Cling to the rafters.

Cling to the rafters. Cling to your good luck. Cancer and tsunami are coming.  Well, perhaps not literally to you, but something is coming and you can be sure of that.  Cancer, one in three of us humans will get it, one in five will die of it.  Right now here’s my list:  my sister’s life partner, gone last week; Bodhi’s good friend’s dad, fighting; my music partner’s wife, fighting; our neighbor’s son, remission; both my parents, gone of it; and I’m sure you have your own list.   It’s like that Thurber story about the “Get Ready Man”.  He would go around their town in a car with a megaphone on top yelling “Get Ready!! The World is Coming to an End!” One time he wound up in the local production of King Lear and peppered the action with his own commentary, each time the dialogue would pause you’d hear him in the balcony “The World is Coming to and End!”  The audience thought he was part of the play.

Newsweek cover story Apocalypse Now last week, there’s nothing like Tsunamis, Earthquakes and Nuclear Meltdown to start selling t-shirts.  Japan is Melting Down and All I Got Was this Lousy T-shirt.   Other friends flew their children home from Hawaii where they were living and began to pack up their house and family to move to Costa Rica, south of the Airborne Toxic Event, which we have been assured will not reach the West Coast.  We must take this opportunity to demand the careful review of our nuclear safety. California’s two reactors are poorly protected from tsunami, earthquake or similar disaster.   And discussion of the lack of Evacuation Plans was heartening; in 1981 I wrote a song called “Evacuation Plan” bleeding in song that we were totally unprepared for this type of accident and the lack of a plan was proof that the utilities, the NRC and the believing public didn’t understand what they were dealing with, or were just too sleazy.    I was surprised to see the German chancellor immediately respond to street protests by freezing operation of half of their active reactors.

In snow country, amidst the cheap Ludlum paperbacks, we discovered an amazing version of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the 1992 translation by Sogyal Rinpoche.  Here we see that our everyday life, meditation, sleep, are all rehearsal for our final transition.  You can learn how to die now before it’s too late.  So when the time comes you can embrace the sacred opportunity, use it to make a spiritual leap, an awakening, samadhi, or mahasamādhi in Hinduism, the complete absorption of the individual consciousness in the self at the time of death.  There’s no time like the present to be sure that you’re prepared.

Get Ready!! The world is coming to an end!


The Scaffolding, Part One.

The smell is spring chill but rich with gyro cart: spicy, savory, sizzled, early in the cart’s lunch run, hunger-inducing, not overpowering.  We’re under scaffolding, a wet snow beginning on 1st Avenue and 23rd St.   Casual lunch time walkers have umbrellas, they’re busy on their way but not rough or rude.  Iggy hangs close to the building, skimming what looks like pingpong netting at the base of the scaffold.  He pauses to squirt a bit and reluctantly moves onward.  I sort of have to drag him, he’s ‘gaming me’ as Carol has warned he would, he does this with new people trying to walk him.  But his soulful eyes betray confusion and sadness. What has happened? Where is she? Meredith is gone now and everything is different.

We continue on 23rd heading west under the scaffold, its an underground city and everyone loves a terrier.  Their love is shown gently, glancingly, three hooded white guys out of a Ben Affleck Boston movie sideways grin, a voice interrupts my reverie: “Buddy, what time you got?” I look questioningly, a hustle maybe. “Yeah,” he says, “please.”  He’s old, I get my phone, “1:30 sharp”, he walks away, late, early, not rude, not polite, New York.    We pass the old folks pharmacy, the window full of devices: sitz bath, shin splints, walkers, prosthetics, supplements.  Carol has commented that with Meredith gone, this pharmacy may have to let someone go, she was one of the best customers.

But Iggy won’t go for me.  I spy one of those caged trees, a three foot square worn green-painted iron cage around a small island of dirt.  He should find this place good enough, shouldn’t he?  A few squirts and then, he lies down.  I could drag him but follow Carol’s instruction, “flip him over and say ‘Iggy, let’s go!’”  I try it, he half complies and we begin to head back.  The doorman greets me warmly, I know him, or does he confuse me with Todd who was here more often than me.  The maintenance man greets Iggy and asks “How’s mami?”  Does he mean Meredith? Does he know?  I ask him, he says “yeah” sadly, he knows.  And he perks up, if mami needs anything at all, tell her Pablo is here.  “Me llamo Pablo” I declare as the elevator door closes.  These people love Carol and Meredith and Iggy.  It’s a neighborhood inside this building.

