Friday, December 21, 2012

Beauty and the Beats

No, that's not a typo.

The beats definitely do go on, whether announcing Sonnyless Cher, the Kerouac Krewe, or the fascinatin' rhythms of any play-full, freed-up, Gil Evans-inspired Jazz orchestra. (For that matter, those beats might also suggest the drum-rolls accompanying the "beauty" mentioned above, but more about that in a moment.)

I've been away, Sandra and I hauling our three older grand-children off to Hawaii--
a pre-Christmas gift we hope they will remember fondly. I do believe we all had a mighty fine time. But the trip ate up my blog time as well, so today I am offering a couple of tidbits that will be of interest... I hope. (This is sort of what's known as "vamping" in the world of Gil and Miles, Bud and Bird and Diz.)

Six months back I posted a blog piece (here) concerning Centennial, the wonderful
new CD of never-before-recorded, mostly unknown Evans arrangements--rescued, polished a bit, then recorded, those sessions also produced and conducted by young and ever-genial, orchestral Jazz leader and (now) Evans acolyte, Ryan Truesdell.

Well, the Grammy nominations have just been announced and--as listener, fan and, in this instance, one of many minor investors in the
project--I am pleased to report that Centennial received nominations for best Jazz ensemble album, best orchestral arrangement (Gil's great version of "How about You"), and best arrangement featuring a vocalist (lilting and lovely and originally prepared thus for Astrid Gilberto, who missed her best chance to "Look to the Rainbow").

We saw several of them, wispy and illusive,
carving colors from Maui's sky, arching up over the mountains, yet curving back like a hula dancer's graceful hands, reaching down to the bays... and all the while loosening, drifting slowly apart, releasing mist-light... aloha.

The land welcomed us. The beaches stretch outwards, and hibiscus and frangipani follow. Wahines in diminished bikinis outnumber native
Polynesians. Except for angled haole buildings, the world sings of curvature... and that (cue the drum-roll) brings us to the "beauty" of the title up above.

Browsing blogs before we left, I came across a new one called "Word Jass," paused to read about Ken Nordine, and discovered there too an essay (or something) devoted to young and ubiquitous, and closing fast on super-, swimsuit model Kate Upton,
the newest image of a girl who "just wants to have fu-un." But in this odds-bodkins piece, the merry wench takes on Old Will, and meets her match. Or is it some other Shakespeare?

Kind of amusing, mostly strange, not quite R-rated. If that makes you curious, click on the link... and Mele Kalikimaka to all.
* * * * *
The fifth and sixth photos courtesy of granddaughter Madelyn McEachern.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two Grunge: A Kurt Response

In Part 1 of this Grunge binge, I said that I knew a few band names but--full disclosure--a couple of the key players had been in our store too. Mike from Pearl Jam used to drop by occasionally to browse the LPs, and he autographed one album for me with crooked lines, directional arrows, and hieroglyphics in addition to his name.

Also, the real tall drink of water--called himself "Krist," to bug the bourgeoisie maybe; or it could have just been short for "Kristiaan" or some such--came in a couple of times looking for fancy illustrated books to give his collector wife. (Funny how I always had trouble remembering the group’s name--I still do--since the three Nirvana guys so quickly became symbols of the whole Grunge scene.)

One quiet day in late March 1994, into our suddenly spiffy Pike Market bookstore strolled Nirvana's blond front man--I sort of knew his name by then, Kurt Something--yes, Seattle royalty in our humble shop! He had a sleepy toddler boy sitting on his shoulders and was accompanied by a male chum maybe a bit younger than Kurt, wearing a droopy cat-in-the-hat chapeau. The singer looked beard-scruffy but happy.

We exchanged “Hello’s” and then he asked why we had two Leadbelly albums in one of our window displays. Not knowing then that Leadbelly was one of Cobain's musical heroes, I answered that we sold collectable records (these were 10-inch LPs on Folkways) and that I personally loved all sorts of Blues Music.

He looked at me, askance maybe, then sort of grunted "Huh," and turned away. I kept quiet.

Like three young actors during the tryouts for some proto-version called Two-and-Some Half-Men, the guys wandered around our store, for twenty minutes maybe, pointing at certain albums, and searching through the kids' books (Dr. Seuss was the favorite, I think); the older two kept trading the small sleepyhead back and forth, from Kurt’s shoulders to his friend’s and back again, three or four times.

