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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

You Better You Bette

Between 1971 and 2011, Tommy returned to Seattle several times, staged variously as opera, musical play, concert hall performance, even tarted-up film (i.e., the version directed by Ken Russell). I believe Roger Daltrey sang here in two or three of them and Townshend played his windmilling guitar in at least one. Even now, over 40 years later, somewhere in the world, new versions are up on the boards, filling seats yet again.

I’ve never been to any of them. For some reason I’ve just never gone gaga (Lady or otherwise); I hear a dumb story partially redeemed by the music, but I’d rather revisit classic albums like Who’s Next and The Who Sell Out. (In fact, writing about Townshend and the lads sent me
looking for used copies of some Deluxe 2CD reissue packages, and the tracks new and old, older and older yet, sound uniformly great.)

I pretty much let the rock-critic thing slide in the late Seventies, moved on to other kinds of writing, and eventually made a late-career shift into bookselling. From 1992 until 2002, my wife and I owned a mixed new-and-used bookstore in Seattle’s busy Pike Place Market downtown; we sold postcards and LP records and some expensive collectable First Editions as well as a selection of new publications. We had some fine years before Amazon and other big stores started crushing us small sellers; and our location meant you never knew who might wander in, from mystery writers to Nashville pickers to local Rock stars.

And late one midweek morning in 1996, I looked up from the paperback dictionary I was idly sampling, saw a good-looking woman in raincoat and scarf (removing the latter), still in sunglasses, and realized it was Bette Midler. I knew she was in Seattle for a series of performances, but having her appear in our store was a pleasant
surprise. I tried to play it cool as I stepped out from behind the counter, still holding the dictionary.

“Good morning, Ms. Midler,” I said.

She glanced at me, smiled briefly, said, “Hello.”

“Anything I can help you find?”

“Well, I was just starting to look around…” The sentence didn’t quite close.

“Please,” I said, “… continue,” waving the book in some sort of awkward gesture, then quickly putting it aside. She did just that, and I tried to think of something else worth saying. I thought of Bette coming to Seattle for Tommy in 1971 and how 25 years had zipped by since then. I started fumbling through the story, trying to play
up my small role in that chain of circumstances--but, so I hoped, without bragging too much.

Bette had stopped browsing and was looking straight at me. When I stumbled and paused, she took off her sunglasses, deposited them on a table book display, and suddenly stepped towards me, pugnacious, glaring. I backed up as she launched into a fast, furious diatribe, sounding angry enough to chew on nails and spit out tacks, word by word. (I don’t really remember what all she said, but the content was similar to this partly-made-up flurry of words and jokes--that I sort of registered, but didn’t dare laugh at. I was too busy backpedaling.)

“So it’s you I should thank for nearly wrecking my career? I oughta whomp you upside the head with that dictionary… kick your Trojan arse sidesaddle! It was you launched the thousand slip-ups, and the worst stage experience I ever had to go-on
and work through--and that includes times when I couldn’t sing, and times when I wish I hadn’t. And don’t get me started on wardrobe misfunctions. Damn Tommy-tuckers had me running, jumping, and climbing, in a see-through costume made of band-aids and gauze. Madame LaZonga with her gazongas hangin’ out, jumping off a 20-foot cliff, onto a trampoline… every night!" She took a breath, then snarled: “With fiends like that, who needs enemas?!

“And then came your chicken critics, clucking and squawking, waving their tiny column inches and attacking my tits--they should kiss my Acid Queen--instead of discussing the music or analyzing that weird story. And backstage, what, comfort?
Warm rooms? Fageddit! Your Moore definitely was less--a lesson in... How to be stingy. With no fun anywhere. Cold chills and no hot guys. Rain like Noah’s flood. Blue laws and bluestockings still running your city--in 1971! 'Only ten weeks' you say? Well, those ten weeks in Seattle are still the worst year of my life!” A calming breath and then, slowly, winding down: “Now friends of mine… are moving up here… but why… is still a total… mystery to me… MisterE...”

