Category Archives: S/Heroes

‘Surprises, a story’

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When Does the Heart Rest? asks the slam-poet…

[ When Does the Heart Rest? ]   by Taylor Mali

Our Science Teacher asked the question,
and we laughed at the kid who said:
When you sleep?

I raised my hand with what I was sure
was the correct answer –
When you die—

and then put it down quietly
when Angel got it right.
Between beats.

That didn’t seem like enough time to me.
Still doesn’t.
But it was Angel again in the schoolyard

standing up for the heart
when the older kid said the strongest muscle
in the human body was the jaw.
No, it is the heart.

The bully said we should have a contest—
between my jaw and your heart—
and we all laughed because it didn’t seem like a fair fight.

And it still doesn’t.
Because the heart rests and keeps working.
Between beats.

And my money is on Angel
and his heart,
not the bully and his jaw.

And anyone who thinks otherwise
can eat their heart out.

(Excerpted from a collection published in NYC 2009 called The Last Time as We Are, courtesy of writebloody publications)

The Age of Raconteurs is Not Past

I listen to a lot of radio. Today I was thinking of Jean Shepherd, Robert Lurtsema, and the names of raconteurs I currently know among the living.

Who are your favorite living raconteurs?

My current favorites include Ira Glass, Davey D, Christopher Welch, Sistah Souljah.

Sam and Henry: the real names of things

I was a pretty solitary kid, pretty shy. Mom was always telling me to go outside. ‘Go out and play in the street!’

“Take your sister!” she would yell at my older sister, and she always meant me.  Bringing me along was a lot like dragging an anchor; eventually I figured out how to peel off and go on my own. I didn’t want to be where I was not wanted. Mom wouldn’t listen to these protests, I had to figure out how to separate from my sister, to give her air, room, her own life, her own friends.

Luckily, not far up the hill from where we lived, there were some twins my age, girls born a few minutes apart.  Both parents were architects, and were not around so much; neither were the teenage brother and sister.  We hung out in their driveway and in their backyard amongst the hollyhocks with their lovely English Grandmother.

It was okay with Mom if I went up there alone to play, as long as I told her where I was going. We had lemonade stands, we tried to sell our dolls, we played with trolls and creepy crawlers. We skipped rope, did a little hopscotch. On command from the grownups we attempted to stem the tide of bamboo shoots flooding up between the Japanese style river stones in their yard.  We took knitting lessons; we drew. Time passed.

Those were the days when Captain Kangaroo’s bangs and his smock were funny, yet we admired Mr. Green Jeans and his good humored skill in handling a helicopter. Popeye was my hero; we both liked spinach. Jackie Gleason wasn’t drinking coffee apparently, but he crooked his pinky, he wore a nice suit, he advertised coffee, and the Folger’s man lit the San Francisco skyline near the Ferry clock tower while sipping from his own bottomless cup.  Broadcast TV was still partially live and we had very limited access to anything like it on our own. You didn’t use the Hi-Fi without close adult supervision, either. We played outside, using our imaginations, some garden tools, some toys, rocks, dirt, water, bugs, and each other. And away we go, indeed.

Winslow sisters did irrigation on the scale of large civil engineering projects out on the rosebushes back by the gazebo in our yard. Watering was a collateral duty of playing outside. Inspired by a sump pump sporadically shooting water out from the sub-basement into the mini aquecia lined with baby tears traversing the width of the back yard, we built diminutive but efficient trenches. We dug holes to China if left on our own long enough; Bugs Bunny did it, so why couldn’t we?

Our house and all the houses nearby were built on fill in the 1920’s, right on top of a creek bed; Bret Harte Creek, according to the maps. So when it rained our sub-basement filled with water. The sump pump kicking on meant the water table was high and the furnace was in danger of flooding if we didn’t pump. It filled the ditch temporarily. It was water we could wade in, it was as clean as any local creek, since it was creek water. Sometimes we swung on the gate, watching; other times we took off our shoes and socks and explored with our toes.