Eventually the singer came over to me, without the boy, from the Beat Generation section where he’d last been browsing, and asked if we had a copy of William Burroughs’ novel Junkie, a notorious heroin-addiction potboiler.

I told him we were out of the Burroughs, but that we did have a used, slightly collectable alternative, a little-known and better-written novel called Cain’s Book, by Alexander Trocchi--pointing to it in our display case--but an equally hellish and hair-raising account based on the author’s own years of addiction. Kurt asked to see it, thumbed through the $20 paperback for a couple of minutes, then said he wanted to buy it.

I rang him up, happy as I always was when I managed to unite customer and book sought, even when a comparable substitute, then probably blew my new cred by asking him to autograph a white index card. He looked unhappy about it, but did sign--and cleverly, as I discovered as they left the store--with these words: “Ours, Curdt Kobane.” I didn't know if I'd been rewarded or quietly dissed.

Less than two weeks later, Kurt Cobain was dead.

A drug-overdose--was the initial rumor. Nonsense--responded the police--it was suicide by shotgun. When I heard I felt pole-axed... mumbling, struggling to understand what had happened: the singer gone, his son left fatherless, the emotional mess a suicide always leaves for others to deal with. What had I stupidly done by selling such a no-hope, in-the-depths-of-hell novel to a troubled drug addict? I thought, I'm guilty.

But not for long. As your typical insensitive, self-centered human male, my guilt trip lasted only a couple of days, out-argued by rationalizations like... “He was already on the downhill slide, headed straight for self-destruction”... "It was bennies or bindles or buckshot that killed him, not some book"... “Suicide? Maybe not. With Courtney’s, er, love (and lesser interests), we may not have the ‘Hole’ picture yet!”

We all moved on--Ms. Love to Hollyweird and Ferry Llint, the surviving Nirvanans
revived as Foo Fighters, Cobain’s artistic rep risen to the pantheon of Jim, Jimi, Janis, Elvis, Levis, Leviticus (wait, wait, strike that; strike the last two names, in fact). I almost bought a Nirvana-overview, multi-CD box set, then spent the cash on a hardboiled detective novel instead. I sold a couple of stacks of the trio’s early 45s at decent collector prices; sold off that odd autograph too.

Gradually, grudgingly, Grunge faded into history.

Fractiously, fearfully, the Nineties became the ‘Oughts became the ‘Teens. The Foos
fought on. The 20th anniversary of Nevermind paddled by. And three weeks ago in a used bookstore I found a reprint edition of Cain’s Book published in 1992, this one adding biographical data and sordid stories about addict-author Trocchi. My brief and curious encounter with Kurt came swirling back when I read of various suicide deaths blamed on Trocchi’s book, damned literally from title to last page.

Written by novelist Richard Seaver who knew Trocchi for some years, the Introduction provides an even-handed personal assessment of the man, described by many as charismatic and charming, a sort of Pied Piper of Heroin, or a Fifties Timothy Leary who sank through addiction and crime to desperate isolation and, finally, suicide. To Seaver the addict-author was a
monster with a human face and a bestial, scarifying story. He doesn’t apologize for Trocchi’s acts; instead, bemused, he charts the facts and the better memories, and says goodbye to a serious writer and fucked-up man who’d degrade his wife to connect, and trade friendship for a fix.

The back cover of this edition offers quoted statements strong in their praise for Cain’s Book from, among others, writers named Ginsberg, Kesey, Mailer and, of course, Burroughs (pre-eminent among the recent addict-authors). But literary opinions citing words rather than deeds, seem to mean nothing to the author of the novel’s new Foreword... and this truly surprises me, because I know the man slightly and admire his work greatly. Long ago, I wrote reviews subject to his editing at Rolling Stone; Greil Marcus and his wife (Jenny, I
think) opened their home to me, and Greil and I--together with Lester Bangs and Sandy Paton--braved the Altamont Rock Debacle-slash-Festival.