That last slowed sentence also saw Bette trying hard not to laugh. But she couldn’t help grinning, and I realized her whole tough-broad rant
had been more performance art than permanent anger. I stammered something like “Whew! You really had me goin’ there. Listen, I am sorry...”

She stopped me. “Enough with the baloney. I survived. I’m doing fine. But let’s just say, maybe you owe me, a little. So work off your debt. Come out here and help me pick some books to read on this long tour.”

I did. We wandered around MisterE Books for a half hour maybe. I answered her questions, we compared notes and opinions on books read, and I offered some recommendations. I had to break away for a few postcard sales, but mostly we were alone. The browsing book-woman seemed happy, glad to be doing something other than playing BETTE MIDLER!!

Somewhere along the line I did tell her that payback had caught up with the critics who’d insulted her back in the Tommy days--one guy actually dead (I'd read somewhere) and another moored (Moore…d?) to a wheelchair. She just waved the
news away, saying, “Yeah, well, we're all on that damn list.”

The upshot? She chose a good-sized stack, eight or ten trade paperbacks, and I gave her “the Tommy discount”--20% off for being a trouper and a good sport. Hidden by scarf and sunglasses, Ms. Midler took her two bags of books, told me “Thanks” and “Ta-ta!” and left.

* * * * *
Until I sat down to write this tale, that was pretty much the last I heard-spoke-or-saw (or thought) about Bette, and Pete and Tommy, for another 15 years. It’s so ridiculously easy to be deaf-dumb-and-blind about anything that’s not in your daily
purview, your wheelhouse… mindset… horizon of interest… immediate vicinity… national borders… little corner of the world.

Worse yet--and I think Pete Townshend tapped into this, whether inspired or all unknowing, when he composed his lasting opera-of-Rock forty-odd years ago--here we are, billions of us, all us “little atomies,” each a Tommy at the center of his, her, your, my own universe… the walls and gaps and distances not
really bridged by I-Pads and cell phones and social media. Instead we are each more isolated and alone, reaching out digitally but more and more aware of loss, sensing our bits dispersing as the transporters fail and the solar winds rise…

But that’s a-whole-nother matter (aTommic perhaps?), to be argued some other time.

Friday, October 5, 2012

And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor...

While we impatiently await the promised appearance of Bette Midler in Part or Act 3 of the saga of Seattle’s brush with the Rock Opera titled Tommy and “his” creator, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, it occurred to me that I might have some information worth sharing in this season of change, with the Winter of our discontent coming soon after that…

1) This is a Public Service Announcement… There are only 80 shopping days left till Christmas. You get to that number by including all the intervening Saturdays and Sundays… meaning: No rest for the weary of heart or foot, and the wary of wallet.
However, if Thanksgiving Day is disallowed--as a national holiday, and one in a handful of such days which see most shops and stores, banks and businesses truly closed--then the days-left total becomes just 79. Either way, we really must get cracking because…

2) This is the Panicked Disservice Announcement… Civilization as we know it, indeed the world itself, will soon be terminated by the earth-wide cataclysm that Mayan seers and Mat-Hema-Tikal stone-calendar makers seem to have predicted thousands of years ago as coming on the Winter Solstice—i.e., December 21st--in the year 2012. (Hmm… could be a bad moon
a-risin’ ‘round here.)

In which case there are only 76 (or 75) days left until all the Chichens come home to roost and all the bills come too.

But wait! Various scientists and archeologists and Mayan elders have come forward over the past year or so to debunk the End-of-the-Worldsters; seems the latter group’s interpretive
readings of glyphs, graphs, and guffs were just so much serpent-feathers—the end of a cycle, yes, but more on the order of the millennium markers we left along the roadside some years back. Apparently we’re meant just to amble on, resolutely, like a Cormac McCarthy hero.

Maybe; maybe not. Here’s my prediction: we’ll mostly have a holiday season like always, full of tension and receipts, sports bars and family spats, lots of almonds and some joy.

But just in case…

Merry Cataclysmas and Hapocalypse Now.