T-Tiger was the family dog. He and Kiki the cat were some of my earliest buddies. A fierce temple guardian of a babysitter; T-Tiger once saved my younger sister when a neighbor’s German Shepherd Bootsie (a dog tortured by loneliness to the limit of sanity and trained to attack anyone except Mr. Hunter and Pearl who came to the gate and tried to enter) got out and charged down on the side of our house on the path where we were playing. Bootsie lunged, clamping his jaws around M’s face. She was a tiny child with a big crown of curls, and we all stood frozen for a moment in shock. T-Tiger lunged right in after Bootsie and locked on, seizing the exposed flap of neck near the big dog’s jugular; holding on until he could be persuaded to slowly unclamp his jaws from my tiny sister’s face in exchange for his life. What a fright it gave us all.

There was a lot of crying that day, but everyone survived. I don’t know what eventually happened to T-Tiger, but Bootsie’s unprovoked attack did not earn him a trip to the Department of Health to get a rabies exam, which seemed odd. T-Tiger deserved a purple heart. Why we don’t have a statue of that dog I will never know.

M. has since forgotten the incident.  No child died, but T-Tiger was the reason for that: loving instinct with Lhasa Apso teeth standing behind it.

My best friend was the younger twin. My Dad could never tell them apart. Once he was talking to me about the twins and he couldn’t exactly remember their names to differentiate. I didn’t have that many friends, I couldn’t believe he couldn’t remember. This seemed like a scam. After all, this was the guy who convinced us that you could not order a chocolate Sundae on any other day of the week. I waited, not helping at all.

They were fierce in correcting him when he mixed them up. He would try tentatively to call to one of them when they were over at our house. If he got it wrong, not only would her feelings be hurt and would she stomp off after scornfully correcting him with her true name, he would still not have learned to tell them apart, but would be trying to apologize to empty air.

To me they were quite different. The older one was bigger. She was brassier, and hung out with my older sister more.  The younger one was quieter, sweeter.  She is still in my life; she carries pieces of me in her memory that perhaps no other living person has. I am still so blessed by this friendship.

Dad solved the problem the same way he would later solve many a problem with confused proper nouns: he renamed the twins. While he stood there in the kitchen, trying vainly to name the one he wanted, the one which was my friend, perhaps to invite her on an outing, he was struggling even for both their real names. He was blocked. He kept saying “You know, the *twins…*” He not only couldn’t seem to think of the name he wanted, he couldn’t think of their names at all. I didn’t believe it. I hardly knew enough to forget stuff, knew nothing of whether grownups ever really do that.

I have this problem now sometimes. You remember the other parent’s name, but not the child. Or you remember the other child’s name, but not the sibling’s name. Our brains get full, and can only hold so many names. Now that my Dad is gone — I unwittingly sometimes rename people. I don’t mean to. I manage to map the wrong name onto them once, and it’s hard to get it off later, as though names have some kind of glue attached to them, wrong or not.

Thus the two girls names became Sam and Henry, and were known as such ever after in our house.  _We_ all knew who Sam and Henry were:  the twins; our friends.  Eventually we either told them about it or they busted us calling them that in front of them one day by asking us who Sam and Henry were, anyway.  They could never tell afterward between them who was Sam, and who was Henry. My Dad was thus saved from their righteous indignation, and from seeming to be ignorant, callous, or rude.

Over time, Kenelm Fayette Winslow renamed restaurants, television shows, food, cities, people: you name it. This was his way. If you wanted to keep up, you had to learn the lingo.

I remember the day they asked him to clear it up, once and for all. We were all in our kitchen again. My Dad was working on something over on one of the cutting boards. I think it was C. who went over and asked. “Mr. Winslow, which one of us is Sam, and which one of us is Henry?”  We had been upstairs having an argument about it, and all came galloping down to ask.

My Dad looked up from whatever he was working on. He bent down and looked at her and said:  “You mean to tell me after all this time, you … _don’t know_…?”

He went back to what he was doing for a second. We all thought about it, waited, watched him. C. said she didn’t know. She looked at us, and we didn’t know either. What were we going to do?  Then he started slowly started to laugh. We started to laugh. Everyone laughed. He looked up at us again.

Any questions?

E. had forgotten all about those names when I finally found her again after many years by way of a lucky search.

By the real names of things we know our future, but whether we call them beloved, call them Sam, Henry, T-Tiger, Margie, Liz, Kiki, Col, Karen, Grandma, or Mom, the names we give them in our hearts are the only ones we must remember in the end.