Armed with a doctorate from Harvard; Bi-Coastal and International connections in Music and Art, Academia and political action; and a burnished reputation for knowing more about Bob Dylan and Punk Music and the social history of Music in America than, well, probably any other writer on Pop Culture, Marcus is also a left-leaning commentator rarely without an opinion to express--cogently, and with icy wit--as well as the fiercely intelligent author of a dozen books, including seminal honored classics like Mystery Train and Invisible Republic (now retitled The Old, Weird America) as well as intentionally more provocative titles (Dead Elvis, In the Fascist Bathroom, The Dustbin of History). Why then does Marcus loathe Trocchi so, giving only token assent to his novel?

I can only guess, but... In novel and in life, part of him disapproves of the excessive use of heavy drugs and the wasted lives that result; part of him resists and resents the
blandishments of believers and the harm they cause, the deaths, often by a kind of willed suicide, left in their wake (Trocchi’s own sons killed themselves); and part of him holds the unacknowledged anger (I’m way out on a limb now) of a Thirties commissar thwarted in his attempts to maneuver workers like chess pieces--because they are here now, in the new, wild America, choosing pleasure over political pain.

(That's Dr. Marcus the academic, gravitating toward insulative order, believing that accumulative demonstrable facts constitute history... but then there's the Greil of Rock'n'Roll freedom, undercutting the good doctor at every turn and with every almost-blue note.)

After all, for more than four decades, Greil in his writings has supported or espoused,
among other tenets: resistance to unyielding authority; the absolute rights of individuals (even to screw up); the need for minorities to organize, speak out, and defend themselves; then, ignoring various degrees of violence and revolution, finding the inevitability of assassination as a tool of state and thus a force for change, or for repression. (Music and politics have both been known to enflame foolish bravado. Mind you, I do embrace the same lofty, lefty, Constitutionally crafty positions.)

So how does a liberal intellectual who believes deeply in Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Sun Records and Son House, Doc Watson and Dock Boggs, the Band and the Gang of Four, Bruce Springsteen and Stax/Volt, the Harry Smith anthologies and The Johnny Cash Show on TV, the Mekons and Mavis Staples, the Kinks and the Slits, Elvis Costello and that earlier Elvis too... how could anyone as cool and attuned as that begin ranting as though he’d ban the shall-be-nameless book from the shelves, then burn every copy he could get his hands on? Beats me.

But to forestall Marcus coming after me with a buggy-whip, I’m swearing you to silence, Reader... yes, you there, sitting at the computer in your bathrobe. Greil doesn’t need to know that Kurt Cobain was reading that damned book in the week before he died... the one I thoughtlessly provided.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grunge 1: Cobain Fever

I’ve been immersed lately, listening and looking back over some aspects of “Grunge,” Seattle-centered originally, and mostly gone now. Why the interest? Well...

I gave up on trying to embrace and absorb all the subdivisions of Pop Music about 15 years ago. Up till then I had made it a matter of personal pride to familiarize myself with every kind of music made and, as best I could, to follow on records any further developments or significant changes. So I learned, meaning read about and listened to, and heard enough to appreciate--to admire if not to love--a wide-horizons world of music ranging freely…

1) From Liszt to Elvis, Piaf to Punk, influential Dylans to distinct and independent Dials (record labels, that is)--and as one earthshaking example the album cover to
London Calling by the Clash, and the brilliant dual-ing discs within, arising from the Punk-ash heap of Art Rock pulverized, immediately acclaimed the perfect throwdown of the era.

2) From Hamza's el oud to a din handily loud, and Vancouver’s Heart to Hotlanta’s Soul: the label might read Modern or Motown, Manchester or Madagascar, but no matter which or where, if the sound was Deep South Soul--Candi Staton and Percy Sledge, Ann Peebles and Penn/Oldham, James Carr and James Govan--then I was snared, grinnin’ like the possum that escaped a 'gator, happily enrapt in Loo’zana swamp moss and Mis’sippi sweat, at the dark end of some dimly-lit street!

