayn, Exit Theatre, San Francisco. Again I hurry to the monitored iron gate of the destination that my wife refuses to risk. Today, it’s one of my favorite playwrights, the author of Noises Off, Copenhagen, and Democracy. I pony up twenty-five dollars at the second theater within the complex, then return to the snack bar for a beer and bag of peanuts—how I splurge on myself. Like a London train, the play is on time. My seat is up front, with no one to the left or right of me. I feel that I’m going to like what I am about to see. It’s a love story of sorts and, as such, will feature bickering, possibly outright shouting, venom and spittle.

The play begins with Cath and Phil, who are considering whether to rent a really small apartment, so small that it would only be fine if you went through the hot cycle of life and shrunk to two feet tall. One says this, one says that, and in the end they kiss, glow, and take the apartment, which is here. Then the tension begins because of the compact space. They argue over where to put the bed, the chair, the table, even a left-behind teddy bear. A downstairs neighbor, Pat, appears occasionally to offer them stuff that she doesn’t want. The couple don’t have the heart to say no to this sad and lonely neighbor.

The comedy is about dominance. Will Cath rule the nest, or will Phil? Will they walk out on each other? Or is this play about how space dominates our behavior—small space, small wants? Big space, big wants?

The play gives me courage as well as laughter. My wife has argued for years that our bed is facing the wrong wall. I’ll bring it up when I get home. I’ll tell her that, yes, she’s right, the bed faces the wrong way. I’ll tell her just before hitting the sack, then in the morning I’ll tell her, no, I was wrong. The bed is perfectly placed, especially with me in it. Jump in, and I’ll show you.


Harrogate, England. My wife and I walk through the city-center park, where there’s plenty of goodwill among the townspeople. There are several canopies pitched on the lawn and a large white permanent structure with its double doors open. We enter, stand back, and observe. The first thing we notice is a competition among kids for the best watercolors, best clay sculptures, best sewn aprons, and so on.

It appears that Harrogate, a touristy destination, must go beyond looking pretty to show that it has talent. There are also competitions among the town’s adults—best pies (many categories), best jams (several flavors), best cured meats, best knitted socks, best candles. Ribbons are given out as well as silver-plated trophies shiny as spoons.

Harrogate the town also competes annually for national honors in the Britain in Bloom competition. The city council makes sure that every roundabout, every corner, every lamppost—every crack in the street, it seems—has flowers crazily in bloom. Litter? Can’t say I’ve seen any.

To offset this sweet display, a tourist can drink from the fountain at the Royal Pump. The water tastes of sulfur but reportedly that element makes the flowers thrive.


Postman’s Park, London. The park, built in 1880, is tidy—green lawn, green bushes, green trees that filter the afternoon sun. According to the plaque, I’m at a former burial ground for members of the nearby church—the dead in their caskets, I understand, were moved elsewhere. This public space covers less than an acre and the part that wasn’t a cemetery was once a post office. Today, it’s a place to relax and lunch if you’re a city worker. While I’m no city worker—no worker of any type—I still take my sandwich and chips to a bench. From my vantage point I’m able to watch the traffic of pedestrians while a stubborn pigeon warbles near my feet. I must praise the dress of the government and business types, who are suited up in attire fit for their positions. Why can’t our city workers in Berkeley dress accordingly? Why do they wear Warriors T-shirts to work? Raiders sweatshirts? Cargo pants with bleach stains?

Elsewhere in the park is George Frederic Watt’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, a monument that honors Londoners who gave their lives in saving others. It’s meant to inspire and to remind passersby that everyday heroes do leap into action, even at the cost of their own lives.

The memorial is protected by an awning yet open to the elements. The names and heroic acts are recorded on fired ceramic tiles. In 1900, there were four tiles; in 1902, nine more were added; in 1908 an additional twenty-four. In 1931, after many years of inaction—there was disinterest in the scheme—the total was increased by one. More years of inaction followed until 2009, when fifty-four tiles were added.

Who are some of the heroes? Thomas Griffin, a pipefitter, who died in 1899 in a boiler explosion while searching for his workmate; Mary Rogers, stewardess on the ship Stella, who in 1899 gave up her life-vest and went down with the ship; George Stephen Funnell, police constable, who, in a 1899 fire at the Elephant and Castle pub, rescued two then perished while returning into the burning building to save a barmaid; John Clinton, age ten, who drowned trying to save a lad younger than himself in 1884; David Selves, age twelve, who drowned rescuing a playmate; Solomon Galaman, age ten, who died from injuries after saving his little brother in a streetcar accident. His last words? “Mother, I saved him but I could not save myself.”

What words could I add? A sigh for the little guy’s bravery.


Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, a musical by Dominique Morisseau, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I’m a child of the 1960s and, like all teens of that era, listened to the three-minute hits of the Motor City’s Motown record company. We danced to this music in junior high. We memorized lyrics and, as best we could, followed the dress styles of the musicians. The music roared through our veins and gave us confidence when we approached a potential dance partner. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg is the story of the Temptations, hitmakers who, in their heyday, ran through an ever-changing cast of singers. I correct myself; this is also the story of Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, as well as a history lesson regarding the civil rights movement.

My seat is G-7, front and center. I skim the program and see from the list of songs that I recognize all of them. The musical moves from the Temptations’ first hits in the mid-1960s to the songs of the early 1970s. The structure will help us remember the Temptations’ growth from sweet songs to ones that were psychedelic and political.

I read the bios of the cast members, all of whom are black or Hispanic black. I notice that twenty-one of the twenty-two are members of Actors’ Equity Association—right on! Throw a clenched fist up in the air for them! Then a troubling moment. I chew the inside of my mouth, mulling over a big-ass concern. Isn’t this 2017? I read—or read into—every one of the bios that says, “[Name here] is thrilled [or proud] to be making his [or her] Berkeley Rep debut.” True, there are variations in the phrasing, but it’s plain that none of the actors has ever played the Berkeley Rep. Like, what? Does it take a Motown musical to get my brothers and sisters on the stage?


Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, Danville, California. In 1936, Eugene O’Neill built this secluded Spanish-colonial house with the winnings from his Nobel prize. Now it’s early fall, a Wednesday, and I’m here not to pay homage to the writer but because I own a stapled book called Bay Area Historic House Museums. There are about thirty-five such homes and I have visited seventeen. Mr. O’Neill’s will make it eighteen, a check in this book of mine.

I never did like his plays. But that’s beside the point.


Bottle Ship Museum, Enkhuizen, the Netherlands. The Dutch were once known for their ship building, for their marauding navies, and for colonizing far-flung parts of the world, including New York City. The Dutch are still known for tulips, dark paintings, canals, wooden clogs, windmills, liberalism, and banking. And note this: the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, with an average height of 6’2” for men and 5’10” for women. But such height is a detriment in this seventeenth-century building, also known as “Sluice House,” for the entry is low. If you’re giraffe tall, you’ve got a problem.

The museum is all about ships rigged inside bottles—or variations of bottles, from light bulbs to wine jugs. I meander through the shop, purchase a postcard from a surprisingly short Dutch person, and leave, uninspired. If I ever took this up as a hobby, I would create only shipwrecks inside a bottle.


Cheese Museum and Tulip Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. These are not really museums but storefronts where you can buy Dutch products, like cheese and tulips. They’re places where tourists seek momentary shelter from the rain—it’s always raining in Amsterdam. The tourists pick up a tulip bulb, put it back down. They pick up a round of cheese, put it back down. Who wishes to finish a European tour with flower bulbs and cheese in their luggage?

You may be familiar with tulip mania, how the bulb, an import from Turkey, became an object of wild speculation in the 1630s. The Dutch went crazy. The tulip grew more valuable than gold. Here’s a story I read on a placard: “Records show that one bulb of the tulip ‘Semper Augustus’ brought 4,600 florins plus a coach and two horses.” I don’t know the value of the florin—or if it’s still in circulation—but my guess is that 4,600 florins is mucho dinero. Of course this situation couldn’t go on; a financial crash would surely occur, with wild-eyed citizens losing their shirts and wooden clogs. So the government interceded and banned speculation on tulip bulbs.

As for cheese, I don’t recall either speculation or a crash. Cheese has never been exotically popular, just savory and good for you. This museum—OK, store—has a wooden cutout of a cow with a full udder. The interior is packed with cheeses, including a decorated one as large as a car tire. There’s a milking machine, another cutout of a cow, and old photos of dairies, milk cans, milk maids, etcetera. The Netherlands, or so I am told by the brochure in my hand, has been known for its cheeses for six hundred years. Some of the cheeses are named after the cities—or regions—where they are made: Gouda, Edam, Leerdammer, Leyden, Maaslander, Maasdam, and Old Amsterdam. I buy a quarter pound of Gouda and make my way over to a “photo corner” where a shopper can stand by the wooden figure of a Dutch farmer and take a picture. I watch a father take a picture of his boy hugging the farmer.

I exit with my purchase and find an outdoor café. I wipe raindrops from a chair with an open palm, dry it with a paper napkin, and sit down, rocking the wobbly chair. I order a beer, sip, and people-watch, the ching-ching of bicycle bells in the air. Amsterdam is a great city, with canals, a red-light district, marijuana bars, cute shops, herring snacks, museums on every other block, and the young and old passing each other on the cobbled streets.

Not even on the sly, I bring out my chunk of cheese. I nibble, sip my beer, and nibble again. The city’s rhythms are pleasurable. Having weighed the purchase of a bag of tulips or a chunk of cheese, I made the right decision. This old rat loves his smoked Gouda.


Leeds City Museum, Leeds, England. “Do we have to?” I ask my wife while she is combing her hair at the bathroom mirror of the Hotel Cosmopolitan. She turns and gives me The Look. I was thinking of an hour or two at the armory museum, but on this Wednesday morning I can see that I have lost the war between us. We’re dressed to see fashion.

A half-hour later we’re at the city museum, strolling from display to display of an exhibition called “Heroes and Heroines.” It’s all about articles of clothing that famous—and not so famous—actors wore in movies. Here is a shirt worn by Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. Here’s a nearly unmanageable dress that Keira Knightley wiggled into for a film that must have flopped—I’ve never heard of The Duchess. Here’s Orlando Bloom’s britches from Pirates of the Caribbean and here’s a hat from Elizabeth. Here’s a silk evening gown worn by Madonna in Evita and here’s a frock from Miss Potter. There are outfits worn by Kate Winslet, Daniel Craig, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Renee Zellweger, Sean Connery, Emma Thompson—all of them famous, and all of them have left their DNA on fabric.

An idea comes to me. I’m thinking of my clothes back in Berkeley and conjuring how I, too, might display them, maybe work up a story for the stage. No, let’s make it a saga of a poet who is employed, then unemployed, then sort of employed. He is well known for a year and then unknown for a decade, during which time he loses his hair. Here’s a pair of pants that he wore when only five people, two by mistake, showed up to his poetry reading. Here’s the shirt to answer a knock at the front door. The tank top he took off in a week-long heatwave. Here are the mismatched socks that he wore to a lecture, and here’s the suit that he donned when he went to a concert on the wrong day. Here’s the jacket, the scarf, and the tie that he cinched up for a job interview. How his Adam’s apple suffered that day. And how about his one sexy thong? The one he shot across the bedroom to get his wife’s attention?

My wife observes me smiling to myself. She gives me The Look and asks, “What’s inside your head aside from a stupid hangover?”

My smile broadens and I tell her, “I wish, I wish . . .  I could buy you all of this.” A bad actor, I wave theatrically at the six large display cases. They will come down in a week. As for the actors, they came down earlier in the decade.        


A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, by Herbert Siquenza, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. Siquenza is one-third of Culture Clash, the pioneers in Latino comedy. They are still busy as a comedy troupe but also work separately, as evidenced by this evening. Siquenza, an exhibited artist, assumes the role of Picasso, spring 1957. The setting: Picasso’s home and studio in southern France.

The house lights darken, then the stage lights come up, much of the brightness shimmering on Picasso’s bald pate. I don’t know if Picasso talked a lot, but from the get-go Siquenza’s Picasso is full of words and full of himself. He has opinions, lots of them, and some are boorish. I wince at his behavior. I wouldn’t want to invite this potato head to any party of mine—a mistake in judgment, I realize. If this giant of modern art were plied with drinks and handed paint brushes and a palette of watercolors, he might render a masterpiece on a wall in the living room. Or say he were given a Sharpie to draw something clever on the bathroom mirror. The value of my already overpriced home would increase exponentially.

But I’m off subject.

The storyline is this: Picasso has been commissioned to do six drawings and several vases for the weekend—and to entertain guests. The guests, we’re made to believe, are us, the audience, gawkers sitting in the dark. On the phone, he scolds his art dealer, “Who do you think I am—Dali?” That is, a hack. No, he is an artist, arguably the greatest of the previous century, but like Dali not one to turn down commissions. So in the course of an eighty-minute, one-man show, Picasso talks and talks while creating some of those commissioned drawings. Siquenza’s faux Picassos are done on the stage, right before us—and in a matter of a few quick strokes.

Not bad.

The costumes, the lighting, the sound design—all excellent. Plus, the play offers video montages that help to establish the time and place when Picasso, artist and nonstop talker, created his artwork. Siguenza’s prodigious output makes me wonder whether this is a three-day weekend.


San Francisco Pride parade, 2011. I’m riding a rarely functioning escalator from the hellhole of BART with the intention of seeing Estonian folk dancers at the Yerba Buena Gardens. I’m momentarily confused as I rise into the daylight of midsummer. What’s all this loud music? I pause at the head of the escalator, look around. For a second, I think some dreadlocked hipster has an uncle’s boom box on his shoulder. I am wrong, however. It’s a parade—a really big one, with music from a drum corps, youthful cheers, and everything good. I’m struck by the friendliness of the partygoers. Some of them are clothed brightly, others semi-clothed, and some nearly naked, such as the guy with only a knitted holster for his dick. The hair around his five-incher is dyed peach. In his nipples, little metal ringlets.

I stay and watch the parade. As for the Estonian folk dancers? Sorry, good people, another day.


The Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, Richmond, California. I arrive during a cold front, climb the cement steps, and pull open the heavy door of the museum, shaking off rain. I’m greeted by a park ranger, the brim of her large hat damp from what’s going on outside. I’ve been to the museum many times, but today Betty Reid Soskin is scheduled to present the story of the Rosies, that is, the women who worked the shipyards during World War II. Their motto: We Can Do It. Their logo: A woman in a red do-rag head scarf flexing her biceps.

I descend the steps to the basement. The seating is limited to twenty-eight. Although I’m a half hour early, the seven rows of colorfully painted benches are nearly full.

A little history. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, war was declared against Imperial Japan. Immediately there occurred a shortage of male labor, particularly “white” male labor. But the government needed ships at a time when the army was still segregated. Many southern blacks migrated to Richmond, California to work in the shipyards. With this migration came big social changes. Black men were employed in Richmond for the first time in large numbers.

Overnight the workforce became integrated and woman-friendly. Women were asked to work in jobs previously dominated by men—as welders and riveters. The Richmond shipyards were part of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company. The factories hummed with work nearly twenty-hours a day and built more than 747 ships during the war. Production was like clockwork—timely and fast. The SS Robert E. Peary, for instance, was built from start to finish in five days, a record.

The music of the era was occasionally patriotic. One minor hit was “Rosie the Riveter.” Thus, the women who worked at the shipyards were called “Rosies.” One such worker was Betty Reid Soskin, a file clerk for the Boilermakers Union A-36, an all-black union. She’s the reason for my visit, the reason why others are present. It is believed that at age ninety-seven, Ms. Soskin is the oldest park ranger in the country.

Except for the green glow of the exit signs above the two doors and the part in the curtain, the auditorium is now dark. Then the curtains open. A light appears from the hallway and with it a light from our speaker. She comes in wearing the regalia of a park ranger, including the broad-brimmed hat. She stands in front of us, smiling. Then she says, “I’m Betty Reid Soskin.” With that, the audience begins to applaud.


Awakko-Ren, San Francisco. I attend Sunday service at the Presbyterian church in Japantown and am walking down Sutter Street afterwards when I stop in front of a sandwich board. It says, “Awa Odori Workshop.” I mutter, “Awa Odori” under my breath. Haven’t done that, I think to myself—or have I? I look up at the dangerously steep steps of the Japanese Cultural Center, peel back my shirtsleeve to look at my watch, discover that I have time, and climb the steps to a new experience.

I’m met by Adam, one of the lead dancers, and greeted with smiles from the other dancers. Some of them are Japanese or Japanese American, some white—and there’s me, an aging Mexican American in his Sunday suit. There are twelve dancers, including five of us in the newcomers’ workshop. I’m gaga over two little girls and am friendly with the young adults in their late twenties and early thirties. I’m one of the old guys, me and an even older guy named Larry. The name of this group of Awa Odori dancers is Awakko-Ren; it was founded ten years ago.

Awa Odori, I learn, is a four-hundred-year-old dance celebration done in the streets of Tokushima, Japan, during late summer. The dance is driven by the clang of the kane bell and a large drum, though not like a drum in a marching band. This drum is made of wood and leather and produces a thicker, more natural sound. There’s also a shinobue flute and a shamisen, a four-string, guitar-like instrument. I’m shown a booklet of the dancers in full costume—Oh, I tell myself, I’ve seen them before. Is that what we’ll be doing?

We line up against the wall, the newbies and the seasoned dancers. Adam shows us the primary dance move, which is simple—arms over your head, one foot in front of the other, low crouch, butt out if you’re female, butt in if you’re male. With the bell clanging out an energetic and danceable rhythm, he demonstrates the steps that all Awa Odori teams follow. I glance to my left: the two little girls are looking at each other, both with hands over their heads, as if they have a question for the teacher. They don’t know each other and their faces say as much.

Adam and a female dancer demonstrate as a pair, with the clang of the bell keeping them sallying across the room. There’s also a cry, something like “Yaka, yaka . . .” I can’t make out the last three words, which, I learn later, are shouts of encouragement to keep dancing. The movements are not as easy as one might expect, especially when you imagine them performed by dancers in the full regalia of kimonos and boat-shaped straw hats. In Japan, the dance goes on for miles, the equivalent of a half-marathon. The sweat that must fall.

We students advance in a line toward the far wall. As we dance, I cast my eyes downward, following the one experienced male student to my left. We travel the length of the room and back, then continue for one more round. At the end, everyone, including me, is smiling at the cutie-pie little girls. Their arms are still up—one is smiling and the other is frowning with determination. Even at that early age their personalities are set.

I’m happy that the group doesn’t show me to the door for ineptitude. I get it, I tell myself, I can do this. In the past I’ve tried salsa, swing, line, and Aztec dances, and failed to find the rhythm in every one of those styles. I feel my confidence build and wonder if I have stumbled upon a new pastime. Adam then explains that Awa Odori is a farmer’s harvest dance, with roots in Bon Odori, that is, in Japanese ancestral dancing.

We’re called to a table and shown on a laptop a video to further educate us on the spot. Adam explains the dress of the dancers. The women’s straw hats are canoe-shaped for two purposes: to deflect the sun and to hide their faces from warlords, rich men, or officials who might punish them for demonstrating such happiness at harvest time—or something like that. The men’s costumes are less polished as they represent rugged farmers. They are accustomed to the bright sun and have little fear of the warlords and officials of the time.

After the four-year-olds are led to folding chairs, where they snack on chunks of cantaloupe, the adults practice a dance called (in English at least) “The Pyramid.” It takes us three tries to get the sequence of dance steps and the eventual pattern—we dancers must arrive at a pyramid shape. The males (three of us) don Japanese costumes. I feel elegant in mine. I’m thinking that I could get good at Awa Odori in three or four sessions.

At the end of the hour-long workshop, we huddle together for a group picture—these days every moment seems documented. I’m given a Japanese cookie for participating. I pocket the cookie and say goodbye, but not before providing my email address. I leave, slightly exhausted, descend the step steeps, start up Sutter to my car. I look back and think, I might go back.


A Celestial Celebration, Laney College, Oakland. James Brooks, the veteran actor, is behind this revue, an enhancement of the American songbook. This is an African American tribute show, subtitled “There’s a Party Going on in Heaven.” Down on earth—sixth row for me—the audience gets to enjoy music from another era with a live band. This is escapist theater for the price of twenty dollars.

Mr. Brooks, the narrator, is Louis Armstrong, minus the trumpet. The lights darken and the evening starts more or less on time. He comes out, welcomes us, and then says that no matter our race, we, the people of Oakland, are celebrating Black History Month. He tells us that we’re about to hear from the angels above. I have scanned the photocopied program, read the bios and the ads. The angels he speaks of? Isaac Hayes, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker (with clothes on, I suspect), Sarah Vaughan, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Dinah Washington, Miriam Makeba, and Donny Hathaway. All are in heaven, all are beckoned to come down and sing.

I never saw any of these famous performers live. To bring them back to life, the Laney College Cosmetology Department (night class) has done their makeup. I wish I looked as good.


“Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight against Slavery,” UC Berkeley Art Museum. This is mostly an exhibit of photographs related to Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree around 1797. I learn that her first language was Dutch and that she was sold by her first owner in 1810 for one hundred dollars. She bore five children, was beaten by her owner, and suffered hunger. She ran away when she was thirty, changed her name at age forty-six, aided others in efforts to escape slavery, and went to court several times, including once to obtain the freedom of a son who had been illegally sold into slavery. Although illiterate, she composed her autobiography with the help of friends. She was daring all her life and, in advance of women’s suffrage, tried to cast a vote—she was turned away from the polls, of course. Authorities thought her mad.

Sojourner Truth was a powerful speaker with a story to tell—no question there. Many of the photographs on display are referred to as cartes de visites, that is, palm-size calling cards with her image. The calling cards are emboldened with the phrase, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” She sold them at her talks and by mail as a way to make an income.

The rare, sepia-tinted photographs on display show Sojourner Truth, other African American historical figures, and children. Also included are photographs of paper money—that is, of greenbacks. They show paper currency from around 1864, a time when most citizens preferred to do business with gold and silver coins. There was plenty of folly regarding paper money. Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, put his own image on a one-dollar greenback while he was campaigning for the presidency!

But wait, there’s more! Spencer Clark, first chief of the National Currency Bureau, put his face on a five-cent note. Clark was a low-level bureaucrat who oversaw the printers. With no governmental permission, he got his portrait etched on a plate, the rollers inked, and—bang—his image was rolled out the door in wide circulation. This I call inside privilege.

What if Sojourner Truth—runaway slave, abolitionist, author, feminist, and card-carrying activist—had run the printing press? What if she had put her own image—or the images of other heroes of the time—on the greenbacks? Imagine the revelry! You open your wallet and pull out paper money of real value.


The Museum of Man, Paris. This museum showcases us humans, Homo sapiens, with our 99.9 percent shared DNA. We are told that the Mayans are pretty much like the Dutch and the Dutch are pretty much like the Ethiopians. I can be convinced of the latter pairing, for both racial groups are tall. But short Mayans and the marauding Dutch? And is it possible that the Tongans are blood brothers and sisters to the Irish? That the Japanese share virtually all their DNA with the Nigerians? The Swedes with the Armenians? Stuff for thought.

The museum is a big coffee-table book—plus a college education if you opt for the headset. But for me it’s a long haul through centuries, if not millennia, with only cursory interest. There’s a reason for that. Paris is hot in August, the air stagnant, the tourists exhausted, the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar not to my liking. Come on, who pays six dollars for a single scoop of ice cream? Seven dollars for a length of bread? No wonder the pigeons approach when you are seated on a park bench. They be, like, starving!

I admit that large institutional museums bore me—OK, this is my public confession. Perhaps I belong on a shelf with the Neanderthal numbskulls on the first floor. I can’t help but yawn in front of a glass case of Spanish armor. I should recognize the museum’s importance; I should have paid for the headset. We humans are creative beyond belief, but my eyes on this steamy Wednesday in Paris can only float over the display cases. In truth, I prefer smaller museums—the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam would be fine today or the Bata Shoe Museum of Toronto. The Pub Museum? I’ve heard the populace speaks slurred English there.

But I’m suddenly awake when I encounter the carved wooden doors of three Zulu huts. The doors are tall, shield-like, and adorned in bright colors with birds, wild boars, and alligators, with flowers, trees, and large-eyed humans—creationist storytelling at its wildest. The huts themselves are round as barrels, made of mud or sticks, and meant to protect a family from rain, wind, sun, and marauding animals like jackals. The doors, all unique, indicate to others that this is my place, not yours. See how I live! I live beautifully!

I’m suddenly wide awake. I’m a poet, not a cultural anthropologist, so I invent their history. I see one tribe member whittling a splay-beaked bird, then attaching the bird to his door. Then a second tribe member, two huts down, views the bird and whittles a bird and a dog’s head. (This scenario occurs around 1431, possibly earlier, possibly later, possibly only inside my head.) A third tribe member mulls over what’s been attached to the doors and ups the stakes by adding a menagerie. The history I’ve proposed may appear unscientific, but I would bet good money—euros in this case—that it happened as I describe. There could be a little bit more to it, but I stand my ground. Embellishment breeds embellishment.

The doors are remarkable works of art by wonderful people. Then I think of my own door back in California. I’m embarrassed by its plywood construction, the single coat of varnish, the pitted cheap-ass doorknob. Not much embellishment; actually, none to speak of, except a label near the doorbell that says “No Solicitors.”

No wonder the local tribes-people never visit.


Fallen Heroes Rising Stars: A Juneteenth Celebration, Oakland. Don’t know the meaning of Juneteenth? Slavery in the United States ended on January 1, 1863, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But outlaw Texas held the view that slaves were not free because they were needed in the cotton fields! It wasn’t until June 19, 1865—when General Gordon Granger arrived with an army to set things right—that white Texans reluctantly freed their slaves.

I’m here to enjoy Oakland’s eighth annual celebration of music and dance to mark Juneteenth. And I’m seated next to a woman who’s obviously been to church earlier in the day—her white hat is tall as a cake. She herself looks sweet as cake.

Flipping through the program, which is heavy on ads, I see right away that this is an afternoon of homage. The first song is Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” which will set the tempo. The song is dedicated to B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. The second song, titled “If You Call,” is unknown to me. It is dedicated to Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Etta James, Cleotha Staples, and Sharon Jones, the singer who recorded this version. Got to look her up, I tell myself. The third song is Luther Vandross’s “Dance with My Father.” This one is dedicated to Don Cornelius, Isaac Hayes, Lou Rawls, Percy Sledge, Teddy Pendergrass, and Barry White.

On the next-to-last page there’s the “Historical Figures Tributes.” Among the figures are Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, the Black Panther Party, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama, George Washington Carver, plus ten other giants. And what’s this, a photo of a smiling James Baldwin? The epigram below his photo reads, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Soul food for thought.

I get how the afternoon will unfold. The dancers will perform to the music, and our responsibility is to clap! That I can do.

But as I revisit the earlier pages, I see something inexcusable and maddeningly wrong. I tell the woman next to me that there’s no dedication to—no mention of—Sam Cooke. How could that be? She frowns at the program, turns the pages after licking a thumb, and then, pouting, says, “That ain’t right.”


Pianola Museum, Amsterdam. I suspect that most museumgoers are expected to take away some knowledge from their visit, hold it in their brains for a while, and then, on a whim, learn more from a book or on the Internet. But in this case what I’ve taken away is the intrepid sound of the “reproducing piano” and, I hope, to let it go forever. For me—I’m sorry, reader—the sound produced by a pianola is a punishing noise, like a clumsy pony stumbling over a pile of brightly colored Tinkertoys.

What brings me to the museum is the Amsterdam rain. I want to get out of our apartment and explore the city, but the rain, slanting this way, slanting that way, ruins my outing. So I purchase a ticket to this museum and now sit here wondering if I’ve ever spent euros more recklessly. I’m downstairs in the basement, two small lamps throwing some light on the wallpapered walls. That’s about all the warmth we’re going to get on this rainy day.