Thanks, Dad. For this knowledge we have received, we are truly grateful.

Institutionalized Bullying: the education of young Lulu

Remember the Tasmanian Devil?  That inverted pear-shaped body, the prehensile tool intelligent shape of his arms, the crazy eyes?  I always loved his whirlwind.

Though perhaps this explains a lot of my unfortunate choices in past relationships, said Devil popped up in my brain this morning (the cartoon version of him) while I was listening to the KQED radio broadcast of the perhaps happy ending of a sad story about institutionalized bullying.

I learned about institutionalized bullying in 1970. I was the new kid, the tall kid, the smart kid. None of that is true any longer, but I still meet bullies every day. Woodrow Wilson’s 6th grade bully is now the namesake of a skunk who scares the crap out of my house cat every time she tries to sit outside in the evening. This skunk’s name is Flavia. She loves cat food.  In 1970 Flavia’s victims were my friends Lily, Cheryl, and me. The outcasts.

I want to thank you, Flavia. You began the education I needed. It wasn’t just the bully next door whose frustration and anger management peak was an act of hitting my younger sister in the head with a suitcase and giving her a black eye, instead of using her words to say that she didn’t like that game any more. It wasn’t that bully’s Father who walked his roof in a rage while waving his police revolver and his handcuffs, waiting for his older daughter to come home from where-ever the heck she went to escape him. It wasn’t just my drunken confusing Mom, or her wannabe pugilist Dad.

It was you. You gave me the nerve to talk back by dressing me down one day in a gang dressing room at Woodrow Wilson School. Your verbal attack was for my not having what you claimed was sufficiently delectable age-appropriate anatomy for a twelve year old. It was a tough year. Thank you for helping me through it. I’ve named our favorite skunk after you. This is your receipt for the rest of the year; my thanks are just lagniappe.

I owe it all to you. You woke me up. You made me realize I had a voice, a pointy little pen, a way to walk in the world. Thank you.

I work with some bullies. All are essentially cowards. I know that now, and am grateful. There are many in the juicy part of the Tenderloin where I walk to work, out on a section of 7th Street labeled Pirate’s Alley in my brain. (‘Argh, me hearties! Give us yer change!’) Thus we rename things in my family. Helps us get oriented.

I love the new mayor and the acting Police chief. I feel certain that the dedicated cops and FPS staff who constantly support my right to work and to walk safely to that work will eventually sort out who has jurisdiction over that juicy bit of territory in Pirate’s Alley. It’s the bit between the BART stairs and the check cashing store. Between the barber shop and the liquor store.

I feel confident. Thus I ready myself for a new day.

Not all bullies look the same, act the same, or come under the same jurisdiction. This morning’s story about the reinstated meat clerk in a Safeway store who lost his job because he jumped out from behind the counter and came to the aid of a woman (who happened to be pregnant and whose boyfriend happened to be kicking her) was about the new hero: a man named Ryan Young. What a coincidence!  Go get them, Ryan Young! All right!

This Safeway who fired the Good Samaritan meat clerk was eventually forced to reinstate him (hopefully with back pay) because the customers boycotted the store for firing him.

What a relief. Finally, some collective wisdom from the consumer world.There are bullies in this world, and there are heroes, and there are businesses whose customers won’t take it lying down.

One day soon perhaps there will be a corrido sung in the barrio (written by a woman, perhaps?) about the story of this brave meat clerk named Ryan Young.

Bullying happens everywhere. We can all sing about the person who outsmarts, out-runs, or out-fights a bully, a Tasmanian devil, or an abusive boyfriend. We can sing about Robin Hood, Tiburcio Vaszquez, or Ryan Young. We can sing about our common survival.

  • In my case, it was standing up and talking back to Flavia in the girl’s dressing room about who was flat chested and why you should not expect more from a young girl, even if you were a year older and a universe of notches higher on the social pecking order.
  • In Mongo’s case, it is avoiding the skunk while waiting for me to appear.
  • In the case of Safeway’s clerk, one can only hope it was a well-placed left cross, a call to store Security, a call to 911, and a bully frog-marched to the door and chained to a long line of shopping carts while waiting to hear from local Police authorities. Whatever he did, it worked.