3) From grandiose old Operas to the Grand Ol’ Opry, and the New Lost City Ramblers to the New Wave: the Blues had a baby named Rock ’n’ Roll--a happy toddler till its loutish cousins Pub Rock and Punk clashed and pistoled and jammed, down at their local, and emerged clutching a frank ‘n’ stein, passport-and-pisspot contraption called New Wave; though neither low-tide nor tsunami, synth sine-curve nor whosit’s power-chords, horrid hairstyle nor torpid farewell to Rock, the New Wave at its best gave us Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe and his songs of smart-aleck irony, maybe even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and--grassy as hay sues--John Hiatt and the Goners (the
group’s halcyon years when slidemaster Sonny Landreth was the Gonerest of all).

4) From mbira thumb piano to Monk, Thelonius (any), and Gustav Mahler (conducted by Walter, B.) to Gregg Allman (guitared by brother D.)--Mahler’s clarion-splendor Symphonies 1 and 2 and the impossibly beautiful, heaven-sent and heart-rending, elegiac song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), might serve to sum up all that we know of Life and Music, of Love and, finally, of Death.

You see, I love Music (or did), almost any kind, for the imaginative fancies it awakens in me, and even the florid over-fancy writing that’s sometimes unleashed (see above). At 70, I’m too jaded to be much bothered by purple prose or yellow
journalism, Repugnant-red tricks or almost-blue heartache. What changed for me in the mid-Nineties and still gnaws at me today was my ability or willingness to go on listening to all kinds of Music. The few categories had splintered into, say, three-score-and-ten, niches and spin-offs and beat-counts and coded understandings. My ears and my brain were just too tired. I had to take leave of that cacophony of sounds.

But beyond my own disquiet there were these other signs... Rock’s foundations were crumbling. Jazz had retreated into its own past. Country was all hats and no cattle-calls. Reggae seemed to have lost the Rasta spirit and settled for Babylonian flesh. Classical went on its way, dwindling and obscure. World Musics were too much with us--lately gotten, too soon spent,
traditions wasted.

Worst of all, Black Music had lost its Soul, its Gospel-derived, Love-become-love emotions, the heaven-waking, house-wrecking harmonies, and the melismatic bending and stretching of notes. The new replacements were a bad joke. Hip-hop at first meant “tagging” and lyrics either comic-ironic or stalwart and socially aware, and those early 12” singles (mostly on Tommy Boy, I think) at least demanded that you (break)dance.

Then came the K-rap. Crude street talk; whores and guns and jive-ass rhymes; no one but thieves, pimps, and crackheads need apply. And the ensuing world takeover, by angry (and phoney angry) Black males named Li’l Wayne and Biggy Smalls, Tupac and Get Back, Remake and Dead Fake, depressed me then--the better few diminished by the many--and still depress me now.

I vowed to focus only on the Music, the several musics, old or new, from then till now, that matter to me most: acoustic Jazz, British Isles Folk, Roots/Americana, so-called Conscious Reggae, any Deep Soul that survived, and a few other narrowed categories. In so doing, I managed to live amid
flannel Seattle but ignore the years of Grunge.

Oh, not completely; I’d hear the odd song on a car radio or blasting from a boombox (or whatever communications gadget was hot at the time). Without paying attention, I thought I had the Grunge sound sussed out: Northwest Garage Rock meets Punk meets Thrash Metal; the shy reclusiveness of Jimi Hendrix combined with the quiet subtlety of the Ramones (as if!). “Doctoring” an old joke: take two letters from Punk, and four from Garage, and call me in the morning.

I knew some band names--Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and wasn’t there a group (or
was it a solo act?) called TAD? (I admit it, I just didn't care what attitude differentials separated Sub Pop, say, from the pushy success of major labels.) And then there was that trio with the tall, tall bass player and the moody, sharp-tongued blond guy singing...

* * * * *
Part 2 brings an actual visit from his Kurtness. In the meantime there's hot turkey and family traditions that need tending.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Waiting for Beckett

Bear with me, please. This starts complicated but gets simpler, and then simpler still.

By early 1960 I had received acceptance letters from several colleges, but since my parents were headed overseas to Korea, I carefully chose to begin that higher education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, near my closest relatives (in Joliet). But I was way off about finances. As the only private school amid the expansive public campuses of the Big Ten, Northwestern was small, hugely expensive, and as a result of the money involved, something of a party school at the undergrad level—a fine English Department, superior Drama and Journalism Schools, but most of the action beyond undergrad level.