Let me begin my lecture. By “reproducing pianos”—the museum’s term—we mean pianos that operate mechanically. You put in a perforated roll of music, crank the piano, and out comes noise. This is how I see it on this Sunday afternoon as I sit among twelve other tourists like jurors in our hard chairs. We blink at one another, we suppress our commonsense urges to get up and leave. After all, we did elect to pay a few euros to get in—and we might even elect to pay a few more euros to get out.

But I’m brave. I listen as the gentleman lecturer—he’s dressed in a tux—tells us the history of the pianola. In its time, circa 1910, it was beloved by young people—really? They would gather around the instrument, not unlike a karaoke machine, and sing their hearts out. Nearly two million were built in its heyday.

Like, what? They cut down whole forests for two million of this instrument?

He tells us more, lots more, but like a poor, tone-deaf music student, I don’t listen. I have never been so glad that hair of the stiffest kind has infiltrated my ears and, thus, buffers most of the lecture. At the end, we visitors applaud, make our way up from the basement, and exit, none the wiser. Outside, the rain is still coming down, slanting this way, slanting that way. I shudder and push my hands deep into my pockets. Two million reproducing pianos? I hope not.

I wonder how many hatchets would be needed to splinter them into useful firewood.


Undivided Divided, Shen Wei Dance Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. The ticket holders gather at three large double doors for a matinee performance that, according to my program, will last thirty-five minutes, no intermission, no Q-and-A, no reception, no photography or listening devices, no talking, no reentry, no refunds. That’s it? I paid thirty dollars cash for a single ticket! No heavy math required to figure out the minute-by-minute cost.

This better be pretty good, I tell myself.

The doors open and the crowd crowds through, not very politely—or gracefully—I notice. My eyes adjust to the dim, almost smoky, lighting. From the get-go I see this will be something very, very different: bare-breasted women lie near naked on the floor, mostly still, or if not still then moving as if in sleep—they roll one way, then roll the other way. Some of the movements are jerky, and some appear drug-induced. While their eyes are open, none of the dancers look at us, the slack-jawed patrons.

My steps become very slow, as if I’m influenced by the dancers. I wonder not so much about the nakedness of the women but about whether what I am experiencing is dance. I again refer to my program. Yes, it says dance but, wait a minute, is this philosophical dance? Zen dance? Purification dance? Here’s what the curator has to say: “Among the sublime side effects of falling in love is the implicit permission we receive from our lovers to take an extended impression of their bodies. To look without shame upon the human form and to grant your opposite the gift of being seen.”

Like, what? 

The curator goes on for a few more paragraphs, and none of what he says is helpful. All I can discern are bodies confined to small mats. That’s how I see it. Just bodies moving in slow tai chi fashion. Some dancers eventually do rise up to their feet, then balance, stork-like, on one leg. Some bend over on all fours or stand erect and skeletal—they are dancers after all, with finely honed bodies. I’m trying to be mature about this, open minded. I glance down at my watch—six minutes have passed. That’s six dollars that have waved adios.

The audience is permitted to walk among the dancers as they continue to move to a soundtrack designed by So Percussion. Really? So Percussion? The costume design is by Austin Scarlett, who, I read, has designed widely and with commercial success. But do nearly unclothed bodies require a costume designer?

The person behind this creation is Shen Wei, a much-honored choreographer. He’s received, for instance, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship—I want one of those. I also see that Shen Wei’s work has received the attention of a boy, age ten or so, who walks among the dancers, wide-eyed. His parents are with him; no, his parents are behind him—wisely, they give him space. I sense that the parents are not locals but tourists from the Midwest, perhaps from Iowa or Indiana. I see that while they are surprised by it all, they do not take the boy’s hand, yank him indignantly from the exhibition, and demand a refund.

Be open, they might be telling themselves. Be open.

I approach the boy, who, in his hometown, is probably on a little league baseball team. He’s a straight-A student and popular among his classmates. He’s a Boy Scout who has done volunteer work at homeless shelters, who comes running when his parents call him to dinner. A good kid, with a part in his hair.

In turn, I’m a troublemaker. I whisper, “Beats Disneyland.” He looks up at me, then back down at a small-breasted woman who wears a smudge of glitter and not much else. It takes him a long time to absorb what I’ve uttered before he nods his head.

Yeah, it does.


“From Near and Far: Music from around the World,” The Morrison Theatre Chorus, Hayward, California. After church I extend my exposure to the holy word by attending a choral concert offering a smorgasbord of folk songs from Finland, Spain, Zambia, Jamaica, Hawaii, the Middle East (country not provided), England (Lennon-McCartney’s “And I Love Her”), Korea, the United States, and two other non-specified lands—all before intermission. After intermission we travel to Russia, Peru, the United States again, England again, Portugal, Israel (a passage taken from the Old Testament), Mexico, and elsewhere. “Orinoco Flow,” I’m inclined to believe, describes a river that snakes through several South American countries. Perhaps this song has no territorial home but belongs to all who can remember the melody and the words.

I’ve paid ten dollars to sit in the sixth row. I could have sat in the first or twelfth row—or any row—because the city-owned auditorium is nearly empty. The echoes of shuffling shoes and scraping walkers are another kind of music. Some may knock this kind of community chorus, but I see it as a way to bring the world under one roof. Sophisticated supporters of Baroque or Renaissance music, in which the viola da gamba is ever present, might laugh at a program that would do well with the ukulele crowd. This is not their venue.

But I’m enjoying myself, and others are too. My bet is that the audience—thirty or so of us—has no idea about the origins of “Iko Iko.” Who cares? Have mercy on us and let us be. Most are from a care facility not two miles from here, while others—me, for example—are their potential replacements. For many, this will be their last recital for a very long time.


Merola Grand Finale 2013, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco. I’ve been to several of these finales, where we have the pleasure of hearing young opera singers, bright as new buttons, do their vocal magic. Make no bones about it, they are auditioning for future gigs and, I suspect, are aware that they must sing without a blunder—who knows what maestro could be in the audience. Tonight’s offerings begin with “Ortrud! Wo bist du” from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner and “Vanne pronto, Odoardo . . .  Voli colla sua tromba,” from Ariodante by Handel. There’s a mess of other works by other notables, including Britten, Rossini, Verdi, Offenbach, and Bernstein, the usual operatic suspects.  

I thumb through the lush, menu-size program (captivating photos of the artists) and the program’s supplementary list of the songs that will be performed. Each of the singers is backed financially by one patron or more. For instance, Daryl Freedman, mezzo-soprano, has several sponsors, including Susan York, Mr. Thomas E. Foutch, Dr. David S. Stein and Dr. Phyllis A. Kempner, and Mrs. Barbara J. Ross. I can’t help but notice that all of these sponsors (save one) use a middle initial. But even I can arrive at some understanding of why this is so. I will wager that these good-hearted sponsors are from a generation for which it was proper to sneak a letter between your first and last names and to add a professional identification, such as doctor at the beginning or the end. Nothing wrong with that harmless posturing unless you go overboard and, say, come up with two initials, as in William J.L. Wilkins III, JD. At that point we are inclined to want to erase not only one of the initials but the entire name from our consciousness.

These days, however, we recognize the newly minted rich by their first names, like “Steve” as in Steve Jobs or “Oprah” as in Oprah Winfrey. You’re a true celeb when you need only go by one name. I also recall when rocker Prince was unhappy with his one name and opted to go by a symbol. What was that symbol again? I bite my lower lip, then scratch my palm (where no money appears). Something like a bent pitchfork, I recall, but I might be wrong.

This is what happens when you arrive early—and dateless. You have time to let your mind play with an idea or two before you turn the page in the program. I’m alive, lucky to be alive, present in this lovely auditorium because of a scalped ticket. What’s important is that Gary A. Soto, MFA, is seated in the balcony tucked away from the sight of the richer patrons.


The Blues Cruise, Oslo, Norway. Summer, near the North Pole, and the sun is unable to set, though it’s eight o’clock at night, an hour when I’m usually yawning for bed. My wife and I queue along the gangplank. She grips the rope because she’s scared of water and any kind of rocking motion. We’re two of possibly two hundred who have bought tickets to dine, drink, and listen to Nordic types sing the blues, plus enjoy the distant fjords and chevrons of flying geese. We’re all for this, all for having fun among other tourists, some German and French, others Russian and Polish. There are a few Americans and a few English. Japanese? None to speak of? Chinese or Korean? No, they are sensibly rolling into bed. Indian? Holy cow no!

Even before we set sail, the revelers crowd the bar. Beer—not vodka—is on tap and only in plastic cups. Three bearded men, large as linebackers, are two-fisting the grog back to their benches. The suds splash over their knuckles as the ship rocks under their usually landlocked feet.

Then a whistle sounds. Ropes are dropped, the gangplank pulled away. When the whistle sounds a second time, a dockworker waves a hat. The ship sets off, the diesel engine smoking noisily until the natural engines, the sails, puff up with good clean wind.

The blues band is quietly setting up their gear. To me, they resemble musically trained Hells Angels, all with stringy blond hair and eyes scrambled from last night’s drinking. They wear Levi’s jeans, T-shirts, and what might be steel-toed boots. Every musician is tattooed with indecipherable designs. The blues for them? For their bread, they are forced to play nightly to tourists like us.

I set off on my first beer run, shoving through other tourists, all thirsty, all saddled with guts, all good-natured and laughing. We could give a communal shrug of what-the-hell. We recognize this tourist trap but what about the firetrap? There’s a small pit on deck with flames jumping in the wind. The fire could leap onto some drunk yodeler’s beard and, within seconds, crawl down his pants to his shoes. Farfetched? Don’t think so. I follow the Enquirer very closely.

I get two beers (two people dwell inside me, I joke to my wife) and carefully manage my way through the crowd back to our seats. Once seated, I gaze at the water. I’m in a good mood. I drink in honor of Vikings and Danes, then drink in honor of Finns, Swedes and Estonians. I also offer a toast to the French and the English, and to the Spanish and their kissing cousins, the Portuguese. And like the Spanish and Portuguese, I think that I should cross the Atlantic to toast Brazil, Bolivia, and all the small Caribbean countries with names I can’t remember. Soon, I’m shitfaced and, like St. Sebastian, shot with hard arrows (from my wife’s eyes). I get up, holding onto the edge of our table—dinner is served.

My wife and I make our way downstairs, our hands on the rope handrail, then approach a huge galvanized trough of really pink shrimp. We’re expected to scoop up all the shrimp we want, with a large, Baby Huey ladle. This we do, then reach over other reaching hands for slices of soft white bread. This will be our dinner: shrimp, bread, and butter. I’ve had worse and in less spectacular settings. I start back upstairs. I’m still in a happy mood. I love Norway and I love that this time of the year the sun never sets. I know, I know, I’m drunk. I turn and ask my wife, “I love Norway, don’t you? Ibsen is from here, I think.”

She mumbles some unloving words at me just as a pair of seagulls screech over my shoulder. I look around, startled: Is Alfred Hitchcock onboard? I ask myself. Of course not. I ask my wife, “Did you hear those birds? Do you know what they remind of?”

She ignores me and butters her bread.  

I get comfy on the bench, paper napkins on each knee. I try my best to snap off the crunchy outer shell of a shrimp. But shrimp is mostly armor. Soon I’ve run out of this sea creature—only shreds of translucent body parts remain on my square prisoner’s plate. The bread’s gone too, though some of the butter is on my fingers. I wonder if the surroundings are influencing my barbaric manners. I lick my fingers, starting with my pinkie. I feel totally Viking and understand why they went to England to cause havoc—the grog in Norway is really powerful shit.

My smile collapses after a few minutes. When I first started drinking, I was in the pleasurable state of Happy Hourness, but now I’m in a dark tunnel of ugly, brooding thoughts. I begin to hanker for American food, like a burrito—I’m fed up with shrimp. My mood is pitch-black, my inner thoughts angling for revenge on a third-rate, brie-eating Hispanic poet who got first place in a contest I didn’t win—and won’t ever win! I think of him and the idea of him. I could rub his face with shrimp shells and toss him overboard! Go get him, sharks. Humpback whales, slap his nalgas! 

Lots of weird, beautiful shit inside my head—and in a foreign land where the sun is always up and the people, for god’s sake, don’t speak Spanish—I mean, English. And why is this ship going in a circle? One more time around that small island and I might unload my dinner into the sea. I get to my sloppy feet as my wife eyes me—she’s sort of mad. I think more shrimp and buttered bread will help to rekindle my happy mood. And while I’m at it, why not another beer? I could toast Greenland. We’re not far from that country, right?

With plate in hand, I return to the galley and nearly slip on all the shrimp shells underfoot, along with a puddle of pissy beer. The ship is rocking now, and the lanterns sway from the ceiling. I ladle my plate high with shrimp and set a few kroner on the counter for a single beer—got to be sensible, got to know the limits of my bladder. Plus, my wife is eyeing me none too happily.

On the way up from the galley, I observe a Bavarian-looking guy barfing over the starboard side. And I, a poet not yet done with his career, praise the sea that gives up its morsels that we ungrateful humans give back in a spectacular spew of pink vomit. You would think he would know when to stop—but no. It’s a heave-ho for that old sailor!

Thus, we spend the evening—in daylight, mind you—eating shrimp and bread and butter, before finally turning our attention to the out-of-tempo foursome. Although they are singing in Norwegian, even I, a non-speaker, know that they’re slurring the words of their bluesy songs. They, too, are shitfaced.

Some old rockers just can’t hold their liquor.


Maple and Vine, by Jordan Hamilton, American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. I’m early for the performance and have nothing to do but stop in front of a swanky jewelry store and imagine pocketing some of that bling—after paying for it, of course. I’m eyeing the jewelry when I hear a woman say to her daughter, “Like that man in the maroon jacket.” I see them in the reflection of the store window, and by the time I turn they’ve already passed me, mother and daughter off to some place interesting.

Like that man in the maroon jacket?

I look down at my sleeve. She was referring to me, to this maroon jacket, at this hour in my very ordinary life. I turn and look at my reflection in the window: old guy with thinning hair, the cuffs of his pants bagging around the ankles, some eggy stain on his shirt—I scratch at it. But what did she mean? The two women continue down the street and are quickly swallowed up by the crowd of pedestrians.

