Avoiding News By The River
Monday, June 21, 2021
Avoiding News By The River
Friday, June 18, 2021
Maybe you're mad because American Catholic bishops don't want to give President Biden communion because he supports a woman's right to choose an abortion. Maybe you're mad at everybody in history who uttered a putatively racist or sexist word. Perhaps you're hurt because your gender identity isn't honored.
Maybe you're in your toxic bubble raging with your pals because critical race theory is coming to get you. Or you're a Proud Boy who is so broke you're cranking out Black Lives Matter t-shirts for a living. Perhaps you're angry because straight actors keep getting cast in gay roles. Or because you have to bake a cake for a gay marriage reception. Maybe you're mulling over being the victim of a microaggression. Perhaps you're pissed because your cruise ship won't recognize your right to refuse vaccination.
Maybe you're worried about the Israeli government, or the Middle East situation, or a lot of things that do directly affect your life: there are lots of things, real and unreal, to worry about, be angry over, and sink your time and attention into.
Then your house catches fire. And now all those worries and concerns and obsessions disappear. Something requires your attention, no matter your opinion on anything at all.
Guess what? Your house is on fire. The Earth is on fire. Right now there a thousand year drought underway in the American West. This moment there is a heat dome sealing in horrid temperatures in large areas of the US. And it's June. And to scientists and others who have been paying attention, none of this is surprising. In today's news: the planet is trapping twice the heat it did just 15 years ago. And something like that is in every day's news. You know it. But you go on acting like you don't know.
There is nothing more important about the Biden infrastructure proposal than the climate related provisions, and yet these are almost never discussed. Just the politics, as if this were all a game in a nice air-conditioned building, on another planet.
What will it take? Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Ministry of the Future, suggests that it might well take the deaths of millions of human beings in a single event. There is something called the wet bulb temperature, a combination of heat and humidity, which is lethal. And I mean lethal, deadly, completely. Several places on the planet have already reached it briefly, including the city of Chicago. But when it happens for days at a time, it will kill virtually everyone. So depending on where it happens, that could be thousands or it could be millions.
In that novel it happens in India, and that country wakes up: its house is on fire. (By the end of the book, other countries have awakened, but not the US government. And they call it science fiction.)
But would even such a wet bulb event like that do it in this world? Millions of people, so far mostly poor and far away, have already lost their homes to climate disruption, directly or indirectly through resulting warfare. In other words, the servants quarters have had some fires. How important is that?
Your house is on fire. Maybe it hasn't reached your barcalounger, your kitchen table, your gun cabinet, your iphone recharger. But it's more than stray sparks now. It's in the wiring. It's in the walls. So what are you going to do about it?
Monday, June 14, 2021
It's a tug of war
Monday, June 07, 2021
Wednesday, June 02, 2021
sidewalk graffiti, Berkeley 1969
Many of the countercultural concerns I heard in Berkeley were the same I’d seen in Boulder that summer (and fall) of 1969: astrology was big, we often consulted the I Ching. “Hexagrams to horoscopes, these add the symbolic dimensions to our lives erased by technocracy,” I wrote in one of my Berkeley notebooks.
There was also a lot of emphasis on alternative medicine and health, organic food and so on, as well as the evolving countercultural economics and politics. But in Berkeley I quickly experienced the latest echoes of a West Coast approach to psychology.
I kept hearing about something called encounter groups, which may or may not have been related to the Gestalt Therapy that Fritz Perls had been practicing, mostly at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, down the coast from Berkeley. I don’t remember the exact vocabulary but there were certain phrases that I heard a lot, from the moment I got there.
But if I was ever introduced to Gestalt as a system, it escaped me. I recall only fragments, most conspicuously the one that became a hippie cliche: doing your thing. It apparently came from what Perls called the Gestalt Prayer: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations” (I heard that sentence a lot) “and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” (The last part of the prayer, a little harsh for the love generation, I’d never heard before.)
Other elements of Gestalt have become absorbed into various sorts of therapies, such as Perls’ method of interpreting dreams (his idea was that every character—in fact, every thing-- in the dream is you.) Perls had some concepts and models (he was clearly influenced by Zen Buddhism) but even if I’d been sophisticated enough to understand this system, I probably still would have found key concepts lacking, such as the ones I eventually found through Hillman and Jung. So I noticed this element of Berkeley counterculture without entirely understanding it.
But the interest in psychology would be a natural outgrowth of new living arrangements that characterized the counterculture, which involved individuals intimately in groups. (Through Jung we get the concept of introvert, which explains a lot of how I experienced these months, when people intensely relating was stimulating for awhile but quickly exhausting.)
