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.

Electric Rainbow Jelly: appearances still manage to deceive us

Way back in 2003, I worked at an organic cotton spinning mill in the base of the Iron Triangle in Richmond, CA.  We made organic cotton yarn from naturally colored fiber: Foxfibre®.

During that period I also worked at several teaching jobs and wrote some community service grants. The cotton mill gig was < 30 hours a week, and I was hungry for more work at the time. One of the best jobs I had at the time was teaching home-school kids in mathematics and applied (read:kitchen) science.

Home school kids seem to be part of a special group, at least all the ones I’ve met seemed so. Very bright, very engaged with the world. They want to *know* things. Very exciting students to have.

One of the classes I taught was offered at a private home in West Berkeley, and it didn’t last long,  because I couldn’t keep up with it.

It was two hours or more of preparation for every hour of class time, and usually more. It was assembling a lot of materials and technology and schlepping them all over to someone else’s kitchen and working in an extremely tight space (a beautiful space, but extremely tight) with seven or more brilliant 9-year-olds. This is my favorite age (the age of enthusiasm and inquiry, but the magic is still there), and these were great students. It was a hard class to give up.

[Sigh]

One of the great things we did in class was an experiment called Electric Rainbow Jelly. It came out of a book in the library with the same name. Great book. Not a hard experiment, either, except a little tricky to assemble everything.

For instance, did you know that AA batteries have little carbon rods inside them? Well, if you are going to make Electric Rainbow Jelly you need to: you’ve got to hacksaw the end off of one or two of those suckers and pull the rod out with tweezers. You’d like the rod to be intact, so be careful.

Buy the book; you’ll see….

One of the supplies I had to assemble for that experiment was “indicator solution” so that I could prepare gelatin which would react to having various different pH(s) in various places, creating a rainbow. Indicator solution is commonly used in swimming pool test kits, in hydroponic gardens, and in various other places where you need to test the relative acidity, neutrality, or basicity of a solution.

We don’t have a swimming pool supply store handy in West Berkeley, and the hardware store didn’t have it (not the ones I checked anyway), and… oh hey, the Berkeley Indoor Garden Center!  So I went over there to get some after calling to check and see whether they knew what it was I was after and whether it was in stock. Its a few doors down from where I got my very first measles shot at West Berkeley Health Center, but that was back around the early Miocene Era.

It looks like the storefront of the Indoor Garden Center might actually have been a hardware store once, or a feed store (West Berkeley used to have a lot of horses, but not for about a century now), or even a grocery. It is a wooden building with great wood framed windows, a hardwood floor, and a lot of very bright full-spectrum lights in certain places. I’d never been in a Indoor Garden store before and didn’t know what to expect, but I got the solution and took it home and added it to my stack of supplies.

Later that day I was working over at my ex’s house, and he gave me some electrical leads I needed for the experiment too. He used to do a lot of the work on his own car, and didn’t mind loaning them in the interest of science. I told him about getting the pH test solution at the Indoor Center, how I’d never been in a hydroponic garden store before.  I mentioned how odd it was to me to be in that store earlier that day, confusing even. He inquired what exactly I meant. I said:  “Well, everyone working there was really young, extremely white, and they all had…. really long natty dredlocks!”

It is difficult to describe the look he gave me, almost a look which changed pH as it grew on his face. But it went from wonder to disbelief to incredulity, and then he was laughing uncontrollably. At me. He rarely laughs uncontrollably, so I took notice, and thus figured out that I was actually the object of his incredulity and that somehow I had both amused and amazed him.

Then I figured out  _why_ he was laughing at me. Then I started laughing. It was a great moment of connection in our relationship (now a simple friendship), all of it pre-verbal. We understood.

Sometimes I am confused by the Look of Things, is the Moral of the Story. Appearances still mislead, or rather, appearances sometimes cause me to question my assumptions about Everything Else.

So, its interesting that Electric Rainbow Jelly (the experiment, which the kids really loved and was way fun and was the closest I ever came to having the feeling of teaching a team of young Wizards, by the way) — taught me something about myself I hadn’t expected to learn: that I had these assumptions about garden stores and what they sold and why they sold it, and all that, … and that those assumptions were based on nothing very reliable (past experience in garden stores? leading a fairly Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm lifestyle? whatever!) or useful in certain situations.

Always good to learn something new, even after tripping over a wheelbarrow full of assumptions.