I hoof it two blocks to the theater, pick up my program, and find my seat. I read a short article in the program about America’s dissatisfaction despite its material wealth. Great, I think, escapist playmaking. I narrow my eyes at one figure in the article: a recent Gallup poll reports that 10 percent of Americans—thirty million people—are miserable. Only that many?

The play begins and is very, very good, but I can’t concentrate. I close my eyes. Perhaps those next to me believe I’ve fallen asleep. Not at fifty-five dollars a ticket! No, I’m thinking of that mother and daughter, and how the mother—yes, I can see her now—pointed a gloved finger at me. “Like that man in the maroon jacket,” she said. Few people point at me, and few think of me. The phone never rings, my mail is mostly from AARP, my car is an ancient Chevy. The spam on my computer often pitches floor wax—hell, I don’t even get ads for Viagra.

But I get what she means. I’m like the 10 percent of miserable Americans, a lost soul looking at a window where the jewelry is out of reach. What she meant is that I was not someone worth knowing.


An Audience with Meow Meow, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Meow Meow is legally known as Melissa Madden Gray, an Australian. She is well educated, with three bachelor’s degrees—in law, German, and fine arts. It’s with the last bit of training that Meow Meow has made a name for herself—indeed, the show is all about “herself.” Gray plays the self-absorbed vamp—no, not a vamp. She plays the spoiled twentysomething—no, not a twentysomething. She plays a cabaret dancer—no, wrong again. She plays the mistress of a disgraced CEO of a Fortune 500 company—no, not that either. She plays herself and several women inside her. She is so daring and so outrageous, a comedian who spits out joke after joke so that your mouth is always open in laughter. (The act of laughing, I discover, doesn’t allow you to remember—laughing and memory must occur in different compartments in the brain. That’s what I think.)

By the end of her eighty-minute show, I’m smitten. I want to start a fan club, I want to hug her, I want to take her home for a cup of tea and share my porcelain collection with her! Meow Meow is physical, really physical. Full of confidence, she hurls herself into the audience—yes, hurls that young female body of hers into the arms of the old men sitting front row and center. The purpose? To make the rounds of the audience, to be the goddess of comedy—Australia is so lucky to claim her as their own.

As she’s so full of herself (this is her ammo), she knows that she’ll be passed around with care, as if a FRAGILE sign is stamped on her very nice bottom. There’s laughter and, I imagine, more than one pair of dentures being pushed back into place. But the men, in a fury of late-life excitement, get to handle her. She glides from one row to another, in a swimmer’s position, and each one of us is mature enough not to touch the humped landscape of her possibly damp private pussy. God, if she would come home and view my porcelain collection. I love her! She loves me! Together we’ll play with my porcelain collection of dainty windmills!

I paid forty-five dollars for the performance. Meow Meow made us old dogs bark for more.


Vasa Museum, Stockholm. This is a maritime museum whose centerpiece is the Vasa, a sixty-four-gun warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. What went wrong? Drunken shipbuilders? Poor design? Heavy cannons? Inept sailors? Although I’ve scanned every inch of the freebie brochure, I can’t figure out the reason for its demise. I slap the rolled-up brochure against my thigh. I wonder if the king and queen were positioned on a royal platform, with other royal types, on that tragic day. The ship, I imagine, moved majestically from its scaffolding, flags and banners waving, the crowd applauding to the rhythm of horns and dramatic drums. There were soldiers and sailors lining the pier, priests flicking holy water, and then, perhaps, a maiden screaming in Swedish, “Holy Moly!” when the ship began to sink, going down ass-first (a non-nautical term).

The Vasa Museum is the most visited museum in the country, with over a million visitors annually. Got to wonder why failure attracts. I have failed at many projects and, if anything, I’d like to kick each one under the rug or, in this case, keep it in the depths of the harbor, unseen.


Tallgrass Gothic, by Melanie Marnich, Impact Theatre, Berkeley. I have no idea what the play is about but, what-the-fuck, I have my pizza and pint. I make my way down the foul-carpeted stairs into the basement, ever hopeful for a good time. I pick my seat, front row, then place the suds at my feet and fit the tip of the pizza slice into my mouth—let the enjoyment begin.

As I’m twenty minutes early, I glance at the program of this nonprofit theater. Inside, printed separately, is a survey titled, in large caps, “YOU ROCK.” I chew on my pizza, sip my beer. The survey is non-Gallup in its wording. The choices for gender, for instance, are: “male,” “female,” and “whatever.” Do you work in theater? Options: “yup” and “nope.” Why did you come to the theater? One option: “To get laid.” Impact Theatre also asks if you, the audience member, would like to be on its email list. They promise never, ever, no-way José to share your address, “no matter how hot the person asking for it is.”

I read the hip survey, eat my less-than-hip pizza, and scan the audience of thirty or so college students. To them I’m invisible, kind of like the three couches—old, really old, with stuffing coming out around the arms. The couches are for season ticketholders; in other words, those with fixed incomes.

Note: Impact Theatre closed in 2016. I saw almost every production there since the company’s inception. I drank my brew, ate my pizza, and clapped at the end of each shining performance with greasy hands. I did my duty. The couches, for all I know, went back to the streets. Seating for the homeless, some of whom have street theater in their blood.


Romance Is in the Air, Oakland Lyric Opera, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland. I’ve been to several OLO performances here at the Chapel of the Chimes, a mausoleum and columbarium. Today, at matinee hour of 2 p.m., we have soprano Svetlana Nikitenko and tenor Jorge Orlando Gomez, both with extensive résumés. The pianist is Alexander Katsman. The theme: young love.

The concert is held in the sanctuary with its twelve rows of pews. Light pours in from the stained-glass windows and reveals an audience of twelve or so, most of whom, I suspect, are board members. This makes me squirm from embarrassment. Why so few music lovers? There’s a notice in the program that this will be the last concert for a while. Perhaps management feels that OLO is not attracting a live audience. Their relationship has ended badly, I surmise. As the director notes in the program, “In true operatic tradition, what sometimes seems like ‘a marriage made in heaven’ goes through a rocky honeymoon and divorce becomes inevitable.”

But not yet. We have a soprano and a tenor, and a very talented pianist. True to their art, Nikitenko and Gomez sing their hearts out, with works by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Bizet, and Rimsky-Korsakov, plus several Russian and Spanish songs. I don’t know if sighing is vaguely connected to singing, but I sigh at the demise of this small company. I stand for an ovation when our talented threesome take their bows. Cookies and punch in the foyer will sweeten the departure.

The Fat Lady sang for the Oakland Lyric Opera, in, of all places, the sanctuary where the dead reside. Their efforts became ash.


Pocket garden, Stockholm. I have passed this small garden several times while on the bus. Each time it has given me some small pleasure because under each arched hedge is a yellow tulip. I don’t know if this is smart landscaping worthy of an article in Fine Gardening, but to my untrained eye that single flower is tastefully positioned, like a lollipop. I like it.

One afternoon, I accompany my wife back to our apartment—a free stay so long as we take care of a cat named Sasso. What? Did you read correctly? Yes, we have use of an apartment in a swanky part of Stockholm if we care (and occasionally cuddle) the cat. Enough said on our temporary digs. I return to my narrative.

After rubbing Sasso’s stomach, I shrug into my coat, grab the house key, and hurry down the stairwell to the street. I get back onto the bus that stops outside the apartment. I want to view from all angles the pocket garden and ask myself if I’m a silly old man hoodwinked by a tulip.

A mile later, I get off the bus and cross the street in a hurry—the traffic is fast, the asphalt slick from rain. The garden is well kept, I see. It’s May but still cold, my breath visible in the air. I kneel and, using a disposable camera, snap a couple of photos. (Disposable camera? Really? No cellphone or iPad to capture the image?) Then I sit on the bench, wet with rain, and watch if any passersby turn their heads to admire the little garden.

They do. Or at least some do.

I get up, my raincoat damp, and cross the street to take the bus back to our apartment. From the bus stop, I view the pocket garden again; it is charming, worthy of a 500-word feature in a gardening magazine. Then I turn and notice a poster on the wall, advertising a roller derby event called “Shitty Bastards.” The poster, very retro and meant to be lighthearted, features a drawing of two sturdy women elbowing each other for position in the ring. Their faces are grimacing, their protective helmets off-kilter. Seeing that the event has already passed, I carefully peel the poster off the wall and roll it like a scroll. I’m not much in favor of taking home souvenirs when I travel, but I know who would benefit from this poster—Victor Trejo, a roller-derby junkie with roller-derby girlfriends, each shoving the others out of the way for his attention.

Victor is nothing like a tulip—more like a barreling tumbleweed driven by wind and sand and rumors of destruction. The poster would be perfect on his bedroom wall.


Wells, England. This is a pretty town, a historical town, a friendly town—the townspeople smile and stop to chat with one another, just as they do on the BBC television programs we’ve seen over the years. We discover Vicars’ Close, reportedly the oldest residential street in Europe, harking back to the mid-fourteenth century. And by “residential” we mean houses lined up and facing other houses, thus creating a neighborhood, a block,–or close in their word. We walk with our purchases (teapot and thimbles) up this street, which is neither long nor wide—just like life, I think, just like life.

A girl with blond locks comes out onto the porch to look at us, the first tourists of early spring. Perhaps she had mistaken our steps for those of her mother or a friend or possibly a boy. Her eyes follow us briefly before she goes back inside, disappointed that it is just us, a couple seeing what there is to see. We don’t fret over our tag: tourists. We walk up this street twice because we know we will never return—this is us at the beginning of old age.


Abigail’s Party, by Mike Leigh, San Francisco Playhouse. This is one of my favorite theaters, so much so that I’m a season subscriber. I can’t complain about the beers available in the mini-fridge, or the packages of nuts, or the homemade cookies (I avoid the temptation), though I’m inclined to speak with the founder, Bill English, about the amber-colored lights that make the faces of patrons look sickly, like Luden’s cough drops from the 1960s.

Abigail’s Party opened in the 1970s and was filmed for television by the BBC, a version that my wife and I enjoyed on video a decade after its release. Leigh is a top-tier director, writer, and producer—the hombre does it all and all brought him honors and celebrity status. He favors what is referred to as “kitchen sink realism,” that is, small moments in the lives of very small people—meaning me, meaning you, meaning just about anyone reaching for a jar of half-off peanut butter in aisle five. Leigh, a master of satire, captures English men and women in their efforts to climb a peg or two on the social ladder. Nothing wrong with aspiration, but here, in this play, it goes deadly wrong.

Briefly, the story features two youngish couples, along with a single, divorced woman. I can’t remember what it has to do with Abigail, the daughter of one of the couples. But I hope to find out soon. The setting I remember clearly—a living room with some pretense at 1970s hipness. There’s a trolley of drinks, gin and such, ferns, and a colorful paisley-patterned couch that couples roost on. Do the women wear go-go boots? Yes. False eyelashes gluey with mascara? Yes. Hair-sprayed beehives? Yes. In one dramatic moment—spoiler alert—the husband loathes his wife so intensely that he has no choice but to have a heart attack to escape her constant nagging. Or something like that—I’ll find out in a few minutes.

This is me, a voyager from one event to another. If I stay home, little happens except between the covers of a book. Reading, too, is high art, but I crave theater, music, dance, meaningful art, even meaningless art that resembles government construction projects gone wrong. I like going out, and, like a cat, I like returning home to eat and sleep. This is what brings me to Abigail’s Party, a Mike Leigh creation. In my opinion, there’s not enough fabric on the front of his jacket to hold all the medals he deserves for service to little old men.


The Ship, Amsterdam. I lived briefly in public housing, but it was nothing as fine as The Ship, a workers’ palace. The block-long housing complex was designed by Michel de Klerk, who himself grew up in need. “In need,” in this case, is not hyperbole—he was one of twenty-seven children from his father’s two wives. After the death of the first wife, who bore twenty-four children, Michel’s father married his dead wife’s niece and produced four more children, of whom Michel was the last—the father’s sexual petrol had finally run dry. He died when Michel was four years old.

Now I stand in front of the architect’s grand building constructed of brick and in patterns that are full of wizardry—the patterns go this way, then that way, then this way again. To my untrained eye, the design appears to be influenced by Art Deco. True, the Ship was built in 1920, so, perhaps, there was some inspiration from a movement where speed indicated success—the sleek locomotive was a ubiquitous symbol.

I’m approaching the entrance when I have a sudden wobbly sensation that I’ve been here before. I pause to steady myself. In a previous life was I Dutch?

Strange, I think. Very strange.

I step inside the former post office where they sell tickets to tour one of the apartments. I’m one of seven attendees for the two o’clock tour. I scan the rack of postcards, buy a few, and pocket them. I enter a small telephone booth—yes, I’ve been in this booth before. A chill runs like a hand across my back. It seems so familiar.

The Ship was the creation of Dutch visionaries. Disturbed by the abominable living conditions of their country’s workers, they set about hiring an architect—Michel de Klerk—and securing government funds for their enterprise. The resulting block of one hundred two-bedroom apartments did not solve the housing shortage in a growing city. But it did spur government—and businesses and citizens—to think about workers. To me, de Klerk has created utopian beauty. He thought that the Ship should offer fascinating details that passersby would never grow tired of. Thus, he added small sculptures that projected from the brickwork, including gnomes, windmills, foals, clogs, mythical archers, and elephants. De Klerk’s words: “Nothing is too good for the worker who has had to do without beauty for so very long.” What did others think? One critic described de Klerk not as an architect but as a “gifted, undisciplined and insane draughtsman.”

I’m all for this sort of insanity. Today, the Ship is regarded as one of the most remarkable buildings dedicated to social housing in the world—if not the most remarkable. I’m not sure if workers from the docks or the warehouses live at the Ship these days, but those people who do live there live quietly—no radios, no laundry hanging from the balconies, no heads sticking out. It appears time has stood still.

On the half-hour tour, we view a single two-bedroom apartment replete with furniture of 1920s Netherlands. The living room is small, the stairs to the second floor narrow, the ceiling a little low. The kitchen is not well-lit, yet it’s functional, with a tiny four-burner stove and an equally tiny refrigerator. The apartment appears lived in and cared for. At one time—before the apartment became a museum—the room would have been noisy with family commotion, with cooking smells—herring, for instance—wafting to the ceiling and then curling back down, the aroma of fish enveloping the entire family. A kitchen, no matter the country, always says home.