Which might make this a good moment to mention what may be obvious: that I’m leaving out of this account most of the personal and interpersonal events and impressions that absorbed so much time, energy, attention and emotion at the time. I’m not minimizing them—and I do have memories—but I couldn’t do them justice in this space, or possibly at all. But of course, all of that interpersonal and intrapersonal activity was one basic reason for this interest in new psychologies, especially through the lens of insights gained from cannabis and psychedelics as well as the evolving counterculture itself.
As “science” is finally confirming, cannabis and psychedelics really do expand your mind, and though this may include a consciousness of connection (“It’s all one, man!”) it happens inside your own head. So the first effect is personal, and psychologies deriving from these experiences were starting to develop in these years (and Berkeley remains a place where they continue.)
Today the buzzwords of “positive psychology” include self-fulfillment, flourishing, achieving potential. These are influenced by what happened in the 1960s, since before then, the buzzwords were about fitting in, fulfilling your role, adjusting to society. These of course persisted, and became the basis for the sneering title given to the 1970s—the Me Decade. While excesses of self-indulgence and selfishness were part of that decade (though with a cynically different spin, these became major themes in the Reagan 80s) and some crazy stuff spun out from what had been the human potentials movement, the attention to physical, mental, and societal health, spiritual growth and an exploration of potentials were unjustly vilified and ridiculed.
But by the time I got to Berkeley, and communes and other new living forms were features of the counterculture, the concentration only on the inside of one’s head was turning out to not be enough. Relations to others—and therefore to one’s social self, which implied a different order of psychological understanding—became necessarily active concerns. Hence the encounter groups and Gestalt therapy.
Still, what we are likely to forget is that the drugs, the music (especially the music) and even the psychologies and spiritual trips were responding to a suppressed need for joy, for experiences of ecstasy. So much of the cultural forms were meant to create an absence of hassles—“hassled” was a big word, a big problem—which was a precondition for freedom. And freedom in turn was a precondition to joy and ecstasy. And this was part of the social arrangements as well—people who could share ecstasy. These were persistently felt needs of the time, along with an insistence that it was all possible. Today it mostly may seem inconceivable. Yet the desire for ecstasy is perennial.
Psychedelics entered my Berkeley experience only once I can recall. In a hapless attempt to earn some “bread,” members of our household acquired and attempted to deal a small quantity of what was purported to be LSD. But most of what wasn’t given away was stolen. We saved enough for one trip apiece. I had mine in the living room with the Beatles Abbey Road album.
Others in the house (I learned later) had a heavier trip, getting deep into psychological complexities and relationships. So while my experience was more pleasant—maybe even a little ecstatic-- it was also solitary, and beyond the music, not memorable. (But Abbey Road is the music I associate with my Berkeley time, and another album in the house I listened to a lot, Judy Collins Who Knows Where The Time Goes.)
Of course, cannabis (as we call it now; grass was a more preferred term then) was more ubiquitous. I remember walking down a street in Berkeley with someone else, entirely engaged in a conversation, and about to pass two young men walking up the hill, also conversing. One of them was holding a Berkeley joint, wrapped in yellow paper. As we passed he simply handed me the joint and we all kept going.
Combining the psychology of the counterculture with its spiritual quests was Stephen Gaskin’s Monday Night Class.
Upwards of a thousand heads crowded their bodies into available spaces on the floor, as Gaskin held forth on a raised stage. He was riffing on a vast area of what would be classified as Western and Eastern metaphysics, esoteric philosophies, religion, psychology, what we’d now call neuroscience, physics, biophysics, the history of the species, as well as areas then called the occult, mystical, paranormal, and so on. This started as an actual class at San Francisco State called Unified Field Theory, and grew from there. The entry point to it all was the psychedelic experience, the stoned consciousness; the insights not from on high, but from being high. Many of his riffs became a book titled Monday Night Class, and it is still in print in a revised and annotated edition.
Considering that most of his audience was high, there was a good chance that those who were paying attention to him were really paying attention. Words on a page can’t convey the weight of those words spoken in that moment.
“Get high, stay high,” he said. When you are high you know the truth, and no one can lie to you. These statements, seemingly about drug highs, may have been metaphors for higher consciousness and a particular energy state, but was that how they were heard?
So I was also wary, suspicious of his certainty. He never qualified his statements—everything was just that: a statement. My Catholic immersion made me sensitive to the sound of dogma, and to any sort of guru attitude or energy. But his sort of rolling synthesis was what a lot of people in the counterculture talked and thought about. If they weren’t as erudite as Stephen, they also came at it from their own experiences, expertise and education.
For the psychedelic or stoned experience was not only sensation, but perhaps the flying open of doors to a new consciousness, including cosmic consciousness (It’s all one!) These feelings and insights suggested connections to indigenous and ancient approaches, ignored and even forbidden in the modern western world, even in the 60s.