It also unfortunately temporarily got him fired.  I remember this. I remember rescuing Becky (not her real name), who was grabbed downtown by a man who had a get away car, a driver, and apparently something gun-shaped. He got her to give up her purse, only after a struggle.  My then-boss told me that he didn’t want me chasing criminals on company time.  He meant it as a joke, of course.  I was on a break to go to the Post Office when I saw him grab her. Forty people walked around Becky and her assailant as they left the crosswalk. You bet I wasn’t on company time!

We all need to walk in the shoes of someone who comes to the aid of a person, an animal, or an institution being victimized by a bully. Sometimes in order to clean up this world, you need to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and get to work.

You can always wash your hands afterward. This, my friends, is a good idea.

On Being Stuck, and On Innovation

I occasionally get reminded by the lump on my own forehead that I need to stop metaphorically banging it against the wall.  Finding a new solution to an old problem is a little more challenging. Lists of things I am grateful for can be a catalyst, or at least can serve as a come-along to winch myself out of a rut.

A few years ago, I discovered that the Golden Gate Western Wear in Richmond had some woman-sized snap front shirts, with diamond snaps, mostly made in America.  Rockmount Ranch Wear. Truly great. Well made, beautiful, a great idea, and a pleasure to wear and own.  They are among Joe A. Well’s finest western innovations.  For these we are grateful.  Thank you, Golden Gate!

Our country is truly the land of Innovation. It is hard sometimes to remember that, since sometimes every piece of news, the behavior of most people, and the design of everything seems anchored in stupidity. We do have real work to do.

Stay tuned for:  Cigar Box Guitars, and their Makers as outlined in Mike Orr’s book: Handmade Music Factory (Fox Chapel Publishing).

I need to make an ironing board dobro. Right after I get some chores done.

Neptune’s Daughter, Part 1

{ Neptune’s Daughter }

Once upon a time there was a Woman who
wanted her own home. She decided it would be nice
to live on a houseboat. So then she wanted her own
home with a slip attached. Just a small slip. A yacht slip,
if you please.

Men heard about it, when they asked.
They were duly horrified. They claimed that
all of the time they lived in such a place,
they would be worrying about the next time they had to
haul their home out of the water,
to scrape off the barnacles or to paint the Bottom.
Then they began gibbering like frightened
monkeys, asking her had she thought about weather, about
old King Neptune.

The Woman scoffed at such questions, wisely knowing these Men and their ilk would never cohabit with her under any circumstances.  Neither by stealth nor  invitation, neither by insinuation nor brute force. Nope.

Mosaic on Stairwell, Bridgehead studios, Day 2

Neptune's Daughter Thinks Barnacles Are Overrated

Still, she didn’t own a houseboat.
She had a landlord. She also had no live in boyfriends, paramours, nor roommates.
She had a cat.
She had a job.
She worked.
She dreamed.

She also worked with a Lady who wanted to know why this Woman always knew more than everyone else about everything (about 90% of everything, by this Lady’s calculations).
‘Ah,’ cried the Woman, ‘Just because I have lived, because in living I have done many things, and because I have always had to pay some Landlord.’
‘I don’t own any property, and I always have to pay some Landlord, just to live.
You work, you learn things, you pay the Landlord. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. That’s Life.’

Thus she knew a lot about a lot of subjects.
Thus her Teenager despised her company as any good teenager would do, for being a Know it All.
Thus she worked. Thus she struggled.
Thus she soldiered on, alone and Houseboat-less. Over-Educated.
Ah. Well, then!

Since she still knew so little about Houseboats, this Woman felt free to continue dreaming. When she slept, she dreamed.
Ownership, Home, Yacht Slip. That kind of thing.

One day, this Woman got near the end of her Rope.
She was Angry, Fed Up, Tired.  She had a Hissy Fit. It scared her. She cried.
Then the storm passed, the sun came out, the birds sang in the trees again.
All was well. She ate an apple and took a nap, this Woman.

She worked on. She lived. Time passed.
The Storm clouds gathered again, and not on a 28-day cycle, either.
The Woman was concerned.
She found that every time she felt a Storm coming on, she worried more. She fretted.
How could she be So Angry? So Righteously Fed Up? How?
Since she began Worrying More, this Woman stayed far, far away from her Teenager. To preserve things, she said.
Her Boyfriend started giving her short, thoughtful kisses at the door, not demanding much, listening, trying to Be There For Her, bringing small occasional gifts. Tippy-toeing around. Trying extra hard to be affectionate, thoughtful, attentive, patient.