I place a hand on a heavy-looking kettle and feel that sense of déjà vu—yes, I have been here before. I revisit a thought: I must have been Dutch in a previous life. Then I imagine a single family like de Klerk’s own in this apartment—twenty-seven kids! They would have been falling out the windows, durable kids of the very poor.


The Pinedale Assembly Center Memorial and Remembrance Plaza, Pinedale, California. A cold, foggy day, but our mission is to locate the memorial that identifies where my wife’s mother was first transported to Pinedale under Executive Order 9066. She and other relatives were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were allowed to bring only what they could carry. The group included people from Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley as well as from Sacramento, Amador, and El Dorado Counties, plus some wayward and confused souls from Oregon and Washington. In quick order ten barracks were built by the evacuees themselves, but their stay was short, from May 7 to July 23, 1942. They were then sent by train and bus to the Poston or Tule Lake concentration camps.

For nearly three years they woke to dust and went to sleep in dust, the wind howling from one direction then the next, in desert camps far from cities. Armed guards were stationed in towers at all four corners of the prisons. You could never tell what these dangerous Japanese American people might have up their sleeves. Chopsticks shaved into daggers? A length of clothesline to strangle the warden? Perhaps those galvanized washtubs could be the start of an armored vehicle?

The memorial and remembrance plaza is California Registered Historical Landmark No. 934. Located in a business complex, it’s mostly hardscape in the form of cement benches—sit, reflect, and remember. The twelve storyboards are embedded in a low, semicircular commemorative wall, along with photos of Japanese American families and a single soldier. My wife and I stop before the soldier’s photo and stare at the chubby, friendly face. We know that man! That’s Marvin Uratsu, a member of the church we attend. We saw him just three days earlier and now here he is in a VFW cap. He was a member of the Military Intelligence Service—or MIS—the group that acted as translators and linguists during and after the war.

Is Marvin from Fresno, our hometown? Not possible, we agree. But I’ll ask Marvin about the photo and, ever modest, he will shake his head and say that it must be of some other soldier. And he’ll say nothing of the Congressional Gold Medal he received for his service, which he probably keeps in a drawer. Like many nisei, he doesn’t talk about the war.


Cleary Garden, London. This is the site of a former Roman bath. I sit on a cement bench and admire the bougainvillea crawling halfway up the pillars. My wife goes off to light up a cigarette, the smoke like nooses above her head.

The garden is the brainchild of Fred Cleary who, in the early 1970s, encouraged city officials to establish more gardens in central London. But the person really behind this place is shoemaker John Brandis. A house once stood at this location, but it was destroyed during a bombing raid in World War II. Mr. Brandis, angered by the indifference of other Londoners, took it upon himself to haul wheelbarrows of mud from the Thames and good soil from his own garden to cover the rubble. The garden took shape, then flourished; it was visited by the Queen Mother in the summer of 1949. In 2006, in a demonstration of goodwill, the Japanese island of Daikonjima offered Yatsuka tree peonies for the garden.

I learn all this from a printout from the Internet. I also learn that in another life—no, this life—I could easily imagine myself as a gardener, with schemes even greater than the one for this half-acre plot. I’m inspired. Over the last day and a half, I have taken my wife to Postman’s Park, Noble Street Gardens, Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden, St. Mary Staining, Jubilee Gardens, Whittington Gardens, the lawns that circle St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Alphage Gardens, and Dark House Walk—this last so-called park lacks shrubs, trees, benches; it’s just a thoroughfare along the Thames, the river lapping at the shore.

At the Cleary Garden, I watch two pigeons brawl over a dropped bagel—tough London birds, one with a splayed beak. My wife returns exhaling the last of her cigarette; in her time away, she has remembered a patch of weeds that she wants dug up when we return home.

Are you going to plant something?” I ask as I push off the bench, rising like a thin tree. That’s what I want to plant first, I think—thin, unspecified trees that would thicken and become home to many birds, including—why not?—a California condor. Got to think big.

“No,” she tells me. She wants me to put the daydreamer’s notion of building a public garden out of my head once and for all. “Es muy ridiculo,” she argues, cigarette smoke flowing from her mouth.

I smile at her use of Spanish but grasp what she means. In turning earth, whether at home or at a public garden, the spirit sometimes can wilt in the process. Gardening is hard, messy labor. She’ll put me to work at home, where two or three days of shoveling will nip my dream in the bud.

We exit Cleary Garden, neither of us saying much, just walking, leg weary. She stops for a second, searches her purse, then brings out two sticks of gum. She asks, “Where are we going next?” I look down at my computer printout, a checkmark beside each garden we’ve visited. The next stop: Bunhill Fields, Grade 1 on the national registry. John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Isaac Watts, and William Blake are buried there. Not a bad place to drop dead from exhaustion.


Farmers market, Fresno. The vendor sees me coming, a man in shoes that aren’t flip-flops, a shirt that isn’t a T-shirt, and pants that aren’t chopped off below the knee. Big spender, he must think, with a leather belt even and—what’s this?—cologne?

“Two for six bucks,” he shouts. His shirt pocket is thick with bills, his daily sales. The thighs of his khaki pants are dark, as they serve as the apron for his juice-wet hands for when he cut the melons.

Two for six dollars,” I repeat softly. In Berkeley, a slice of melon cooling on a bed of ice at Andronico’s Market would cost six dollars. I recognize a good deal when I see one. I verbalize my thought: “That’s a good deal.”

“You bet your britches,” he agrees. He is off his stool and standing within inches of me. He scrapes a clayish residue from one of the melons. A few of the gnats start orbiting my face.

I look at the melons, yellow on the bottom where they’d sat most likely in a field southeast of Fresno. June melons would have been crisp when cut open, the seeds like little black troopers embedded in the rosy flesh. But now, in August, the centers would be mealy. Nevertheless, I ask, “Are they good?”

“Are they good!” he screams, the tendons in his neck moving like the spines of an opening umbrella. He has the smell of tobacco about his person. He suddenly relaxes his face, knowing that his answer could be a deal breaker. He licks his lips and spits out a flake of tobacco. He turns to his crates of melons, his face pleading, “Please don’t fail me.” He knocks on one melon with a knuckle. His eyebrows become concerned. He listens, head slightly lowered, as he knocks on another melon, then another—in his homespun way checking if the inside is firm or a liquid mess. He stands up straight and scratches an ear. He says, “Here, you better take three for six bucks.”

The three melons ride with me, unbuckled in the passenger seat, rolling slightly like children as I bank onto the freeway, heading home.


Woody Guthrie’s American Song, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, California. If I have a hero among songwriters, it would be Woody Guthrie, a Dustbowl Okie who, along with four hundred thousand other Oklahomans, made his way west to California in the 1930s. These migrants settled in the San Joaquin Valley, mainly Bakersfield, Tulare, Merced, and my hometown of Fresno. They brought a ruggedness to the valley, with their farmworker backs and legs, their faces easily pleated by the sun. Their descendants are fighters too—on more than one occasion, they bloodied my nose in playground scuffles. Truth is, I would bleed to be Woody Guthrie. I read somewhere that he once said, “Anyone who uses more than three chords is just showing off.” Three chords I could manage; a voice like rocks falling, that too. He also said that singing “puts action and the ways to action clearly before you.”

Simplicity and truth are admirable combinations in art, literature, and music—the big three. Guthrie is responsible for American folk music and the reason why I am in the middle row of an early evening performance. I anticipate a rambling performance: songs and stories, more stories, more songs, moving toward the onset of Huntington’s disease, a degeneration of the nervous system, and Guthrie’s eventual death.

I’m here for all his songs, particularly the one written on February 23, 1940, in New York City, namely “This Land Is Your Land.” But rather than in Okie English, I would prefer to hear this song in Finnish, Estonian, Swahili, Amharic, Dutch, Low German, High German, Chicano slang, Zapotec, or even an extinct language, like Manx.

What’s this poet’s vision of education? Sixth graders singing Woody Guthrie.


Buddhist shrine, Oakland. I’m not a Buddhist and I’m not much of a Christian, but I’m a believer in this street shrine on Eleventh Avenue at East Nineteenth Street. The story of how it was established illustrates that good can happen. It began when homeowner Dan Stevenson became fit-to-be-tied angry at the degradation of his neighborhood—loud music, litter, drug use, car break-ins, prostitution, fights, debris in the shape of mattresses and old couches, gunshots in the middle of the night. In short, the ugly side of urban life. Completely fed up, Mr. Stevenson went to a nearby Ace Hardware store and bought a small ceramic statue of Buddha. He glued the statue to the crescent-shaped median and, like medicine, its presence helped the neighborhood get better. Soon an anonymous devotee had placed oranges and a vase of flowers next to the Buddha. By the end of the first month, the litter began to disappear, along with the debris, the loud music, the screeching cars, the inexplicable shouting, the public urination, and drug use.

My wife and I drive there to see for ourselves. We discover a homemade shrine, with petunias planted around it, a groundcover of pulverized red volcanic red rock, American and Buddhist flags, and a newly positioned statue of Kwan Yin, Buddhist goddess of compassion. The current shrine is a second-generation structure—the first was not big enough for the two framed pictures of Buddha, the framed prayers, the statues of religious figures, or the abundant marigolds and chrysanthemums. A continuous-play cassette emits a barely audible Buddhist chant. The string of Christmas lights? Perhaps they are lit at dusk.

The site is inspiring for me and my wife, and we receive added inspiration when an older Honda Civic suddenly drives up and parks behind the shrine. A man and a woman emerge—they are Asian, tired, and very, very slender. I sense that they have something to do with this street miracle.

“Do you know who built the shrine?” I ask as I approach them.

“My husband,” says the woman, pointing at the man next to her. His face is collapsed on one side, and not from a childhood disfigurement but perhaps from an accident—or a beating? His hair shoots out in angles and the collar of his T-shirt looks like it has been yanked out of shape.

This is a moment of reverence. This will not happen to me again—face to face with a truly spiritual man. I think to myself: So this is what they look like.

“We’re going to clean,” the woman explains.

Her husband returns to the car and takes a leaf blower from the trunk. My guess is that he’ll blow the leaves from the front of the little temple, while she sizes up the shrine’s condition. She might carry away the withering flowers, add fresh fruit, and replenish the glass jar with incense sticks. But his attention is drawn to the corner duplex, where a neighbor in a gray nun’s robe has come out. He goes off to talk with her.

My wife and I tell the woman that the shrine is beautiful. Her response is to press her hands together in a religious gesture of thank you. She says that there’s prayer early in the morning and that we should come. We light an incense stick, smile our goodbyes, and drive away.

Later, I discover online that the woman’s name is Vina Vo; as for the man’s name, I’m not sure. A brief history: Vo was seventeen in 1975 when North Vietnamese soldiers entered her village of Quang Ngai. They burned down the temple, beat and killed many of her relatives. She escaped the village by a small boat in 1982 and lived for seven years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. In 2000 she came to the United States and settled with her family in Oakland. They live a few blocks from the street shrine, which recently acquired the name Phap Duyen Tu, or “tranquility” in Vietnamese. They have been guardians of the shrine since 2011.

Vina Vo prays there two or three times a week. The neighbors say they are awakened by devotees tapping wooden sticks together. The praying begins at 7:30 a.m., like clockwork, a commotion the neighbors can live with.


No Exit, by Zachary M. Watkins, Live Oak Theater, Berkeley. This city-owned theater is not far from my house. If I were a few years younger, I might walk there in attire suitable for a night out. But I drive, purchase a ticket for twenty dollars and find a seat. I scan the program, immediately noting a cast of four characters—a perfect number that won’t leave me confused. I also see that the opera is based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The synopsis? A character by the name of Joseph Garcin, recently dead, is escorted (or will be escorted once the play begins) into a room where he is introduced to two women, Inez Serrano and Estelle Rignault, both long dead. They are in hell but disappointed that no figure is present to torture them—you know, the devil with a pitchfork, tongues of fire, howls of the dead, bats lethal as asbestos, etcetera. Soon, however, the three characters will grasp the meaning of their triangle and begin to torture each other. Sounds like a few marriages I know.

The theater seats one hundred plus and is nearly empty. Which means that the drinks, snacks, and candies out front will go unsold. The producer and writer will be disappointed. And what will the actors think when the curtains open and they find just a half-dozen people blinking at them in the dark? I’ve done poetry readings where the audience numbered four before one got up and left. I’ll sympathize with the actors.

At last, the lights dim, not unlike life. The opera starts off just fine—until a patron in front begins to unwrap a piece of candy. He’s sitting just to the right of me, near the aisle. The crinkling sound stops, then starts again. He’s playing absently with the cellophane wrapper. I recall the last line of the program’s synopsis—Hell is other people.

I do my best to ignore the crinkling as one of the actors—Inez, I think—laments how she stole her cousin’s lover. Her acting is fine. I feel her sorrow and get to know her story, but I’m bothered to near anger. The cellophane sound starts again and stops again; it feels amplified to me. Is this “crinkler” unaware of basic theater etiquette? I lean over and whisper, “Do you have to do that?” He turns and looks at me until his eyes become slits of anger. With candy still churning in his ugly mouth, he says, “What, are you off your meds?”

No Exit. Is that what the opera is called? I see two behind me and take the door on the left.


Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Jane Austen is like Frida Kahlo—the girl’s just everywhere. There have been several motion pictures based on her work: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and others. There’s even a film called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—that’s what I hear. I’m also familiar with a video on YouTube called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And a thin movie, The Jane Austen Book Club. That one tanked, I believe. Plenty of merchandise is available too. I recall a Jane Austen coffee cup and a Jane Austen apron advertised in Readers Digest. Playing cards? Yes, they’re on offer as well, and so is rose-flavored toothpaste. Let’s not forget the Mr. Darcy Quote Pillow, the Jane Austen coaster set, the Jane Austen charms, and so on.

Frida and Jane—they’re head-to-toe in merchandise.