While Stephen spoke in metaphors of electricity and quantum physics as well as auras, such stoned insights and ideas found resonance in non-modern and non-western traditions. So it was the 60s that jumpstarted the already seeded Bay Area interest in Buddhism and other Eastern systems. Now pretty much part of the mainstream, they were foreign then. (Fritz Perls interpreted the Buddhist “nothingness” as meaning process, a Gestalt insight that might be revisited in terms of the now more familiar meditation practices.)
What I recall about this evening is the festive atmosphere, and the giddy experience of being ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church, sanctified by a pious inhalation on the longest bong I’d ever seen, maybe six feet.
|Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez|
As far as that goes, I missed Woodstock itself that August, and only read about in Life Magazine in a bookstore on Telegraph Ave at least a week afterwards, shocked that it took place in the old East while I was finally on the happening West Coast.
Zen Buddhism was a more fashionable element of the counterculture in the Bay Area than elsewhere, but I missed the substantial change in emphasis, from concepts to practice, that was underway, principally emanating from the San Francisco Zen Center. (Speaking of practice, however, I did attend a free, open acting class at San Francisco’s ACT, given by Del Close. Now revered as a master of improvisational comedy, he was with the San Francisco improv group The Committee, between gigs running Chicago’s Second City. Simply sitting in a large auditorium, I learned more about acting in that hour than in college or anywhere afterwards, although it took me awhile to realize this.)
Instead I immersed myself in my Berkeley neighborhoods. Berkeley extends from the residential hills steeply and then gradually down to the flat downtown area, with the UC campus and the Telegraph Ave artery cutting across between them. The hills were known to us as the land of the rich, and we only went up there a few times in the bus to scout out the furniture, appliances and other ritzy stuff left out on the street for garbage collection. The downtown was mostly the residual province of the middle class straights.
Since our Shattuck Street digs were close to downtown, I did visit a few places there, mostly an Italian restaurant called Giovanni’s, though mostly for coffee and maybe a small salad. I first went there because I’d met someone in Colorado who had waitressed there. I mentioned her to a cashier, who remembered her, and that got us acquainted. So I also went there for the company.
But I spent most of my wandering time along Telegraph and on the UC campus. Between hippiedom and academia—yes, that was me.
The places where these worlds—and many others—came together were the bookstores, and at that moment, Telegraph Ave had a lot of them. I’d never experienced that before: going from one bookstore to another to another, in a day or over days, available to me every day. I was in a daze. At times I felt overwhelmed and anxious—so many books, so little time! And no money to buy them anyway! I worried that I didn’t belong there, that they would find me out and ask me to leave. Sometimes I was calm enough to accept that I was in Wonderland. And eventually it began to be a little normal to be there.
Cody’s Books was the most prominent in many ways, and the one that remains in my memory. But though I found photos online that showed several of these stores, I haven’t come across one of Cody’s as it was in 1969. The closest are photos of both exterior and interior in 1974 or so, which look glitzier than I remember. What I seem to recall is the huge glass doors that retracted so that the bookstore was open to the air and the street. When I walked by I could literally see into the bookstore, and that proved irresistible just about every time.
Cody’s sold new books, lots of paperbacks (its initial claim to fame) but also lots of literary titles in hardback and periodicals. One of my last experiences in Cody’s was picking up the new issue of the Carleton Miscellany, with my review of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I also got my check for it—my first paid piece of writing—while I was in Berkeley.
Cody’s became part of Berkeley culture and politics as well. During 60s demonstrations that often included clashes with police (always referred to in 1969 Berkeley as “pigs”), it became a medical aid station for wounded antiwarriors.
Judging from notebooks, I not only browsed but read in the bookstores, but I must have purchased a few used paperbacks somewhere. For my other activity on Telegraph Av was coffee and reading (and writing—I’m surprised to find two pretty good poems in my notebook, and parts of a third.) And occasionally, eating. Our meals on Shattuck were almost exclusively oatmeal in the morning and brown rice with whatever vegetables came to hand in the evening. I supplemented this diet with tuna salad sandwiches at a university cafeteria, though they would be more accurately described as a thin smear of tuna paste on sliced bread, with some carrot sticks on the side. But it was cheap.
In Justine, Durrell’s prose was mesmerizing even when I’d lost track of what was going on or why. I then found a volume of Durrell’s correspondence with Henry Miller, probably in Cody’s, and read some of it there.
I quote in a Berkeley notebook from Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, an apocalyptic antiwar novel that was all but suppressed in 1941 for the next 20 years but became a legendary work of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat era of the 50s and 60s. Patchen was revered as well within the counterculture (Jim Morrison was a fan.) I have a used copy now, but I don’t know when I acquired it. Maybe in Berkeley.
My notebooks also mention Frank Budgen’s book on James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses. Budgen was an artist who knew Joyce in Zurich. I recognize the paperback cover of the time, so I must have read that one and possibly owned it, though it is not now among my Joyce collection.