The Woman then suffered from Chronic Insomnia. She wasn’t worried about barnacles, either. She was worried about how to keep her mouth shut.
For really, truly, that is what this World expects from Women. Silence. Discretion.  That rot.
It was not how she was raised, not who she Was, this Silence.
It started to wear on her, this silence, this Insomnia.
She sought medical help, and eventually, medication.
She slept a little, sometimes.
She still worried, felt broken, incomplete.
Something was wrong.

The Woman found that every time the clouds gathered and the pressure built up, she needed to Speak Truth to Power. In fact, to the King.  It was a passion that built up silently, indescribably, and then overcame her. A storm. A crisis. A truth telling. A withdrawal, horrified, to consider Consequences.
It was frightening, really.
She came home sometimes, having saved herself narrowly from this truth speaking, and ranted to her Cat.

Her worries deepened.
She felt like she had her finger in a dike. She could feel the flood building.
Everything about her life, her health, her relationships with family hinged on being continuously and productively employed.
She knew that.
To speak truth to power is to risk destruction. It is the equivalent of raising your face to stare unblinking at the Sun.
She knew that.

The Woman sometimes wondered about the stuff other people fretted about. Neptune. Taxes. Death. Betrayal. Disease. Homelessness. Friendlessness. Barnacles. Old Age. Muggers. Abandonment. Rape.
She’d been through all that, nearly totally, and survived.
She wasn’t fretting about that, only Truth-Telling. Its consequences. Only that.
The Woman realized this one day and then realized she was on a Threshold.
She was about to Do Something.
She had stuff to Do. She was about to Make Changes.
She had very little to lose, but was still afraid, still a bit tentative.
She was like that with new things, this Woman.

The Cat stared, purred, made biscuits on the blankets, and waited for Treats.
She turned and slept. The Woman ranted on paper, on pixels, in thin air, in the bath, out in the yard, in her Dreams.  The Woman began to Worry Deeply. Her insomnia grew. The wheels began regularly to fly off her Little Red Wagon, usually manageably, usually one at a time. She would pause, bend down metaphorically, and put them back on. But still, she worried.

Then the Woman went to work one day and just Let Fly With Truth.
She didn’t know she was about to do it; she didn’t feel it coming.
The King simply asked her what she thought of something one morning.
She paused, drew a breath, and then told him. She told him thoughtfully and
truthfully, but not too Politely. He was a bit taken aback, and then he thanked her. He left. As he was leaving, he said he would get back to her with a Plan. Tomorrow, he said.

Her worry increased.
She wondered if she could get used to it.
It didn’t relieve the Pressure totally. Not all the way.
So she immediately told the Vizier. Then she told the Queen.
All when asked, all when on the same Subject of Which She’d Told Truth.
All the same Truth. All regarding them, their lack of leadership,
all about them making the same error over
and over for 2 years straight, and expecting different results,
and not even Failing Better, what did it prove?
How was it her job to help them patch things up?
What was the reward, where was her duty exactly? Was it part of career development? Where was this leading, anyway?
More and more, on and on, until this set of so-called leaders drew away from the Woman and her truth-telling, weary.

The men around her who heard about the Truth coming down that day… demurred. They said it was not their affair, that they were not sure it was a good idea. That it was in fact, probably something to
Never Do.

The Woman’s Boyfriend was silent, affectionate, thoughtful, attentive. Her Teenager was silent, unaware. Her Cat washed herself, blissfully.

Right after that Truth Telling, the same day, the Woman then went, kneeled down in the earth, and gave fertilizer and water to the King’s tree. He thanked her.  He described the history of the tree. She wondered. She had come, after all, to do this work On Request. He wanted to pay for the fertilizer, the soil, the care, this King. She wondered some more. She said she would accept one dollar. He insisted on giving her ten.

She wondered, this Woman, if it was not time to finally start shopping
for Houseboats. ‘Why Not?’ thought she ‘…. it seems like anything
is Possible…’

Then the Woman went home, ate dinner; she took a bath, she slept. She still wondered.

Storms, when you come, you do not consider Timing. Do you?