Snow Country

I’m on my back at the bottom of a sledding hill. There’s a friend of Bodhi coming down the run we’ve built.  But I can’t move, overwhelmed, Todd-feeling again.  Missing him in the snow, though we never spent all that much time in the snow. Especially not since he got sick.  The cold didn’t work too well for him with his pain condition so I didn’t invite him the times we went and he never asked to go.  But there were some really classic times in the old days and they all come back to me now.   Its windfall now, every branch is piled half a foot high and any good wind brings a new shower, clumps and fine particles, a light snow, a heavy snow all at once.

At night, roof dump like a kid falling out of bed, wait for the crying, no, its roof dump.  In the day, tree falls like a flock of thrush in the California woods, surprising.

When I first moved to NYC in 1985, Todd would take us Cross-country skiing at Mohonk Mountain and Lake Minnewaska with Bob Perl.   It was all new to me, we would run for hours in the freezing cold out to the point burning weed the whole way.   After lunch and more running it would grow afternoon dim and we would lie down exhausted and freezing on the trail.  Todd would say, “I’m just gonna rest here for a few minutes.  Make sure you let them know I was here when the snows come.”  As if he would be buried under and never get up again.

Another time when I was a junior in High School, Todd came home from Eckerd College in Florida.  My friend Lenny’s brother was the food and beverage manager for the Lake Placid Club and we were invited after Christmas.  Todd was single and so was Lenny’s gorgeous sister Wendy.  They hit it off at once and after dinner the four of us went out for a moonlit toboggan run on the golf course.  Engulfing white blindness, indeed blind on more weed, we launched headlong into the grateful oblivion of forgetfulness.  Their was no moonlight, just snow falling and the only signal we were moving, the wind in our ears, rushing, roaring, laughing fitfully, crying really.   A huge bump, a jump and at landfall, the sled is lighter.  I’m in front, not sure who’s left, where we are, when it will end, and it does, a whump, roll over, die laughing.  Where’s Wendy?    Gone, she is half way up the hill.  Turned neck, and a neck brace puts the damper on any romance with Todd that weekend.

I’m on my back still, I can’t move, don’t want to, light and heavy all at once.

The Churning of The Milk-Sea

Sugar Tales #11 (2000) by Meredith Allen

Crystal white foam, grey-black dirigible underbelly, peaks come helter-skelter from every conceivable direction. When the sand is felt by bobbing toes, it’s a wonder; but when I drift into this trough/channel the bottom drops out and I’m gulping for dear life.  This churning sea is engulfing me and I don’t know which way is up.  I cannot write normally now, the island has moved many feet from its resting place and the waves are sucking out with no notice of return.  The low siren begins.  Another fifteen thousand souls have joined the sea, now another, another one close to us.  Meredith.   She has joined the milk sea, joined Todd.

The mountain is turning in the milky ocean, now it is sinking.  Vishnu in his Kurma avatar has come to the rescue, the serpent is still spinning its mighty tail, we are hanging on for the breath that keeps us here.  We are surfing, not drowning.

Taking Woodstock

We watched Ang Lee’s ‘Taking Woodstock‘ tonight.  It moved me, especially the part where he gets dosed and winds up in that van.  I’ve been trying to write some early stories of these kind of moments, awakening through psychedelics, wanting to revive the warm corpse of the ’60s and not having the easiest time of it, material I should really know, and spent 35 years pursuing.  I feel like this Eliot somehow: repressed,  stuck in the world of ‘perspective’ and not allowing the universe, the love to come through, hiding, carrying burden, writing about dead people.  But I’ve tried all these routes, drugs and sex and rock & roll and teaching children, and making rock and roll for and with children, and meditation, and writing, and walking in nature, and eating raw food and fasting and Judaism and travel and travel trailers and and and.  And sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long, long way from home.