However, my continuing Joyce obsession did lead to a compulsive purchase. High on a shelf in Cody’s Books I spotted the second two volumes of Joyce’s letters, edited by Richard Ellmann. Though the price for these hardbacks was a bargain, they were still too much for me.
They were high enough on the shelf to require a ladder, so I felt diffident about asking to look at them more than once. But every time I went in or even passed by, I glanced up to see if they were still there. Finally, when I knew I was leaving Berkeley, I broke down and used some of my travel money to buy them. I still have them, though I can’t say I’ve spent a lot of time reading the letters.
Cody’s was still there in 2003, both on Telegraph and downtown Berkeley, where I happened on a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston, shortly after my review of her Fifth Book of Peace appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. (I met her afterwards and she was pleased that my review “got it.”) But the Telegraph Ave. Cody’s closed for good just three years later in 2006—it had been at that location since 1965-- and the downtown store closed two years after that, victims of high rents.
Shakespeare & Company closed in 2015, after 51 years. The Shambhala bookstore opened in 1968, offering spiritual books with an emphasis on Buddhism. In 1969, Shambhala published its first book, and has since become the foremost publisher of non-Western books on spirituality in America. The publishing side soon moved to Boulder and Boston, while the Berkeley bookstore lasted until 2003.
Many other smaller bookstores of that era are also gone. Of the big four, only Moe’s remains, and the university bookstore, which if it follows the national pattern, would be mostly sweatshirts and other branded merchandise, with barely a whiff of a non-textbook, or even a book shelf.
|Gary Snyder (l), Lew Welch (r) with fellow|
poet and Reed College pal Philip Whalen (c)
Near the end of my stay in Berkeley, I attended a poetry reading for Ecology Action and the Ecology Center that turned out to be a bit historic. It featured some of the better known poets of the time in the Bay Area, a group that likely never read together again. I wrote about it at the time.
The event was held in the Pauley Ballroom on the UC Berkeley campus. I arrived early enough to get a seat in the orderly rows of folding chairs. Eventually the master of ceremonies, one of the ecologists, came to the microphone. “I know this might be difficult, but if somehow some room can be made at the back of the ballroom, more people could get in.”
Instantly a cacophony of scraping chairs as everyone moved them towards the front, obliterating the rows and clumping closer together. The ecologist m.c. watched, and when it was quiet again he said, “What just happened was very much like the action of wind, or water. I think we’re ready to begin.”
The poets who read included veterans of the Beat era: Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lew Welch and David Meltzer. Welch and Snyder were former classmates and roommates at Reed College, and maintained a close friendship. The more recent counterculture star was Richard Brautigan.
Gary Snyder was the crowd favorite (I noted). During some poems there was applause after every line. Brautigan read his short non-sequiter poems, marching or preening around the stage during the laughter and applause between them. McClure was more quietly but respectfully received. David Meltzer spoke of the sensations of a city boy moving to a cabin in Marin County.
I’d heard Snyder read at Knox College some three years before, which seemed like a lifetime, and maybe in a way it was. But I recall—and I wrote at the time—that I was otherwise most impressed by Lew Welch.
Mt. Tam is the sacred mountain outside of San Francisco. It became a rite among poets and hippies to “circumambulate” it—that is, walk around it as a ritual. Mike Hamrin and I had done it earlier in my stay.
Besides being a paean to the Bay Area, where (he said) all American revolutionary movements began, Welch’s poem sums up the movement of Europeans across North America, pushing beyond one frontier after another. Essentially it’s the story of humanity, always looking for a better place, and despoiling it before they move on, knowing there’s more. But in California, they reached the limit. Welch’s haunting refrain was: “This is the last place. There is nowhere else to go.”
In the context of an ecology reading, he was talking about Earth itself. I never forgot that line, or that moment.
Less than two years later, Welch disappeared into the Sierras with a gun, leaving behind an old suicide note. He was never found. At a publication event for a posthumous volume of Welch’s poems in 2012, Snyder said Welch could not overcome his alcoholism. David Meltzer called Welch his “demented mentor.” When I spoke on the phone to Michael McClure in 2004, I mentioned this Berkeley reading and he remembered it as a special occasion.
Finally, there was a repeated experience of my Berkeley stay that for me characterizes that time and place, or at least the brighter side of it. It was the Saturday Night Midnight Movies.
The standard movie program for adults as late as the 1950s and possibly later called for: a cartoon, the newsreel, a short (usually a comedy, like Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy), the latest episode of a serial (always ending with a cliffhanger), previews of “Coming Attractions,” a “B” movie feature, and then the main feature, just released that week. The Saturday matinee started out with the same basic mix, but the features were selected for kids. The main feature was often new or fairly new, but might be an old favorite.