So it is with great humility that I read / remembered some of what happened on Day 2 of the Mosaic Mural Class… a friend had written me and asked how it was going, and this is what I wrote back:

Yesterday Isaiah was talking about the grout “rivers” we are making on the building (using concrete mixed with 3 parts sand and ICI pigment and water), saying how Laurel True (who runs the school we are taking the class in) hates them, hates going over them, buffing them, filling them, using them.
“I don’t want to do it, Daddy. Daddy Isaiah!  I don’t like it!  I don’t want to do it!”

Earlier in the day he said something, quoting himself and his Mosaic Bible and (irony, humility, and self-deprecation all present) saying that the quotation was in the Book of Isaiah, and then we laughed… after I said, “…. you mean its in the Old Testament?  Is that why they call them the Mosaic Laws?  Don’t eat mosaic grout pigment on Sundays? Like that?”

Its an erudite group. They laughed.

So, when he did this routine about Laurel hating the grout rivers, calling himself Daddy Isaiah, I said:  “Now you sound like a rapper!  Daddy Isaiah! Whoa!  We’re going to have to find you some bling, dude!”

He laughed. All his bling is all over the walls of South Philadelphia, Jingletown, and the world.

Isaiah Zagar:  rapper, mosaic law daddy, prophet in the temple of the pharisees, teacher, visionary, all that…. no question. No assumptions there.

Julia Zagar: daughter of the one of the Disney dream team, visionary, lover of birds, mosaic Momma, traveller, gallery owner, great hearted giver, patient artist, all that. Also no question.

Appearances sometimes still manage to deceive me. Not for long, though. Not for long.

Surfing the Multiverse: Melvin has left the building

For anyone who knew Mel Parris, or who got to visit with him a little, the time spent together was a cabinet of wonder embedded in a phantasmagorium.

Another extremely competent, intellectually curious, fearless, brilliant, loving, knowing, generous, giddy mosaic of a soul was taken from us too soon and suddenly early last week. He managed to use a Get Out of Jail Free card without perhaps knowing it was there, or meaning to, and to use it when none of us were ready to be done playing this game of Life with him. His ever faithful buddy Walker went too, by his side, and now perhaps accompanies Mel on his journey across the multiverse, or turns gratefully down some other Milky Way to see what’s good to chase out beyond the Dog Star.

I was lucky enough to have known Mel Parris during his tenure on earth, as well as in its oceans. For this grand and glorious experience, I am truly grateful. There will never be another like it. I feel robbed. But while I had a bit of him in my life, I was truly rich. Now I shall need to savor the lees of vintage Mel stories as found and shared amongst his ever-loving wife, his friends, his family, the cats, the abalone, and other fellow-travelers all.

Go in peace. Peace be upon you, and upon your beloveds, and upon future generations of kind and curious souls. May it be so.

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.

Bullies, Pimps, Meth-Heads, Pirates, Baboons, and Scoundrels: (not) a Fibonacci Series

You know who you are.  You’re special. Admit it. Otherwise so many books, movies, graphic novels, and so much study would never go on about you.

You are in a minority. You are unforgettable. You often manage to get our attention, at least briefly.

You are also not in charge.
You don’t rule the world.
There’s one of you (at least) on every block.
A bigger, more powerful version of you (perhaps only in your mind) helped create you.

You have choices.  Mine is to keep showing up. Keep saying ‘Hello!,’ making eye contact, walking, working, trying to make the world a better place. One day at a time. One step at a time.

I am not going to avoid you. Nor will I even be able to try. In spite of your minority status, you do some travel, you do manage to spread out. High exposure is your game. Rock on. One day perhaps you’ll be famous, if you are not already.

We are still here. We are the majority. We are not the canvas on which you get to paint. Deal with it.

 

Cats, trackpads, work, parenting, and privacy…

My 11-year-old cat has been slowly learning how to work the laptop at home. She’s almost mastered the trackpad but keeps using her claws. When we were having a struggle the other night about who would use the keyboard she managed to hook one of her claws under the Control Key (the one with the apple on it), and remove the actual top part of the key.

I can’t figure out how to put parental controls on it. I’m working on it, slowly. I really don’t want her going online. At all. Period.

Cat sitting on concrete
Old torh7ujbbbb ju (she typed most of this caption)

Today I decided I want nothing more to do with Facebook, and started shutting everything down. I sent in a request to delete my account, and then deleted it myself.

I feel so much better now.

Back to work!