What makes Jane such a popular figure two centuries after her death? The noble characters, the plots, the bucolic scenery, the parasols, the dainty cakes, the snobbery, the manors where small but manageable troubles exist. It’s the behavior of a sort of English people who probably never existed, just as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s creations, did not really exist. But I also believe that readers and viewers are attracted to her remarkable books because they speak of love, honesty, respect, and propriety—good qualities in people. We hear about the bad qualities daily and yet we, the romantics, still want to believe in good manners.

The curtain rises and right away I feel comforted by the Christmas scene—the tree, the chimney, the stockings on the mantel, the harpsichord background music, the lightness of it all. Immediately we beam at Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy. There’s polite banter between them and smiling, lots of smiling. I sip my beer, then get a big swallow down my gullet. I sit back and place my hands on my belly, scratching lightly. Then some other characters appear on stage—too early to tell what their roles are—and they’re smiling as well, some really clean-looking white teeth. I watch their mouths move while I instinctively close my own trap. I had a burrito before the show, with tortilla chips and salsa. I think to myself, Man, I should get a tube of that rose-flavored toothpaste.          


The Irish Show, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. I’ve seen the Black Brothers, Michael and Shay, at the Starry Plough in Oakland, on Sundays when they and others gather in a circle to sing and play, a real hoedown experience for first timers. The brothers are Irish born and have a natural ease with their material, their instruments, and their island’s history. Michael left school at age fourteen to work at the Guinness brewery in Dublin. In his mid-twenties, he had the opportunity to study at a small college and then attend the University of Limerick. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley. Brother Shay grew up mostly in Liverpool and worked there as a nurse and in childcare. He plays in several Celtic bands and is a masterful captain of seafaring songs.

For this one-night performance, Marin Theatre Company offers Guinness from the can—a black, chocolatey brew known to round out the belly. I have mine and others around me have theirs. There will be music, story, dance, and more music. Who doesn’t love Irish reels? We’ll have dancers cutting up the rug, so to speak. The fiddler? She’ll break a string and maybe our hearts.

Michael comes out, then Shay, with the cellist and pianist following into the limelight. The brothers arrange themselves behind microphones. Michael smiles, tunes his guitar, and strums. He begins with a yarn about a faraway land. Because of his accent I don’t completely understand the blarney though I recognize his good nature. That’s real talent: to speak to an audience and get a laugh even when no one knows what you’re saying.


JDS Sawayuki, San Francisco. The Sawayuki is a former Japanese naval destroyer decommissioned from the regular fleet in favor of more modern and powerful ships. On a goodwill visit to San Francisco, it is open to the public for three days. I walk a stretch of pier toward our guest ship, seagulls like small kites above my head. Several officers bow as I approach the gangplank, then beckon me with outstretched hands to board. Once onboard, I’m handed a colorful brochure that tells me about the destroyer. I learn that its name means “snow fall in the mountain stream.” The ship’s mascot is the ferocious “White Fang,” who is pictured in my brochure with his chops around a missile. I suppose that you can’t have a destroyer without a military bite. And this bite—weaponry, in other words—includes your bigger-than-average machine guns, antisubmarine rockets, cannons of varying strengths, two antisubmarine helicopters, surface missiles, and torpedoes that leap into the water like dolphins. The torpedoes, I read, are designed to search the depths until their homing devises say, in computer language, “Oh, there it is, that’s what I’m looking for.” Then they strike.

Inside the brochure is a map of the ship’s ports of call. The destroyer will visit Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, San Diego, Acapulco, Santo Domingo, Baltimore, Lisbon, Napoli, and more. The sailors will visit twelve countries and be away from Japan for 156 days. I hanker to travel, but half a year away from my bed? From my daily newspaper? From the routine of watching through my window a squirrel in a tree? Don’t think so.

I roll the brochure into a baton and walk the length of the ship. Every ten yards I’m greeted with bows from the sailors, so crisp in their uniforms and correct in their posture—not a single slouching figure among them. I feel like a high-ranking city official—no, the ambassador of a country that has yet to be created. I go from one set of weaponry to the next, peer into doorways, and touch a rope thick as a boa constrictor with a couple of small goats under its cool, diamond-patterned skin. I stand near the end of the ship and look east toward Berkeley. The wind splays my hair, whistles in my ears, and narrows my eyes. I unroll my brochure and study the face of Admiral Shinichi Tokumaru, the commander of two hundred crewmembers, many of whom are officers in training. The chest of his jacket in the photograph is splashed with ribbons the colors of bright sushi, and gold threads adorn the cuffs of his sleeves. I get that he’s a staunch believer in protocol.

I disembark. I thank the officers and sailors at the bottom of the gangplank. As I walk the pier, the seagulls return like an omen. Fearing a bombardment of oily bird shit, I hurry away from the waterfront. I will never visit those ports of call—no Acapulco, no Santo Domingo or Baltimore, no Mersin, Turkey, or Alexandria, Egypt. This is what a retiree does on a June day. He boards a ship, but ends up going nowhere.


First Annual Mostly Mujeres Mariachi Festival, La Peña Cultural Center, Oakland. I long to wear mariachi attire, particularly those pants with silver studs from hip to ankle. Let me next add the white ruffled shirt, the red bow at the neck, the shiny boots, the sombrero that could supply shade for a small pueblo! Of course, I would sport a bigote, a mustache shiny as a muskrat, and brighten up my life with a gold front tooth. I could dress flamboyantly and take my guitarron down the street—me, a troubadour looking to soothe some hombre’s aching heart.

I settle for a wobbly restaurant table. I keep my trap shut as the ranchera singers roar gems by women composers whose names are unknown to me—Maria Grever, Consuelo Velasquez, Ema Elena Valdelamar, and Juanita Martin Ulloa, the organizer of this evening. Ms. Ulloa is also billed as the High Priestess of Operachi! The singers are as strong as any sopranos I’ve heard.

I have no voice, never have. The best I could do was sing through a toilet roll when I was six years old, a few lines from the 1950s hit “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds. Other than that, I’ve never given singing much of my time.

Now it’s the mid-2000s. I’m alone, clean-shaven, a beer in my paw, a second beer at the back of my thoughts. That pool of sentimentality inside my head is springing a leak as Ms. Ulloa, high priestess, belts out “Mucho Corazon.” That’s what she has—a lot of heart, and a lot of love for wonderful music.

That night, I decide to grow a mustache.


A Delicate Balance, play by Edward Albee, Custom Made Theatre Company, San Francisco. Albee is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights—if “contemporary” still describes him—and A Delicate Balance may be my favorite of all his works. I know this family drama; I’ve seen it staged twice before and a copy of the play has a place among my poetry books.

I buy my ticket—twenty-five dollars—get my program and head to my seat in a happy mood when I immediately hear a whisper, “Check this guy out.”

This guy is me. The whisper is from a woman seated next to a man—her husband, I assume—and in response to my seemingly formal attire. I am wearing a two-piece suit, a nothing-special variety, and instead of Rockport or tennis shoe degradations on my size-nine feet, I have leather shoes, special-to-me Ferragamo brogues, shiny from an earlier polishing. In short, I’m properly dressed for the occasion—theater. But I’m an oddity, it seems. To the woman whisperer, I would seem even odder if she lowered her snout to my neck and inhaled the fragrance of a washed body and a cologne called Le Male.

I’m bad!

I suspect that there’s a balance between curiosity and rudeness, but there is no balance here, especially when I get a sense that I’m being appraised. Sure enough, when I turn in my seat, ever so slightly, I see that she’s staring at me. Mouth busy with gum, a pencil in her hand. Is she planning to hurl it at me like a spear? Spit her sugar-depleted gum at me? On her feet (her legs crossed and sticking out over the seat in front of her), she’s wearing a pair of road-worn Birkenstock sandals, a toe ring on her right foot. There’s a five-second stare-off before I turn and return to reading the program, disturbed about something—is it that I’m the last man who wears a suit? Is this why she loathes me? I brood for a few minutes, try to let it go, and brood some more. I think, She’ll never get to know the scent of cologne on my neck. She’s dressed too shabbily.

Albee reminds us that there is always a balance in social graces. Shame on her, shame on me, but praise to affordable theater, even the drama created inside our heads.


Avocado, play by Lily Bevan and Bekah Brunstetter, The Kings Head, London. I’m handed a Xeroxed program, find my seat (there are only sixty in this theater), and, once settled in a squeaky but padded chair, learn from the program that I am about to have fun. I like that—tell me what I am about to experience. The play is the story of two young people corresponding by email. One lives in New York City, the other London, with much to say about their lives. They will confess their inner turmoil (turmoil can be funny) by way of monologues. I imagine one actor coming out onto the small stage, reading an email excerpt, then exiting (four or five steps in either direction gets you off the stage), only to be replaced by another actor who next comes from behind the curtain. I get the dramatic structure; I get that, depending upon what they have to say, the play will be fun. I then notice in italics a note from the writers: “Our characters could be anyone or part of anyone, anywhere, but perhaps the pulse of these two cities has charged them in a certain way. Our writing blueprint was an early e-mail: ‘I’m always interested in people not trusting or knowing themselves and doing weird things stemming from weird narratives they create for themselves . . .’”

Weird things? Oh, I would never do that.

I read the biographies of the cast members, who include Jami Barbakoff, Lorna Beckett, Oliver Bennett, Kelly Burke, Pandora Colin, Hedydd Dylan, Freddie Machin, Joseph May, and Harry Hadden-Paton. I halt on the bio of the last actor—Harry Hadden-Paton. There’s a slip of paper pasted over his original bio. I’m tempted to peel it back, like a Band-Aid, to find out what he first wrote about himself and then concealed. But I don’t. I figure his first attempt at describing his career accomplishments, thus far, was a rehearsal.


Engebret Café, Oslo. The café is where I intend to involve myself in an abominable and primordial act of eating reindeer. This morning, my wife and I visited the Akershus Castle—lovely setting, sparse crowds in each of its numerous chambers, and professionally staged displays. I didn’t know cannonballs could be so interesting. During our time there, we work up an appetite, tire ourselves out, visit the bookstore, and, upon leaving, find the restaurant recommended by a guard at the castle—Engebret Café. For a late lunch, I plan to order what a lot of children throughout the world would think unconscionable. Before today, I wouldn’t have thought of putting my chops around Bambi or Rudolph. I mean, isn’t it close to cannibalism, eating fictional characters you knew from childhood?

“Really, Gary?” Carolyn asks. Suddenly, she peers her tiny little reindeer eyes at me.

“Yeah, you know,” I say, then remark lamely, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

“But we’re in Oslo,” she counters.

I shrug my shoulders and place my order at a clean, well-lit counter.

When the meal arrives, I’m a little uneasy at what’s presented to me on a tray. The cooked reindeer looks like a cross between rare beef and chicken, though blockish, as if the cook has squared it with his hands. Steam rises from the meat and the side order of potatoes, with a sprig of parsley to make the barbarous meal more civilized. I sip from my glass of water, size up my lunch, then begin to saw slowly. I lift a forkful to my mouth. I eat three bites, then offer a forkful to Carolyn—she wags her head no. She has a plate of herring to satisfy her.

We eat in silence.

I leave a little of the reindeer on my plate—Bambi’s leg, Rudolph’s flank? We exit the restaurant then head toward the Nobel Peace Center, which is located on the harbor—lots of gulls in the air, a trio of gypsies playing accordions, a herd of goofy boys on skateboards. Carolyn steps away from me, lights up a cigarette, and smokes while watching the musicians. Then, after smudging out the cigarette with her shoe and depositing it in a bin, she asks me, “What did reindeer taste like?”

A gull screams above, a trolley rings its bell as it rolls along a curve. I ponder her question before answering, “Gamey Guilt.”


La Foolia, “The History of Western Music,” Berkeley Piano Club. On a Sunday morning I’m with my buddy, David, for an eleven o’clock concert. How did he talk me into classical music after what went down the gullet last night at our Oakland watering hole? I should be on my couch, apologizing to my brain for my uncontrolled behavior. I’m dull, very dull, and my friend, too, has a face plain as plain yogurt. But he promised one of the musicians that he would attend this unusually scheduled concert. In turn, I promised my bro that I would go to the ends of the world with him, wherever he went I would go, his people would be my people—this sloppy declaration was made at one in the morning. We were peeing, I believe, between two parked Priuses.

Now I am here in a striped suit and a paisley tie—do they match my red eyes? Compliment the dead mouse that’s my tongue? I don’t feel good about myself. I long for my couch, for a bowl of menudo. I think: David must really like this person who invited him.

I look at the program—damn, musical pieces are long and ambitious. It says: “La Foolia reveals and unravels the mysteries underlying Music’s Grand Evolution from Paleolithic origins to global warming.” If that’s not long, then what is?

And “La Foolia?” What sort of ensemble calls themselves that? What does that mean anyhow? At the moment, I don’t have the brains to work this out.

We bail at intermission, halfway through musical history, just after some Scottish folk songs that were popular about the time the railroad extended from London to Glasgow. Of the songs, I didn’t understand a word, all slurred beyond comprehension. Got to believe in that part of the world they like their drink too.


Tor House, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. The poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una, constructed this house from stones wheelbarrowed from the beach below. They bought the land in early 1919. That spring, Jeffers hired Mike Murphy, a local developer, to construct a small house—one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Murphy sent an unknown stonemason to do the job. Jeffers worked at the side of this master mason as an apprentice. Within a year the house was complete. Windows were fitted, then the furniture went in, lamps and curtains, a few paintings, an iron kitchen stove as heavy as a wheelbarrow filled with stones, a loom, a piano, and curios such as sand-dollars, starfish and driftwood from the beach. Finally the books, a whole wall of leather-bound titles. After that, guests began to appear, some with housewarming gifts.

By this time Jeffers was no longer a stonemason’s apprentice. He had observed and learned from the master. Working on his own, Jeffers built a garage and a low wall that encloses a courtyard. From what I see, he might have been skilled enough to hire himself out.

Jeffers was a pipe smoker and an introvert. I imagine him looking skyward one afternoon and thinking how he might add to his compound. That was his inspiration for the tower—Hawk Tower, as it came to be known. The tower took four years of bloodied fingers, skinned knees, sparking back pain, and small arguments with Una. It grew, level by level. Like a poem, its structure is uneven in places—one large stone next to an even larger stone. Thirty feet up in the windy sky, Jeffers found a place to write. In turn, Una found the space where she could work her loom.