By the time my early Baby Boom generation was old enough in the 1950s, the Saturday matinee was even more elaborate. It might start at noon or even before, with a dozen or two or three dozen cartoons. At least one of the movies might be an older science fiction, horror or adventure film. The entire program might keep us in the theater until 5 p.m. The point being that everyone in Berkeley in 1969 could have attended Saturday matinees as children.
I don’t remember which theater held the Midnight Movies. I have a vague feeling it wasn’t the Repertory on Telegraph, where during my stay I saw Yellow Submarine and Lindsay Anderson’s ...If again, but downtown. In any case, the Midnight Movies in Berkeley were essentially a Saturday matinee program for heads. There was no disguising the assumption that everyone in the audience would be high, or would be getting high during the shows. Being high in some ways returns the sensory acuity, intense belief and openness that the years erode. So this was the Saturday matinee on dope, and we were children again.
There were differences. The audience behaved badly (in a fun, good-natured way), which no theater manager would have tolerated for long on Saturday afternoons. (I can remember only a few instances of general rowdy behavior in my youth, mostly when the movie was boring. I especially recall a showing of one of the Lone Ranger feature films (there were two, with basically the same plot.) As we walked in, we were all given a plastic silver bullet as a movie promotion. But the movie wasn’t very engaging, and I remember being in the balcony at one point, watching the silver bullets crisscrossing in front of the screen as kids below threw them across the auditorium.)
At the Berkeley shows, bad behavior usually amounted to throwing popcorn at each other, crawling over seats and being loud in response to what was on the screen. It was hilarious. But as it was Berkeley there was also political critique. Whenever a policeman appeared on the screen, there were boos and shouts of “pig!” When the Laurel & Hardy or other comedy short was silent, the entire crowd read the subtitles out loud together, and if the line was addressed to a police officer, usually some version of a Keystone Kop, the word “pig” was spontaneously added. Crowds in Berkeley, I wrote at the time, weren’t like those in other places: people there seemed comfortable in the identity of a crowd. That was certainly true at the movies.
I was totally immersed in the long and immensely elaborate song and dance sequence for “Lullaby of Broadway,” and totally unprepared—and undefended—for the climax, in which at the height of the frenzy the female singer is suddenly pushed accidentally off a balcony and falls to her death. So much for musical comedy. This may or may not have been a dream sequence, but I was shocked and sobered. A downer, man. And as some things do in that state, it seemed portentous and symbolic beyond the bounds of an old movie.
All during my months in Berkeley, I was writing and receiving letters. Apart from friends and family members, a lot of them were to and from Joni, who had started teaching in Connecticut. In a way also I was being called home. Eventually I decided to head back East.
Of my original housemates on Shattuck, Phil had already left. The others were embroiled but restless. Mike Hamrin’s girlfriend referred to my “solemn and tacit presence,” a characterization I’ve never forgotten, for it was both a revelation and inarguable.
At times it was a close thing, but my life didn’t catch in Berkeley. My head was not always there, and not always in the present. Maybe I was too much the spectator. “All Berkeley really needs,” I wrote in a notebook, “is a proscenium arch.” Though with the gate to the UC campus, maybe it had one. And it was on the UC campus one sunny afternoon that a stray dog came straight over to me, licked my hand, lay down at my feet, and went to sleep.
Monday, May 31, 2021
THE SONG MT. TAMALPAIS SINGS
Thursday, May 27, 2021
A contemporary version of the New Deal’s first big program, the Civil Conservation Corps, is said to be a popular idea—according to one poll, it is extremely popular, and actually favored by more Republican (84%) than Democratic (78%) voters.
At least half a dozen bills by members of both parties have been introduced in the past year or so in Congress. The Biden administration is developing a Civilian Climate Corps, and proposes it as part of its infrastructure package, now being negotiated.
But there seems to be a big range in what each of these proposals envisions that Corps members might do. Some seem to concentrate on getting young people started in careers addressing the causes of the climate emergency. Others see an employment program for all ages, engaging in traditional conservation efforts, though with the intent of preventing damaging effects of a deformed climate. Some add proactive programs in sustainable and non-toxic agriculture and clean technologies. Some also see a role in directly responding to disastrous effects, such as floods and wildfires.
Stories about these proposals compare and contrast versions of the new CCC with the old one, but incomplete or inaccurate understanding of the original Civil Conservation Corps isn’t helpful in figuring out how to organize a new CCC, or what tasks it could perform.
The new CCC, most proposals agree, will not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or age, unlike the old one. It will pay a living wage, unlike the old one. It will work in urban areas as well as the woods, unlike the old one. And unlike the old one, it could respond to climate-related emergencies.