To survive there financially, I had a big academic scholarship, a bigger student loan, a 20-hours-a-week job at the campus Student Union—and then still needed monthly
help from my parents. There were many positive aspects to years one and two—learning much about Jazz and Folk Music, Modern Poetry, and the Modern Theatre as well (on-Broadway or off-, Absurdly), not to mention any social skills I absorbed—but by early 1962 I’d decided to save serious money by transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle, sort of the elephant in the room for my home state, but also a great campus for poetry, centered on Theodore Roethke and the circle of his ex-students, some still at UW, others spread out across the Pacific Northwest, Montana, and points East: Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, David Wagoner, Beth and Nelson Bentley, Robert Sund, plus young poets soon to be recognized, plus Roethke or Department links to Stanley Kunitz, Louise
Bogan, Robert Penn Warren, various Irish and English poets, on and on.

And wasn’t that a mighty time? There’s much to tell, of course, but not today, because this piece has another subject altogether--a crankily shy, comically sullen, cannily deadpan pessimist; a lanky, sharp-featured, hawk-eyed, mock-Existential Absurdist (more Reductio ad than “Theatre of”), master of many words, or few, or none; a frankly hard-up, glad-to-be-unhappy, loving-every-miserable-minute, expatriate Irishman become ex-patriot Frenchman, feted by many and hated by a few, maneuvered by Joyce, slighted by Sartre, ignored by Camus, and finally hailed by the Nobel Committee and embraced by the wide world for, among three-score-more pertinent things, having written THE
signature play of the Twentieth Century.

No, not Synge with Riders… or Yeats invoking Cuchulain… nor Heaney re-Gaeling Beowulf… not even Joyce creating playlets within Ulysses. I’m writing instead, and briefly in fact, about Samuel Beckett… who looked somewhat like Dashiel Hammett minus the mustache. (You can also hear intriguing echoes of sounds and rhythm in their two names.) And the play? Doesn’t matter how many other bleak, funny, scarifying, mute, or talky stage works Beckett created. The world keeps Waiting for Godot.

Written in the late Forties/early Fifties, Godot was staged first in Paris in 1953, and word spread rapidly about Beckett’s bizarre and haunting, bare-stage-and-tree, lackadaisical yet compelling two-act piece concerning four comic and variable,
angst-y Everymen who seem to speak and act, or not act, as would anyone (every one) of us who expends (wastes) his/her (our) existence, forever awaiting… what? Some thing, anything, nothing, no thing, whatever it takes for things to change, or perhaps to stay safely unchanging: playful, pitiful, baleful, pitfall, pratfall life… of love and death and taxes, of terrors and the unknown, of the Unnamable No-Show… known to some as Godot.

From the mid-Fifties on, rave performances of the play (“raving,” sneered naysayers) held theatres and audiences captive from Paris to London and Berlin, from Dublin to New York and on to San Francisco. Stage-conscious Northwestern was always well up on hit plays of the moment, and I recall hearing--or hearing about--dorm discussions, acting
classes, and literature courses focused on comic Ionesco and convict Genet; on the threat of violence in tersely voluble Pinter, the strangeness of scene and character in Albee (America’s almost-Absurdist), and the Keaton-Chaplin-circus clown elements deployed by Godot’s-gone-AWOL-and-bob’s-your-uncle Sam Beckett.

I was nowhere near this hip on my own; it was the job I had lucked into--assistant to Joe Miller (not his real name, which I have shamefully forgotten), Northwestern’s vice president for something like “Student Events and Campus Productions” (including the annual, all-out Waa-Mu variety show), with his office located right in the busy Student Union. There I answered the phone; read and marked for clipping issues of Cashbox and Variety, The New York Times and Chicago papers, Time and Life and more; took informal notes, a fly on the wall at some of his meetings; and
spongily tried to absorb everything else. I functioned as a combination of secretary, factotum, bellhop and--once or twice--even Joe’s unofficial stand-in. (If he was triple-booked, say, because double- was no problem.)

It was work I looked forward to each day and, really, the only thing I regretted leaving when I headed West in June of 1962. The job had broadened my cultural awareness, and among the books I had read about and bought immediately were Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd (1961) and the brilliant, just-published Grove Press anthology titled Seven Plays of the Modern Theater, which of course included Godot.