Where breadfruit came from.

I bought this print by Hawaiian artist Dietrich Varez in Kauai in December. It portrays two fisherman who are lost at sea between Maui and the Big Island and paddling an outrigger canoe.  The clouds were so thick they became disoriented, unable to tell whether they were in sea or sky.  There, they came upon an island Kanehunamoku, on which they found a breadfruit tree, returning to Hawai’i with it.  The kaona (or double meaning) of this story is that whenever you come upon fog and confusion, you will also come upon ulu – which is also the verb to grow.

Todd had some troubles with the now.  Like so many of us, he lived with a lot of attraction to the future, making plans, living from plan to plan, spending days on these plans and often not actually fulfilling them due to changes in schedule.  The plans tethered him to the earth when he wasn’t sure what was holding him in the present.  He also lived in the past.  With Todd there were many regrets and these plagued him.   Thoughts would return again and again to perceived missed opportunities, but also to the glory days of the past and there were great stories to relive.   The only real struggle was with the present.  Just what to do with it?

For the last few years he had plenty of time and a fairly stable pain situation, but it was tough for him to get back on his feet.    How to start over, what to do with his time, what to create — these were the struggles of the last years.  Lost between the fog of the future and the watery depths of the past, searching for something to tether him to the land.  And sometimes coming upon ulu, the verb to grow and the noun for breadfruit.

Hooray for Captain Spalding!

Spalding Gray was my hero too.  I first encountered him when I was a college student and he was doing his “Interviewing the Audience” series. He came to Boston Film & Video Foundation and while pre-screening the audience for his onstage subjects, passed me and my friend Sasha by, because he didn’t want to interview artists.  Later on I saw some of his other monologues and was drawn into his quiet, intensely self-aware manner.  But it was an HBO special “The Terrors of Pleasure” that really connected us to his work.  “The Terrors” was a lesser known monologue that took place in Woodland Valley, NY, where we had been summering since 1985.  (He called it “Shady Valley” in the monologue, and Phoenicia was called “Krumville”)  That Spalding had purchased a home on the same road where we rented and later owned was a cool coincidence.  That he saw the irony and comedy in specific details about the area and the characters who peopled it, in precisely the same ways that Todd, Marian, Amee and I had been joking about for years, was wonderful.   Spalding gave voice to our urbane New Yorker desires for the wild-life of the northern Catskills.  ‘So wild a place, so close to New York City’ as he said, worrying about who would be responsible for picking up the extra twigs that fell from the trees on his property, “would I have to pick those up?”

We had lived this dream, rented homes on Panther Kill and Woodland Valley roads, invited friends from the city up, imagined living there full time, dealt with the oddball handymen and Ricky Riccardella, the unofficial mayor of Phoenicia, all many years before Uma & Ethan had discovered the place and turned it as trendy as Tribeca for a few minutes.  Spalding’s residency was the closest thing to celebrity that Phoenicia had seen since Babe Ruth fished the Esopus Creek in the ’30s and ’40s.  And then we ran into him.

It wasn’t even in the Catskills, strangely enough. We were on the other side of the Hudson out for a weekend stroll in Phillips Manor when, on a lonely path in a high well-lit wood, we saw another hiker approaching us in a red flannel shirt.  Amee saw him first and opened with “You’re Mister Gray!”, a slight English accent for some reason.  He smiled and said, ‘Yes,’ and that was mostly that, though I believe we told him about our Woodland Valley connection and love of ‘The Terrors’.   As in my entry “Stalking Celebrity” there was a magic to this chance encounter, the close contact with someone who had become part of our lives by voicing thoughts and humor on subjects dear to us — it was special.