The house and tower sit on an acre and a half, where they face the ocean and the ocean’s constant roar. Jeffers, I read from the brochure handed out at the front door, liked to think of Tor House as the prow of a ship cutting through the sea—that seems about right. I walk through the house, the wooden floor creaking beneath my slow steps. Tightly fitted, the windows are firm against the constant sea breeze. The chimney breathes the smell of a recent log fire. I imagine this is where the couple sat in the evening, he with his pipe, a book, and cup of tea. As there was no electricity, they most certainly went to bed early.

I amble through the four rooms. This living space is Spartan, with everything in its place. I go outside: the roar of the surf below us, the wind all around us, the taste of sand in my mouth. I stand between the two stone structures in admiration of this poet who, at the start of construction, was unpublished, though he did have a first manuscript in progress. He built his family a home, then wrote his poetry by candle and lamplight. This we could learn from—house first, then work by the most primitive light from a swaggering flame.

Few poets roll boulders from the sea. None that I know writes by candlelight. The beautiful mystery of this place allows us to sit on a stone bench far more durable than anything we could ever put down on paper.


Psychic Olga’s Tarot Card and Palm Reading, strip mall in Fresno, California. The palm reader uncurls my fist and finds a piece of debris in the palm’s center. As she picks at it, she makes a face and slowly shakes her head, her earrings producing music. Is it the substance of disease? The fuzz of madness? The sign of impending doom? My hands are always being shoved in and out of my pockets. I deduce what it is: lint.

Still, I’m all ears when she tells me that two streams of money will flow my way, one larger and wider than the other but both strong gushes that will solve my immediate worries. The place on my palm where the lint lay begins to tickle. I scratch its pink surface, imagining the two streams splashing forward and converging into one before hitting the bulwark called me. The river of money splays and departs with a bounce, in another direction.

I leave this hole-in-the wall psychic parlor and discover none of the windows of my American car smashed in. I start my car—another good sign. The fuel gauge—gee, it’s more than half-full and far better than I remember. For forty dollars, the value of my life has gotten richer. In the rearview mirror, even the pleats on my forehead have diminished.


Mud, by Maria Irene Fornés, Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco. The Cutting Ball is located in the Tenderloin district, a sordid area where a pile of rags on the sidewalk, upon closer inspection, is really a dog and the dog’s sleeping companion, his indigent person. Litter in the gutter, litter under your hurrying footsteps, litter in the form of burger wrappers whipped up into the air. Syringes pulled from arms, thighs, or ankles are casually tossed aside. Tossed cigarettes exhale their last breath on the sidewalks, then die. God, it appears, is too busy elsewhere to sweep up after this scene.

I hurry to the theater, am let in—an iron gate swings open for patrons after you frantically buzz the doorbell. I walk down a long hallway lined with framed posters of previous productions. At the opened double-doors, I’m greeted by two young people towering behind a card table. They are all smiles, good-natured, and ask if I’d like to enter the raffle—two dollars for a ticket to win a bottle of wine, which sits on the card table like a third-place trophy.

“No thank you,” I tell them. Obviously not effective salespeople, they smile even more warmly. “Just a single ticket, please.”

I’m handed a red ticket torn from a large roll, like the kind you get at carnival kiddie rides. I pick up a single-page program, enter the small theater, and find a seat. There are about twelve of us—make that nine because three get up and leave. But then those three are replaced by a party of five. You can do the math.

I’ve heard about this much-heralded play—something about the confines of a small apartment, something about domestic trouble. I read the program. Oh, now I see. There are three actors—one female, two males, no intermission, just like life. I get that there will be trouble, perhaps a love triangle? The setting is the rural South in summer. I envision a humid place, cicadas, shotguns on the wall, and a bottle of moonshine on a table. Incest is a daily occurrence two houses down.

The lights dim and with it the smiles and chatter behind the smiles. A few seconds pass—nothing. A latecomer enters, closing the door quickly behind him. The lights come up on a couple: she’s ironing a shirt and he’s angrily circling a kitchen table. Both are sweaty and look as unhappy as unhappy couples can get.

The last words I heard on the street before I entered the theater were “Fuck you, Terry.” It wasn’t directed at me, though my name does rhyme with Terry. Some of the first words I hear in the play are “Fuck you, Mae.” Mae responds with terse but not foul language. Then the character—Lloyd, as I figure out from the program—begins to fondle himself and hurl ugly phrases at Mae. He drags her to the table and handles her roughly, possibly sexually. I think: So this is what humid Southern heat does to people.

To think that I dressed up for the evening and failed to buy a proper drink prior to the start of the play. To think that I left the Tenderloin only to find even more mayhem inside on the stage. No escapist theater here.


The Beat Museum, San Francisco. The museum pays homage to the Beat poets, namely Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, McClure, Ferlinghetti, Cassady, Rexroth, Snyder, Whalen—all literary renegades from the early fifties through the sixties, when they became established figures in the canon. They became influencers not only in their approaches to literature but also in their ways of living. They believed in free love, for instance, abhorred censorship, were open to smoking marijuana, opposed the military, welcomed gay liberation, welcomed women’s liberation, appreciated idiosyncrasy, sided with Native Americans, searched for new ways of thinking about religion, hugged trees, believed in communes, and considered folk and rock music to be high art.

In short, they were open—or tried to be open. And what is the meaning of Beat? For years I thought it meant rhythm, as in playing the bongos. But, according to a framed description on the museum wall, it may have to do with being tired, as in “beaten down,” or possibly “upbeat” or “beatific,” or in being musically “on the beat.” I like the last definition: the Beat poets were handlers of language who could bring a certain tempo to verse. I see this in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem that caused a lot of wonderful trouble.

I buy a ticket and wander through the first floor where on display are typewriters in cases, photos of the poets, first-edition books, posters, record albums of the poets reading their work. I enter a dark room where presently there’s no other museumgoer. There I view a looping video of Corso rambling, a lit cigarette in his mouth, then removed from his mouth, then back in his mouth. I watch for a few minutes from an old theater seat hooked to two other ragged seats with the stuffing coming out—the seats squeak when you squirm. I realize that, yes, Corso has influenced me because I sometimes go on when I should instead be quiet. I’ve also been known to ramble and talk weird shit. Now I know where I get it from. I blink at the video, blink in the dark.

Long live Corso!


I’m out of the house two or three times a week. I go out, look around, and then return with programs that I store first in a file cabinet, then in one of the boxes in the garage. Now that my wife has tired of my antsy behavior, now that my best friend is dead (murdered, if you wish for the truth), I go alone. Here, without description are the names of a few more of these outings (among a thousand others): The Oakland Symphony; Choir Blast 2012, Berkeley Methodist United Church; Spunk, Cal Shakes, Orinda; Adler Fellows Gala Concert, San Francisco; Beyond Ballet, Smuin Ballet, Walnut Creek; “Silk Road Expedition,” Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam; canal cruise, Haarlem, Netherlands; Buddy Holly Museum, Lubbock, Texas; Holocaust Museum, El Paso; “The New Décor,” Hayward Gallery, London; Quixote Nuevo, Cal Shakes, Orinda; Roman ruins in the Cotswolds; Harmonious Beauty, Diablo Ballet, Walnut Creek; Luther Burbank Home and Garden, Santa Rosa; El Prado, Madrid; Widowers’ Houses, Aurora Theatre, Berkeley; Los Falcones Ballet Folklorico, Modesto; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Galeria de la Raza, San Francisco; the Lace Museum, Sunnyvale; Women in Mind, Town Hall Theatre, Lafayette, California; Dallas Museum of Art; the ruins of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico; Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta; Sequoia Family Nudist Camp, Castro Valley; Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City; The Great British Country Fete, Bush Theatre, London; Scene and Heard, Oakland Ballet, Laney College; Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park; The Girlfriend Experience, The Young Vic, London.

My eyes have floated over paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, Queen Elizabeth’s jewels, furniture, military medals, rare automobiles, royal gowns, cemeteries, musical instruments, antique fans—lots of stuff. My ears have accepted gleefully all kinds of music—except the bongos once drummed by a pair of grinning chimpanzees. My intellect has grown from lectures; my spirit has been moved by good work and good speakers, by natural and unnatural wonders. And the money to do all this? It went with my hair.

Author Bio:

Gary Soto is author of books for children, young adults, and adults, most notably The Elements of San Joaquin, Living Up the Street, A Summer Life, Baseball in April, Buried Onions, Jesse, Too Many Tamales, and Chato’s Kitchen. For the stage he wrote the musical In and Out of Shadows, the middle-grade comedies Novio Boy, Nerdlandia, The Spark and Fire of It, and the The Afterlife. His books have sold more than five million copies and have been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. He lives in Berkeley, California.   

The Never-Ending Original: An Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine

The Never-Ending Original: An Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine

by David Garyan and George Salis

(This interview was previously published in slightly different form on October 2nd, 2022, in The Collidescope)

September 30th, 2023

David Garyan: You’ve just finished a manuscript? It would be fascinating to hear more about it.

Suzanne Jill Levine: This is a project that’s been on the back burner for years. You know how life can be a series of detours, so it took a long time really to get to it. It’s a mix of memoir, biography, autobiography, and perhaps what they call creative nonfiction. I’m not entirely sure what pure memoir really is, though I think of it as a reflective piece on one’s life or particular aspects of a life. In the 90s, I wrote a biography of Manuel Puig, and found literary biography to be a major undertaking. Biographies are very difficult projects because they’re not fiction, though you have to write as a novelist as well as a scholar ….

DG: And a historian—

SJL: Ethnographer and journalist too. At that time, before Manuel Puig died, tragically and suddenly, I had been thinking of writing about my friendships with various writers I had translated—and looking at translation from a personal as well as aesthetic point of view, as a way of learning more about the people behind the original work and the translation. Novel writing is already always a translation as Borges says in “The Homeric Versions”; writers actually have a lot in common with the translator. The translator is basically someone who’s coming into the same project, but at a more advanced (again alluding to Borges’s humor) or different stage.

DG: That’s fantastic. Part of your response already anticipates a question I wanted to touch upon. You’ve translated monumental writers like Puig and Borges, and these are individuals you’ve also known. Do you find there’s a difference between translating friends versus strangers? Is there a difference in the way you approach a project when you’re translating someone you actually know, as opposed to someone you know a lot about?

SJL: There can be close affinities but there are many translators who have nothing to do with their authors, to avoid any authorial interference. In my case, I had the privilege to know as a very young person some of the amazing writers I went on to translate—partly because I was in New York at the time of Camelot, you know, the Kennedy era, a world that was about bringing cultures together, meaning that being an American was being someone who was interested in reaching out to other cultures.

I was a language student from early on. I began French when I was twelve, and that child was fascinated by the other persona in me speaking French. In some way I wanted to escape myself or find another me. When I went to college at sixteen, I took Spanish as a second language—second foreign language, that is—and then I spent a year in Spain, which had a great impact on my future, so immersed in the language, the culture. Because of the Cold War, Latin America was becoming very important. The Cuban Revolution was key to that globalization of interest in Latin America. So, not only reading and writing had to do with why and how I (and others) became a translator. That’s just one part of the story.

Now many of the writers are gone, the ones I worked with, the ones I knew: Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, the Boom, and of course Borges, Pablo Neruda—they’re all gone. I have wanted somehow to bring it all back. I guess that’s what really moved me. Translation is about recovery, resurrection, and so is writing. It had to do with my own life, of course, and the things I had been through. That’s how the memoir came to be.

I think there can be many connections between writer and translator. I began experimenting with translation before these writers were my friends. I met Cabrera Infante early on. At that time, he was in the process of translating Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers). He was in exile in London, and was working with a poet, Donald Gardner. It’s one of those “impossible” works to translate, described as a Cuban Ulysses. And Cabrera Infante did have a lot in common with Joyce, especially Joyce, the urban wanderer, and also knew English very well. He was a movie aficionado and journalist too; as a Cuban he was already exposed to a bilingual culture, which Cuba was at that time, at least in the cities. He was working on the translation of this book and was having trouble with translating spoken Cuban, a very lively, earthy, wise- guy snappy, spoken language—it wasn’t going to lend itself well to British cockney. That was one reason why he asked me to step in. The other reason was that Donald knew some Italian but only very basic Spanish, so he wasn’t quite the appropriate translator for this book written in street slang brimming with puns and allusions—and we also had to go over the whole text revising very basic mistakes.

I have continued in recent years to enjoy collaboration with younger writers, from Puerto Rico, for example, Luis Negron (Mundo Cruel: Stories), or novelist Eduardo Lalo (Uselessness, or La inutilidad). It was great working with these younger and especially women writers like Mexicans Cristina Rivera GarzaGuadalupe Nettel. But the experience of translating is ultimately a solitary experience. Yet, you’re always in dialogue, whether it’s with a person, or with the book itself.

DG: In a 1973 article comparing Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, you talk about the “need of the New World to create its myth, to create a mythical place for itself in the universe, a place that cannot be destroyed by time and circumstance.” Indeed, we often forget how ancient this New World is—the Olmecs, for example, flourished in Mexico two-thousand years before the birth of Christ. And so, Latin American literature does share many similarities to what’s been produced in the European tradition. Yet how has the trajectory of European literature itself changed as a result of its “encounter” with authors such as Márquez, Neruda, and Puig, for example?

SJL: I do believe great literature, great writing, always has a mythic dimension. With regard to Rulfo and Márquez, I was struck by the dialogue between their books—and how García Márquez is totally Borgesian, in the sense that he takes lines and ideas from writers before him, and yet he does something completely original. This shows that each new reader is a new interpreter. In some ways what made the Latin American writers finally become themselves—not only anthropologically or historically interesting—was both European and American modernism. That’s what made them come into their own, and you see Borges as a model, almost the father of the new Latin American novelists. They took what had been developed in Anglo-American writing, or in French, and made it their own, but in the end it’s something completely different. Readers continue to discover echoes relevant to their own realities or context.