So I was primed when I moved into a shared apartment in Seattle, with time to enjoy some months of Century 21 (official name of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair).
And by a splendid coincidence, wasn’t one of the featured plays, for a few days in July, Waiting for Godot in the acclaimed, long-running production mounted by San Francisco’s Actor’s Workshop? Why, yes it was. And did I actually get to a performance? Well, yes, two of them in fact.

And was my life changed forever? Not sure, haven’t got there yet… but for 50 years
now, I have written less formally, with more puns and word play, a greater awareness of the sounds of words and of other languages, of the points of view held by other nations, of our One World, fragile and beautiful, over-heating and overwhelmed. And I have despaired often.

* * * * *
I’ve told this story for a ridiculous reason--an email tiff I got into recently with some adjudicator(s)...

I was idly browsing books by or about Beckett, noticed a new Everyman’s Library edition of his “trilogy,” three avant-garde tour-de-force novels he wrote before Godot--bleak Molloy, bleaker Malone Dies, and bleakest, The Unnamable--and saw too that the Amnipotent Seller-of-All-Things was soliciting
customer reviews of the three-in-one book.

Hmmm, I said, hmmming… What could I write that would be serious but a joke too, maybe sound a bit like Beckett? The answer hopped into my head instantly. The Unnamable ends with some enjambed sentence-phrases long thought to sum up the rueful, hopeless, darkly humorous, Sisyphus-on-a-banana-peel universe that Beckett’s solipsistic characters inhabit: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I knew I could twist that a little, dowse with a bucket of Beckett-meets-Joyce linguistic nonsense, and heeding Amazonink’s submission regs, probably still amuse a few readers while staying true to the spirit of Sam.

Here’s what I emailed to the Amazonicans at World Domination Hdqs:

Sprocket zee Bequette? --Review of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Everyman’s Library hc)--

Re: Molly, Malarkey, UnGnomen (auf Existenz)… Eye cant knot reed awn. Butt aye mussed naught rede un. Sew aiee due.

… Came bouncing back almost before I got my finger off the Send key--detected, inspected, rejected. No reason given--just a repeat of the boilerplate: can’t be obscene, should focus on product features, must be at least 20 words, etc. I reflected, realized I’d been disrespected, and thus logically objected (excerpts as follows):

Hello. Might you not lighten up a little? Of course you are in charge and can reject any review you choose for whatever reason. But this one does not violate any rules or standards that I can find in your regs. It is 20 words long [more if headline and
sub-head are added] including a brief bit of mock German but nothing that a fan of Beckett could not grasp--trying NOT to be excessive in length of the game it plays, taking Beckett’s most famous line… and subjecting it to the kind of sound and word play that Beckett’s mentor Joyce and indeed Beckett himself on occasion would write. Yes, it’s a bit of a lark, a game of seeming nonsense words, but it does actually say something quite Beckettian about the dedicated readers of Sam: “I can’t not read on. But I must not read on. So I do.” These small bits might amuse some readers other than the Amazin' po-faced judges…

There’s more, but why beat a China shop bull-sitter at ping-pong? I got back another
form email promising a considered response within a few days. But four weeks later… I’m still waiting. Waiting for the Tumbling Amazonks to get their act together. Waiting for some camera-sly Godot to school me in the marvels of spinal stenosis and Parkinson’s.

Waiting for Beckett to convince me once again that his later works--increasingly static, more and more silent--still bear the magic,
rough or radiant, of Lear and Quixote, of Prospero and Bloom, and of his own earlier characters Winnie and Didi, Hamm and Krapp, allowed to speak aloud… versus those of Buster Keaton, creator of cinemagical silents (some possibly, Absurdly, absorbed by Sam), from The Navigator and The General to those genius Jrs., Sherlock and Steamboat Bill… and from Keaton The Cameraman to Buster the Object, perceived by Eye of camera and I of self, in Sam Beckett's sole Film.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

O Brave New World

Two posts back I wrote a ridiculous piece pitting Christmas 2012 against the Cataclysm predicted by Mayan prognosticators a couple thousand years back. Yes, it was a fairly stupid few hundred words--a shaggy dog joke really--and was greeted with the yawning silence it deserved. Thing is, I need a fill-in post occasionally, when the long essays just don’t arrange and write themselves as quickly as needed.