None of those assertions about the old CCC is entirely true. Starting out with equity is an appropriate standard for a new CCC, but the old one wasn’t completely exclusionary. While the original CCC membership was overwhelmingly young, male and White, some older men were included, and there were separate camps for Black men and separate programs for women, which followed the pattern of everything else at the time, including the armed forces. (The later and larger Works Progress Administration, providing employment in public works, was even more inclusive.)
|CCC camp at Glacier National Park|
Speaking of the armed forces...The original CCC was FDR’s first New Deal initiative. Though there were small state and civic prototypes, the federal government had never tried something like this. It appears to have been FDR’s own idea. It sped through Congress shortly after his Inauguration in 1933. Though it gradually built up its numbers, it still involved a lot of men all at once. So although the program itself was run by the U.S. Labor Department, the camps were organized and run by the U.S. Army.
The Army had the equipment and the experience—and the motivation. Even in 1933 the possibility of war was known, and unemployed young men in the Depression were often both undereducated and underfed. The CCC provided both food and instruction, and taught these men how to live and work together.
The level of wages provided to CCC members resulted partly from concerns expressed by employers (not too high) and labor unions (not too low), an issue that’s bound to recur. In any case, the program provided food, clothing, lodging and medical care for free, so most of members’ wages were (by design) sent back to their families, where they were sorely needed.
The CCC did a lot of work in the woods, it is true. But they also worked in rural farming areas (soil conservations and irrigation, for example), and in and around small towns and cities (building roads and bridges in public areas.) The nature of that work will in many cases be different, and should be more coordinated with local communities. But the old CCC did prove that such a corps is flexible in what it can do and where. It also showed that good relations between the CCC and local communities is possible, because it turned out to be normal.
Similarly, the old CCC showed that it had the skills and flexibility to respond quickly to local emergencies, including large ones. In 1938, a monster hurricane unexpectedly hit Long Island and New England with historic force. The first storm wave was so violent that it registered on a seismograph in Alaska. The wind and waters changed the coastline of Long Island Sound. The storm and subsequent flooding over days killed upwards of 700, and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and other buildings, causing damage in the hundreds of millions.
The damage was so extensive, over such a large area, that resources were inadequate, including the Coast Guard and the Red Cross. FDR sent in members of the CCC as well as personnel employed by the Works Progress Administration—more than 100,000 in total-- to do everything from sandbagging rivers, clearing downed trees and searching wreckage for survivors to rebuilding roads and river banks, and feeding and clothing survivors (including clothes made in WPA sewing rooms in several states.)
This was not the first time that the WPA and the CCC had responded to disasters, such as wildfires and major floods in 1936 and 1937. They were “the shock troops of disaster,” as described by a newsreel of the time. Since it was made by the WPA itself, it is propaganda of a kind, but it is factual.
Today this major disaster from 1938 is almost completely forgotten, as is this response. But that response suggests that this kind of climate disaster effort is entirely possible for a new CCC, because it had already been accomplished by the old one.
Sunday, May 23, 2021
The Perfume/Of Flowers
Thursday, May 20, 2021
Monday, May 17, 2021
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
I was dropped off in Berkeley in late summer 1969 on College Avenue at a house shared by a Knox College grad I will call JB. (Even at this remove, it’s hard to know how people feel about themselves in the 1960s.) I had friends from Knox in the Bay Area, but JB was more a friend of Joni’s, and she had arranged that we would stay there (or “crash” there as we’d say) upon our arrival. But it was only me.
JB shared the house with a young man, maybe a bit older, who was either a medical student or intern or both, and a very attractive young woman who worked in a Berkeley clothing shop. I was given a space behind the couch in the living room for my sleeping bag, and a fairly definite limit on my stay.
I believe it was on the very day of my arrival that two other former or maybe current Knox students showed up, fraternity brothers perhaps, to take JB on a drive up to Napa wine country. She couldn’t go but they accepted me, and I found myself in the back seat of an open sports car, cruising up the highway, awash in the California sun. We stopped at a wine tasting or two, they bought a few bottles and on the way back stopped at a roadside stand for fruit, bread and cheese, making it a kind of Mediterranean adventure. Within a few hours, I was back in Berkeley.
I met up with a few Knox friends in Berkeley, including Mike Hamrin and Mary Jacobson, but had no prospects for another place to stay when my welcome period expired. I tried a night outside in my sleeping bag, but turned out to be a hopeless hobo, because by morning I had a definite head cold. I got my spot back behind the couch until I recovered. It was probably then that I read the first book in Berkeley I remember, which had little to do with Berkeley but more with the happenstance of being on the road, and the guest in someone else’s house. In fact, I can’t guarantee it happened there, but by process of elimination, it probably did.
I read it through, intrigued by the science fiction ideas, propelled by the plot. Apart from some of Kurt Vonnegut, I hadn’t read actual science fiction in a long time. I didn’t do much more than open even the best-sellers and hippie favorites like Dune and Stranger in A Strange Land. But this book got me interested again. I was especially taken with the concept of “jaunting,” which was a latent ability to transport oneself by the power of thought that it turned out everybody has.