There is a new documentary about his life directed by Steven Soderbergh but actually consisting mostly of extant footage from little known monologues and occasionally rare glimpses of his family, ‘And Everything is Going Fine’. Worth a look for serious ‘Spuddi-philes’.   There are also some odd similarities between Spalding’s story and my brother Todd’s, a car accident, bipolar disorder and some other parallels.  The following is from Wikipedia:

In June 2001, he suffered severe injuries in a car crash while on vacation in Ireland. “In the crash, Gray, who had always battled his hereditary depression and bipolar tendencies, suffered a badly broken hip, leaving his right leg almost immobilized, and a fracture in his skull that left a jagged scar on his forehead. He now suffered not only from depression but also from a brain injury. During surgery in which a titanium plate was placed over the break in his skull, surgeons removed dozens of bone fragments from his frontal cortex. Shattered both physically and emotionally, he spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable.[6]

Among those from whom Gray sought treatment was Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist. Sacks began seeing Gray as a patient in August 2003 and continued to do so until almost the time of his death. In an article by Gaby Wood published on the first anniversary of Gray’s disappearance, Sacks proposed that Gray perceived the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say: “On several occasions he talked about what he called ‘a creative suicide.’ On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a ‘dramatic and creative suicide.'” Sacks added: “I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.” [7]

On January 10, 2004, Gray, suffering from increasingly deep episodes of clinical depression in part as a result of his injuries, was declared missing. The night before his disappearance he had seen Tim Burton‘s film Big Fish, which ends with the line “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal”. Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, has said “You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”[6]

When Gray was first declared missing, his profile was featured on the Fox Network show America’s Most Wanted.[9]

Happy Birthday, Stuart Sender.

My oldest friend is today nearly my oldest friend, turning 50, as I will next month and all our 1961 chums will this year.  My birthday will perhaps be noted in the major press as the 50th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs debacle.  In my twenties I used to think of myself as a “Babe of Pigs,” this before “Babe, the Pig” became one of my favorite movies.   Stuart Sender is notable as the one friend I am still close with from the nursery school my mother helped found, the Millburn Co-op Nursery. He was a good friend to my brother as well, they collaborated on the Phone Crazy “Bruckner Expressway” TV treatment (more on that someday soon).   Stuart’s latest film, with his wife Julie Bergman Sender at Balcony Films and Prince Charles, (not of Millburn, NJ), is called “Harmony“.

So, Stuart is the first of this gang to enter into our second half century.  In his honor I am including a story about us when we were young fellows and “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” had just come out.   Join me as we enter The Wayback Machine, spinning the dials to the year 1970.

Nothing’s Worrying Me

The dinky sound of the ukelele starts the easy sleazy shuffle.  I can see the 45 rpm record dropping onto my toy-like record player in my third grade bedroom.   My mom has recently taken me on an unusual shopping trip to Bed & Bath.  I’ve picked out new items for my room.  I’ve selected the two colors: orange and purple.  Everything chosen is orange or purple.  There’s a Lucite orange wastebasket, an iridescent purple bedspread with fringe, new curtains (purple), a lamp (orange) and other groovy accoutrement.

I’ve just seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for the third time.   I am in love with movies, I am in love with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, they are both in love with Katherine Ross, me too.  It’s a dusty, sepia-tinted, ukelele-driven, gunslinging lovefest with the hit song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” as the soundtrack.

Butch and Sundance are teaching me about manhood.  Butch is more like me, he talks a lot, he’s kind of insecure, he’s pretty funny, he’s smart. Sundance tells him:  “just keep thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”  Sundance is really fast on the draw, he can shoot anything so long as he’s moving.  He’s really quiet, never says more than a word or two.  He’s also really handsome and I think the schoolteacher played by Katherine Ross likes him better.  I guess you could say he’s the strong silent type.   Neither one of these guys is like any type of man I’ve ever met in suburban New Jersey.  They don’t seem Jewish and bear no resemblance to Uncle Seymour, Uncle Dave or Herb Pollikoff, the accountant next door.

My friend Stuart is over, he likes the movie and the song too.  We are standing next to the desk near the window, hovering over the record player. It’s a bright Saturday afternoon and we are trying to learn all the words to the song, so we keep playing it over and over.  We are writing them down in crayon on a piece of lined paper.  The singer is very casual, sometimes his voice sort of cracks, sometimes he sounds like he’s talk-singing.  He’s not really my kind of singer.  I’m more into Paul McCartney, Bobby Sherman, Michael Jackson.   But the song is essential, we must have it, we must know every line.  It shouldn’t be that hard, so why is it taking so long?    “So I just did me some talking to the sun, and I said I didn’t like the way he got things done, sleeping on the job.”  I like that, a lot.  Talking to the sun, I’ll remember that and use it, a lot.