Once in a while something interesting comes from the silliness, from some wild hare I pursue. Writing about Mayan culture reminded me of two other examples from this particular writer’s life-files...

First, in the late Sixties I researched and wrote for Seattle Magazine a long and fairly nifty report on the archeological dig then underway near Washtucna in Eastern Washington, but located down in the "scablands" canyon of the Palouse, where some rock-overhang shelters were used for thousands of years as both temporary resting
points and regularly visited hunting camps--terrain well-suited to preserve the so-called "kitchen middens" of piled-up human waste, cracked animal bones, and the occasional human burial, sometimes complete with rough-made tools.

This site had yielded solid proof of such occupancy: primitive weapons, bones and teeth from humans and other creatures, plus the near-entire skeleton of carbon-dated, twelve-thousand-year-old “Marmes Man.” (The human remains were thought to be those of early wanderers--crossing the land bridge from Asia to Alaska, then gradually moving south via Washington State, their descendants eventually considered the “Native American” peoples of the West and Meso-America.) But all would soon be lost, the whole canyon inundated by the rising waters of the river, trapped behind a new Snake River dam further downstream.

I actually joined the dig for two ultra-dusty, hundred-degree days, interviewing
archeology professors, grad students hoping to become such, and a few paid laborers. But I also took up shovel and wheelbarrow to move or re-move some surface layers of newer dirt--heavy-sweat work, I assure you--and then got to attempt a few hours of the finer digging, using trowel and whiskbroom and makeshift screen over whatever container was available, to scrape up, gently, thin layers of old dirt, small rocks, and whatever, above the middens proper, everything carefully measured and string-marked, divided into square-foot grid sections.

After a few hours of scraping and whisking, shifting, then sifting carefully, but finding nothing of possible interest, I was ready to knock off. (Okay, I was wimping
out.) But suddenly there it was, emerging from the latest trowel of dirt… a tooth! I grabbed it up, rubbed more dirt off, and then could see that it looked like a human tooth about an inch in length. Convinced that I’d made the greatest find since Java Man, I put the tooth on a Kleenex and hustled over to show the prof in charge.

He made the appropriate sounds, congratulated me on a discovery made in so few hours (some lurking sarcasm there or, maybe, a professional’s disdain for the lucky amateur), and proceeded to burst my bubble, explaining that a single tooth by itself didn’t count for much; other teeth, a jawbone, a whole or partial skull, would lend more credence, even help establish archeological provenance.

His careful science mattered little. I was jazzed, and I had some true grist for the story mill. I made a few more scenic notes, completed the interviews, and drove off, headed home to write the tale of a major dig under extreme pressure to complete its work, of a marvelous, history-defining find, of "Marmes Man" and one happy volunteer digger. (That would be me.)

* * * * *

The second verbal artifact requires less telling. When Sandra and I got married almost 25 years ago, we made sure that nearly every aspect of the several days’ celebration and wedding ceremony had been picked up and dusted off, or dispensed with, or changed utterly. Among the minor adjustments was our decision to offer a single-layer chocolate cake, and I put the rationale (sort of) into a poem printed in the program for our lovely but equally low-key ceremony:

In Defense of Flat Chocolate Wedding Cakes

Any time, love is a nervous condition.

On the sunwheel plaza high up each
pyramid of the Valley of the Sun,
Aztec priests got right to the heart
of the matter: the Cakes of Heaven
are seldom a body’s bread.

Nor should the hopeful couple approve
some half-baked cylinder shaped
like Chichen Itza’s Well of Maiden Sacrifice.
(Not that far removed, politically speaking.)
Imagine the usual sugary concoction,

small man atop clearly in reduced circumstances,

and the tiny woman, had she but tongue
to vent her anguish, shrieking like the Sidhe.
Neither would choose to live in such
a triple-tiered suite of dubious taste…
Let other weddings take the cake for show

biz. Our “I do’s” will not be
symbolically or otherwise consumed
at the Drive-in Chapel of Confectioners’ Dreams.
Marriage can be short and dark and give
you several raspberries. Chew on this

to remember our cock-eyed optimism.