Alfred Bester has since become a revered name in sci-fi, especially for this novel and the one that preceded it, The Demolished Man. He is now considered an inspiration for both the New Wave and cyberpunk science fiction writers. He himself had a love-hate relationship with science fiction, and spent most of his career in other forms. Bester wrote for comic books, especially Superman (something of a family business as his mother had played Lois Lane on radio), as well as radio, television and magazines, especially the travel magazine Holiday, where he was an editor. I’ve more recently acquired a selection of his sci-fi stories and essays, with a few articles and profiles, notably of authors Robert Heinlein and Issac Asimov, titled Redemolished.
Re-read today, The Stars My Destination seems a different book. I was probably impressed by the villain being the autocratic head of a huge corporation, but that’s become more frequent in fiction as in life. Though basically a riff on The Count of Monte Christo, the extreme pulp fiction characters and the throwback attitudes towards both women and men tend to detract, but the forward momentum of the story remains.
I probably read it through my stuffed head, until one evening the medical student/doctor prescribed a heavy dosage of beer, and took me to a bar. He was right. I was better the next day. Meanwhile, Mike Hamrin had moved into a house at Shattuck and Ashby in Berkeley with several others, and invited me to join them.
Inside the back door to the right was the kitchen, and to the left a small living room. They were separated for most of their lengths by a wall. Off the kitchen towards the porch was a small unfurnished room, which may have been a pantry or even a servant’s quarters in the house’s heyday. Past the kitchen was a hallway and several rooms and bathroom.
Four people were living there when I arrived. David and Priscilla were a couple. Mike had a girlfriend who visited but had her own place. The fourth was a young man I’ll call Phil because he was from Philadelphia. He may well have been the named tenant.
It was a varied group. Phil was Jewish, I had a Catholic background and the others a Protestant, if any. David was a California Indian. Today I’d guess Yurok, though his hometown was not that far north, so maybe not. I don’t recall if Priscilla was from New England, but there was something mythic about her alliance with David. Despite these differences, which we rarely if ever discussed, we were united by age, general attitude, the times and the place. And of course we all smoked dope (to varying degrees) and were therefore “heads,” as opposed to “straights,” which in those days referred to anyone who wasn’t a head.
David has acquired a small yellow school bus, and reconfigured the inside to accommodate gear and the possibility of living in it. We made a number of road trips in that bus, mostly along the coast.
On one trip we were pulled over by a Highway Patrol. We were told it was illegal for the bus to look like a school bus, and we were therefore instructed to paint it. Which we happily did, in a somewhat haphazard psychedelic style.
We might be accompanied on these trips by others who stayed at the house for awhile. These might be day trips or longer, when we slept in the bus. On one such trip we wound up late at night at Drake’s Beach in the Point Reyes Seashore in Marin County, and had a ghostly visitor’s center all to ourselves. It was a kind of chalet, with restrooms and huge vending machines that glowed in the night.
These longer outings might include hiking and taking an ocean dip, impressing upon me how frigid the waters are in this part of California even on a warm day. And as a result of one such adventure, I was surprised and very impressed by another California feature: poison oak. I’d had poison ivy several times “back East” and had some immunity, but not to the unknown poison oak. I got a bad case.
We consulted a hippie elder who advised rubbing wet baking soda over my entire body. So I spent several days isolated in that little room off the kitchen, lying on my sleeping bag, naked and covered with clumps of wet and slowly drying baking soda. (Nudity was fairly common in this house. Priscilla often stirred the morning oatmeal still naked. Seeing naked bodies doing normal things became ordinary with surprising speed.)
I made some other trips more or less on my own. I went into San Francisco (usually hitch-hiking), including a few times to meet up with Ric Newman from Knox. The first time, I saw him in the San Francisco production of Hair. When we met in the lobby afterwards he was enthusiastic about the prospects for What’s Happening, Baby Jesus?, the play I wrote and directed our senior year, in which he played the lead role. He thought Hair had made it a hot property. I was unconvinced.
One day on the UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza I ran into someone I’d known slightly at Knox. He was a few classes behind me, and was scouting California campuses, perhaps to transfer or for grad school. Eventually I accompanied him on a hitchhiking tour of several other coastal colleges, including UC Santa Cruz, and ending up at San Jose State, where we were the overnight guests of English professor Richard Alexander, who’d left Knox to teach there. He fed us the most substantial meal I’d had in awhile.
But I spent considerable time over the next few months in Berkeley itself, particularly on the UC Berkeley campus and along the now fabled Telegraph Avenue.
I had arrived in Berkeley in late summer 1969 at an uncharacteristic moment: it was quiet. Both the university and the city had been in near constant turmoil since even before the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s. That turmoil had reached a new height just a few months before I got there, with the events that culminated in death and military occupation enforcing a kind of police state. It was the battle of People’s Park.