DG: Talking about Borges, his reservoir of knowledge was unsurpassed. He could draw from all kinds of traditions, and he was so well-read. You rarely saw that back then, let alone today. In a 1992 essay about him and his epics, you talk about how he adhered to a “Poundian spirit of translation,” where the essence of the text, not its original language is captured. In this way, you write that “Borges (following Pound’s injunction) makes the old new.” In addition, you state that he “did not use existing Spanish translations.” Do you agree with Borges, or do you find that a translator must be more of a medium, rather than an “artist” herself?

SJL: I don’t think it’s either/or: it’s both. You have to be a medium, and you have to be an artist. You’re kind of an actor, really. You’re performing the other’s words and meanings in your own language, but basically you have to have an instinct for what’s going on in the original. True artists are medium because part of why they are great is a unique capacity for observation, their capacity for seeing something that nobody else sees. I recently saw one of the most beautiful films ever made, which is Death in Venice, adapted from the novel—an incredible Visconti film—and I decided to reread it in various translations. Michael Cunningham in his introduction to Michael Heim’s translation—basically what he says about translation and original writing is exactly what Borges said in 1932 in “The Homeric Versions”. He said the only difference between the original and the translation is that it can measure the translation against the translation. Because the original has originals. What is an original but the final draft of a series of thoughts and experiences, images, feelings, and historical information, and all that’s digested by this writer, that is, whatever idea, or image they want to capture?

What Michael Cunningham says is that translators are always preoccupied with the rhythm of sentences, the register of the language, issues of the musicality of language. Well, writers are concerned with that too. He says “sometimes I really get it, and sometimes I don’t, but what I can turn in to the publisher is the best I can do, and at some point, I have to stop.” And so, an original is never the end of something that could be. In that, Borges, who of course thought of the Poundian spirit of “making it new,” certainly said it so directly, and so brilliantly, and I’m sure many people have been stealing from him since, which is right, because he does that too!

DG: It’s kind of difficult, even then, to be original. So much has already been done and written—what else can you do?

SJL: And as John Barth and others were writing back in the 70s—the literature of exhaustion: “We’ve done it all. Well, that was fifty years ago.“ A bit ironic, maybe. But getting back to translating Borges according to some method or philosophy of translation—I first became fascinated by Borges’s what you might call “neo- Baroqueness.” As a young man he developed one of various surrealist movements called ultraísmo—there were many “ismos” in the first decades of the century. He was trying to do something new with language as poetry. That’s what fascinated me about his style, so witty, ironic, and paradoxical in the way that it so elegantly deals with words and the world. A wonderful project I did in 2010 was a sort of fulfillment of a lifelong interest in Borges: I was the general editor and also one of the translators of Penguin’s five-paperback volume spin-offs of Borges’s poetry and nonfictions, called nonfictions because there are not only essays, but also prologues, reviews, condensed biographies of writers, and so on—the nonfictions and his poetry. For this project, I had a dream team. The people who worked with me made it the project of a lifetime. Borges but also my collaborations made this a thrilling and illuminating project. Efraín Kristal, enormously erudite like Emir Rodríguez Monegal, almost a young version of Borges—the only one I know in this current generation of academics. He’s teaching at UCLA. He was born in Peru, but he’s from a European family. His family came because of the Holocaust. He was working on the poetry for us, but he was someone you could consult on so many things, because he just knew everything. And then there was Alfred Mac Adam, a close friend from many years back, also a very fine scholar, and he did the Argentina volume—if anybody knew Argentine literature who wasn’t Argentine, that was Alfred Mac Adam, who was also close to Emir, and had learned from him as well. We also had a poet who translates—Stephen Kessler. He did the sonnets. We needed somebody who knew their technique, because sonnets are challenging. His enthusiasm was inspiring and he did a superb job. I did an impossible volume called “Borges on Writing.” It’s impossible because everything Borges says is on writing. In particular I loved translating his really impossible, early pieces from the 20s. I could decipher how he throws a punch with the most complex sentences. In the essay “After Images” I realized that “God, this sounds like Milton!” And it did. It had an intense, elegant rhetorical Miltonian build-up. It was fascinating to see how some of these resonances came into English.

DG: You’re fortunate to be working in a literary tradition that hosts a diverse array of perspectives and voices, from poet-diplomats like Paz and Neruda, to the fantastic (in all senses of the word) Márquez. Yet, not only is this fascinating tradition composed largely of men, that tradition is also situated in a very macho culture. Puig’s homosexuality complicates the aforementioned sentiment, but he remains a man. How do you navigate this tension, and do you see your translations, perhaps, as an act of resistance—a woman transmitting great literature to individuals these authors could never have reached themselves?

SJL: That’s a good question. And this is perhaps the question that animated me to write the memoir especially because I am a woman—and consider women’s issues to be important to me as well as to the world. In some ways, a writer, as Virginia Woolf said, needs to be both or all sexes. You can get into any character. You can feel any possibility in yourself. But the point of the matter is, yes—at that time when I started, it was a world dominated by male writers. And when I wanted to translate women writers, publishers didn’t seem interested. For example, early on, when I was publishing Bioy Casares, I also admired his brilliant wife, the writer Silvina Ocampo. I did a few of her stories for magazines, but the authors I ultimately ended up being asked to translate were male.

There’s another aspect to it—I felt there was a certain kind of machismo that dominated, along with so-called magical realism. At the same time, there were men who were on the margins and weren’t much thought about, too eccentric. It was very hard to get them as well as women published. I thought Bioy Casares was a bit like that, because, first of all, Bioy was so self-effacing that, as his name showed up in an early story, he was considered an invention of Borges for many years. The general reader didn’t even think he was a real person, until late in his life. And what’s interesting, as you mention, is that I also identified with certain gay writers. Two of the three writers who are the basis of my theoretical book, The Subversive Scribe, are gay writers: Sarduy, who was a very difficult and interesting Cuban writer, and Manuel Puig.

As the years have gone on, I’ve been doing more work with women writers, poetry as well as prose. I did Silvina Ocampo for City Lights, and then, as I mentioned, Cristina Rivera Garza for a wonderful small press called The Dorothy Project. Also, Guadalupe Nettel for Seven Stories Press (Bezoar: And Other Unsettling Stories), a press for which I had previously done Mundo Cruel. I think one of the most important concepts that will help the world get beyond all its problems—if it ever can—is the tolerance for difference, no matter what it is, sexual or whatever. There are so many kinds of marginalities. In many ways, I’ve always felt like an outsider myself, being Jewish, I came from an assimilated family. We weren’t typical in many ways because we didn’t have money. My mother died when I was very young, my father shortly after. These tremendous losses were hard to get over and in some way I never did. I guess the way I related to the writing that I translated is that it was somehow a way of telling stories through another’s writing that were relevant to me. They had to do with feelings I had too—a sense of loss, and the exile story many of these writers had. The whole 20th century was about the condition of exile, and maybe it’s the same for this century as well.

The following question is from George Salis: How do you think you’ve grown as a translator since first publishing your translation of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig in 1971? Since that has just been reissued, I wonder if you’ve revisited it and had some qualms with a word choice here or a turn of phrase there, or were you pleasantly surprised with that early effort as a whole?

SJL: I rarely revisit my translations except when there is a new edition, such as the McNally edition of Puig’s Betrayed by RH, or Cortazar’s All Fires the Fire, reissued by New Directions, and you certainly hit the nail on the head. Qualms about word choice here and there, but mainly a pleasant sense of accomplishment about early efforts, as you say. Borges was right when he declared the concept of a definitive text to be the result of either exhaustion or religious belief. That being said, I do think I have grown as a translator; I always had good instincts even as at the young age of 23, but I also can see how life and years of practice and experience have refined and amplified my resources. I do believe literary talent develops with time and maturity, an opinion which may not be popular in today’s world.

DG: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. Over this impressive span, which book presented perhaps the greatest challenge?

SJL: It is a difficult question, one of those which would require a book, or several books. As I see it now, my many translations were challenging and remarkable adventures, each in its own way with its own particular and marvelous subtleties. It’s much more pleasurable to translate a book that you feel has a place in your life, but it can also be very challenging.

Ultimately, I believe that everything is untranslatable and nothing is untranslatable, because once you translate a book, you’re moving away from the original language, and you’re never going to replicate the original. It will be hopefully an inspiring version that makes the reader think about the genius of the original, making them want to learn that language in order to read the ur-text, as it were.

This is another question from George Salis: What is a translation you’ve read and think deserves more readers? Why?

SJL: Two translations I have read this year are Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Birnbaum and Gabriel, and Houlellebecq’s Submission by Lorin Stein. Houellebecq’s more mature work is worth reading (the earlier books were a bit much) and Stein did an excellent job creating the satirical effect. Murakami’s Underground is very moving in subtle ways, with different voices well delineated by the translators. As most readers have probably not encountered Pepe Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale for which I received the PEN West USA Translation prize ten years ago, I am taking the liberty to recommend this book, as a partial reader of course. Its many translation challenges included finding equivalents for arcane architectural terms; based on his posthumous manuscripts, it is an intense and prescient novel about the dangers of global tourism within the confines of a medieval hill town in northern Spain. Donoso was brilliant but always one of the less visible of the Boom writers. It’s a fun read too: the characters and their passions are completely engaging.

DG: I’m interested in talking about the relationship between the writer and the text. In a 1983 article you talk about how Garcia Márquez “wrote his One Hundred Years in parody of History, as an affirmation of Fiction’s truth over History, or of History as an infinite series of contradictory stories.” And you go on to describe how Virginia Woolf, similarly, directed her “satiric Orlando against the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical biography.” The idea of fiction being as true or even more true than history is certainly fascinating. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, immediately comes to mind in relation to Donald Trump. At the same time, we’re in an age where the authors you knew and translated would probably be canceled for their radical views. When selecting works to translate, do you view authors as intrinsically tied to their personalities and histories, or do you tend to separate the genius from flesh and time?

SJL: Certainly, Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig had a very organic relationship with their works and with the political and social issues of their time, which is part of what makes them so original. Manuel Puig’s work is himself. He’s in many ways my favorite because he was a brilliant entertainer yet empathized with the world he satirized, so groundbreaking, so daring in a Latin American context. Thinking about García Márquez, writers often have political ideas which are not expressed in their writing. In many ways, that’s true of García Márquez. His was a notable case. He maintained very close ties with Castro until his death. Yet, his novels are basically very skeptical of revolution—One Hundred Years of Solitude, his most famous one, is very skeptical. In some ways, politics and writing don’t always go hand in hand. In the case of his admiration for Virginia Woolf, when I did meet Gabo (García Márquez), I asked: “Well, it seems that you mention Virginia Woolf quite a bit, what is it about her that you really like?” And he told me at the time I met him that it wasn’t Orlando, which, of course, is an extraordinary book that had an impact on many writers, Borges, for example. Orlando is a type of book where the idea of the book is perhaps better than the book itself. García Márquez said to me: “Well, you know what struck me were certain images.” It’s so interesting how writers take images and see a whole world through these images. He said: “I was struck in Mrs.Dalloway by this one scene in which she is seated inside a coach or carriage and all you can see is her waving hand as she goes by, or rather the white glove on her hand. That made me think of all the generals or dictators who go by protected in their armored cars, waving to the crowds.” A totally different image from Mrs. Dalloway, but, after all, like the dictators, she had a privileged position, emblemized in her upper-class white glove. He used the image in one of his novels—I think The Autumn of the Patriarch. Having known Bioy Casares, having known Manuel Puig, I see them in their books, and that’s a pleasure. It has really been amazing, and Silvina Ocampo too. She’s really something.

DG: What you say there is fascinating, because this ability to see the author in their books is an art in and of itself. We tend to focus on the translator as someone who sits there with a book and transcribes it, but it’s really not that way. The translator is an artist. And this is something you touch upon in The Subversive Scribe, writing the following: “If somehow we learn to de-sex the original vis-à-vis its translation, particularly in our postmodern age, when originality has been all but exhausted, if we recognize the borderlessness or at least continuity between translation and original, then perhaps we can begin to see the translator in another light, no longer bearing the stigma of servant, of handmaiden.” Indeed, many people tend to see translation as a “secondary” art, in the sense that more respect is given to novelists and poets, since they’re working from nothing, while translators always work from a source. People view novelists and poets as building wells where none existed before, while translators draw from those wells. Why is such an analogy ultimately flawed and in what way are translators not like servants or handmaidens at all?

SJL: Rather than a servant, the translator is an interlocutor—a fellow artist who is having a conversation with the work. The way Pollock, for example, communicated with his brush—that was his way of translating his physicality into the metaphysical realm of art. One thing I will say about your question is that the book I am writing now is, like the biography of Puig, a challenging and certainly longer process. For me a translation is almost like a meditation, like weaving—it takes you out of yourself which is always a good thing. The blueprint is given to me, and what I have to do is elaborate on it, and I don’t mean in the way of making it longer, but bringing it to the reader. From experience, I think it’s much more of a struggle to write an original book, but for some people, this may be the opposite. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, can write a book like it’s nothing. Maybe for her it would be a lot harder to translate books, because she would have to confine herself to the original.

DG: This idea that translation somehow isn’t an original act finds a lot of purchase with a lot of people. I don’t think that’s really the case. Thus I wanted to ask: You’ve written across a wide spectrum: Translation, biographies, and a collection of poetry. How do these activities inform your translation, and, conversely, how does translation complement your other creative projects?

SJL: The short answer is that there is a continuum between translating and writing one’s “own” poetry and prose. All these activities are one activity, are the manifestations of one who is many and many who are one. The biography I wrote of Manuel Puig was the result of years of work and of life. You mentioned the poetry chapbooks. One was a curious project, which I called Reckoning, the title of a poem by Severo Sarduy, a writer whose complex intensity and witty articulations have always inspired me to write. It was interesting because sometimes the poems I translated felt more autobiographical than the poems I wrote. Which brought home, yet again, the symbiotic relationship between original and translation.

Suzanne Jill Levine 
is the author of numerous studies in Latin American literature and the translator of works by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig, among other distinguished writers. Her translation of Luis Negrón’s 2010 debut, Mundo Cruel: Stories (2013), won the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, and her translation of José Donoso’s posthumously published 2007 novel, The Lizard’s Tale (2011), won a PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Levine also edited the five-volume Penguin Classics editions of Jorge Luis Borges’s essays and poetry. She is a professor emeritus in the Spanish Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at