We’ve played it about 20 times in a row now.  Whenever it gets to the fast part at the end, we’re still not finished writing it down and have to get ready to start it all over again.  Finally we’ve written all the words and have practiced singing it along with the record to double check.  It’s been a long afternoon.   We decide to walk over to Stuart’s house.  We live in a very safe family neighborhood where everyone knows us and we are old enough to cross streets by ourselves.  All the blocks are curved so there really aren’t any corners either.

We’ve got our lyrics now, so we start walking to Stuart’s holding the page in front of us and singing.   Stuart’s house is about 5 or 6 refrains away.  Around the third refrain we see a girl walking towards us.  It is Robin Conrad, she is a very friendly blonde girl who lives next to Stuart.  We keep on singing as she approaches, I guess we want her to hear us.   She hears us.   She says:   “oh, you like that stupid song too?”   Mixed message, just like a woman.  The song is stupid, but she likes it too.    Do we like it? Do we answer?  Of course we like it, why else would we be singing it?  We smile and keep walking.

“I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining, because I’m free, nothing’s worrying me. “    No worries.  Nice refrain, I’ll remember that too.

© 2010 Paul Godwin, from the chapbook “God’s Grace Upon NJ”, All Rights Reserved.

Best Music for Grieving

Music for grieving is, of course, a huge subject and I hope you will contribute your thoughts to the comments here.  But my money is currently on Mumford & Sons 2009 CD release “Sigh No More” and every damn song on it.  This was recommended to me by my nephew and my sister-in-law simultaneously.  Shortly after Todd’s passing I was driving to the market with Bodhi and nearly veered off the road when ‘Eclipse’ by Pink Floyd came on the radio.  I decided pop music with lyrics was just too loaded for a while.  But finally I got ’round to checking out the British crew of Marcus Mumford and his bandmates (not sons).  Certainly one of the most beautiful, haunting, freshly honest, brutally personal collection of songs I’ve heard in years.    Here I draw liberally from their fine lyrics (reprinted without permission, All Rights Reserved by the band and label) and avoid actually posting MP3s to enourage you to go ahead and make this part of your collection if you haven’t already.    From the opening song “After the Storm” like the coaching of a higher guardian.

Because death is just so full and mine so small.
Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

To the Dust Bowl Dance, a fine story worthy of one of Todd’s favorite Western books or movies, eerily familiar in its lonesome gunslinging wounded hero, or things I might have said or tried to to convince Todd of in the title track which closes the album, “Sigh No More”:

Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man
you were made to be.

Or what sound like Todd’s inner thoughts might have been if he were a songwriter or poet in “Roll Away Your Stone”

And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals
The darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I seek
It seems as if all my bridges have been burned,
You say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive at the restart.

This is just scratching the surface and depriving you of the deepest portion of this work, the intensely gorgeous string band arrangements and cautious, heartfelt vocals.

Go on, get one: Mumford & Sons, “Sigh No More”


Glue. Epoxy, Super Glue, Elmers, Elmers wood glue, quick dry, Gorilla Glue, Krazy Glue.  Todd could not pass a convenience store, hardware store, 99 cent store without picking up a tube.  Where would he use it? Everywhere.  Especially his hands, as if he could seal up the gaping holes in his heart by sealing up his hangnails.  The holes in his personality, the holes in his history, the mistakes he’d made.  He would pour it on thick, too thick and it would crust up and flake and blister.  A lot of times it wasn’t meant for human skin but that didn’t stop him.  Todd was ahead of the curve when he began using glue to seal actual cuts, nowadays its done commonly but I think Todd invented it.

There were tubes of half spent glue in his truck up on the dashboard.  There were tubes of unopened glue in his workshop the day we said kaddish for him.  Somehow all that glue was not enough.  His soul leaked out of his chest through a silver dollar sized hole, light poured out of his fingernails, his eyes lay crusted with Elmer’s, dried white tears.