The University had acquired through eminent domain a large property near the campus and within the residential and business community near Telegraph Avenue. In 1967 they bulldozed the buildings on the site but left it empty. It became an eyesore, a repository for abandoned cars. Nothing much happened until early April 1969 when a group of local merchants and residents met to figure out what to do about it. Then everything happened, very fast.
At this meeting, a student activist presented a plan to make the space a public park, and the attendees approved. An article appeared in the Berkeley Barb, a local/ underground newspaper, and a hundred people, including a landscape architect, showed up to begin building People’s Park. Eventually a thousand people participated, either working on it or contributing plants and money.
The university then suddenly announced it had immediate plans for the site: a university sports field. The chancellor met with park activists, and promised not to do anything to the site without notifying them. A week later he ceded a quarter of the property to the park builders, and repeated the pledge. A week after that, that pledge was broken. He announced the beginning of construction.
Members of some sheriff’s departments carried shotguns, and in pursuing vaguely violent protestors, fired in their direction. Instead they hit innocent bystanders, killing a man watching from a bookstore roof on Telegraph Ave, and permanently blinding another. Hundreds of protesters and some law enforcement were injured, some seriously.
That night Governor Reagan sent in nearly 3,000 National Guard troops, who acted as an army of occupation for the next two weeks, liberally using tear gas to prevent anyone from planting anything, and breaking up groups of four or more on the streets.
The turmoil increased, more people became involved, the university partly shut down, and demonstrations continued. On May 20, National Guard helicopters dispersed tear gas over the Berkeley campus, which spread through the city of Berkeley. School children miles away were taken to hospitals for treatment.
By the time I arrived in August, there was a silent stalemate. When I first saw the site, I noted that it was one-third dry earth and a few plants, one-third sod being drowned by implacable water sprinklers, and one-third asphalt, where a solitary police sat on a bench guarding it. Some people drifted through. A helicopter suddenly flew over, startling me. But nobody else reacted.
Meanwhile, there was such internal pressure from Berkeley faculty and a majority of students that the university was at an impasse. Eventually people drifted back to treating it as a park (which is what it is today, with both good and bad effects.)
But already in August it seemed that Berkeley as a place had moved on. Most students were gone for the summer, and what was left was Berkeley’s ongoing experiment in how a counterculture might function.
Not that Berkeley gave up politics. In the few months I was there, I heard activists Bernadette Dohrn, Angela Davis and Tom Hayden each speak on separate occasions and circumstances on the UC Berkeley campus.
Whatever his positions or his image later, Hayden sounded very militant to me on that day. He foresaw a long revolution in America of perhaps 20 years, with periods of violence and periods of peace. When the revolution is successful, the worst counter-revolutionists, such as racists, would be confined in their own ghettos. “The enemy is not in your head,” I heard him say. “The enemy exists and must be dealt with.”
In terms of a broader cultural revolution, though he had no kind words for hippies, he approved the form being developed by people in Berkeley, of “collectives,” small groups of people who live their politics but may specialize in a particular activity, like medicine, to support the community now but also be equipped to take over after the revolution. “If you have any faith in the future,” you have to plan for after the revolution,” he said.
One such collective in Berkeley, said someone in the audience, was teaching itself first aid and self- defense, for future confrontations. There had been quite a few antiwar demonstrations down Telegraph Avenue, and a lot of injuries inflicted by police. But there were other institutions responding to the day-to-day needs of what might loosely be described as the counterculture. There was the Free Clinic staffed by volunteer doctors, and a similar organization for legal aid. There were efforts to feed people and distribute free food.
There was also informal support. The food co-op—basically a supermarket—did not prevent scavengers from carting away overripe vegetables and fruits that were discarded. Some restaurants fed people out the back door, and I witnessed individual waitresses placing food left behind where “street people” could reach it.
What was the counterculture? Political opposition was a major catalyst—from opposition to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee at UC Berkeley in the late 50s and early 60s, student issues, to the ongoing and growing opposition to Vietnam and the draft. In the face of overwhelming disapproval by their elders, this alone created a sense of separation and fostered a subculture within especially the younger generation.
But at its heart, the counterculture was about an alternative search for meaning. Questioning the value system of the dominant consumer society (“Work, Study, Get Ahead, Kill” was an antiwar march chant), questioning the basis for current social mores, for attitudes towards the body and the soul, were catalysts for explorations of self, society and reality itself, by means of experience and imagination that were encouraged and enabled by the “mind-expanding” substances of cannabis and the psychedelics, but by no means limited to them. Music and other people were major psychedelics in the counterculture. And sometimes, even books.
Inevitably it led to spiritual quests and, as I saw in Berkeley, more formal forays into psychologies. That aspect jumped out at me immediately upon my arrival. But more on all that next time, plus the bookstores of Telegraph Ave, the Midnight Movies and the First Annual Holy Man Jam.