Blow Blows

Back in the seventies, you know, during disco, Farah Fawcett, Studio 54, platform shoes, Stayin’ Alive, all that, blow was big among the young. For a short time, my boss (who was also a friend) was spent a lot of weekends in Aspen where he had a friend — W — who had a friend (etc.) The moment came for me to “try a few lines,” and I took the moment with that combination of “thoughts” shared by young people — I wanted to be cool and I wanted to find out. It was a disastrous evening and no, I’m not detailing it here. I was very glad to go home the next morning.

My next experience with it happened in Aspen, as it happens. I was picked up in Glenwood Springs by, yes, the very friend who always got my boss high, and taken to his house where he was going to meet “the man.” The man was straight from South America. I didn’t, myself, “meet” the man because the man has to stay under the radar, and who knew but what I was a narc? But once the man left, W set a couple of lines out on a mirror on the coffee table and I did one. Uncut coke.

Short cut to a bad weekend.

From there I was driven to a hotel in Snowmass where my boyfriend’s parents, sister and brother in law were staying. I was going to spend three nights sleeping on the floor of their hotel room and have free skiing for three days then they’d bring me home. Or something. Sad to say, the blow I’d snorted was so pure that I was up for two nights. I don’t remember skiing those beautiful slopes or much else about the experience except that it was hell lying there on the hotel floor faking sleep and wondering if I’d ever come down. Finally, at about 4 am one morning, I wrote a note, left it on the dresser, shouldered my stuff, took a taxi to the Aspen airport and got on a plane. They were cheap back then so if you’re thinking, “Wow! All this blow! Aspen! A plane!” don’t. $40 for the flight was all the money that weekend cost me. In other ways that weekend cost a lot. Probably the best skiing of my life and I missed it even though I skied it. Nice meals I couldn’t eat and the company of people I cared for. Missed that, too.

Flying home over the winter Rockies, picking out geological features, and feeling real joy at the first sight of Denver, I decided, “No more blow for me ever.”

Not a very challenging resolution. I didn’t like, didn’t like, didn’t like cocaine. I tend to be a little hyper and wired anyway. That was beyond insult to injury. Who in hell found that shit fun? How could it enhance ANY experience?

A year later, a lawyer friend at the law firm where I worked wanted us to go to Aspen together. I arranged with my druggy Aspen friend, W, (who was a well known architect) to stay at his place. W had plenty of room for us and was happy we were coming. My friend drove. We were not prepared for the jangly strung-out mess W had become. My lawyer friend spent one night, sneaked out and went home, leaving me there (some friend….). I kept trying to put a good face on things, which included driving with this guy in his (formerly beautiful now dilapidated) Porsche Targa to a lumber yard to buy a large mirror we brought home in the top-less Porsche two-seater. That thing could have shattered any minute and then?

That night we went to a party at a house he had designed. He was a mess. I mingled and my friend did more coke and no one else did. A woman who was there said, “Do you want to come home with us? You’re not a couple, are you?”

“God no,” I said. “Just old friends.”

“That’s a relief.” She was that worried about W. He WAS scary. About 2 am we went “home” and I lay in bed thinking about my next steps, then realized I had rehearsed them. I called a taxi. If I had to spend the night at the airport, I would. I remembered the beautiful flight of a year or so before and I was eager to repeat it. This was fall and even in the high country winter hadn’t fully set in. The taxi company called back at 6 and I set up my ride. W — who was “up” night and day, heard everything, came and hung up on the taxi company. He insisted he take me to the airport, “I don’t know why you’re leaving,” he said. “You can’t go.”

“I can and I am leaving,” I said. “You’re a mess.”

He got angry, but we still got into the Porsche. I prayed we were going to the airport, and we did. At the airport W began giving me a tour of the features of the airport that he’d designed, including a passive solar wall. I can’t say that wasn’t cool, but I wanted out. Then W wanted to show me something he needed a key for, and he went to look for someone who could open something for us. The minute he turned away, I ran outside to the tarmac where the plane was loading. That was it.

Below me the mountains were golden and dark green; the peaks already snowbound; the lower cirques still filled with blue. Seeing that from a small plane was redemptive, beautiful.

A couple of years later W, who was on the Aspen City council, collapsed during a meeting. He died soon after of heart failure. He wasn’t even 35 years old.

Slept In

My parents loved poetry and read it to my bro and me all the while we were growing up. Then, in school we studied even MORE poetry. In high school we read a LOT of poetry, so much that I graduated with the belief that poetry was a big thing for everyone in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD.

I know now that what we studied says a lot about the generation to which my teachers belonged. Some of the poetry was called “experimental” because of the use of language, the way it looked on a page, and probably a bunch of stuff I don’t remember.

The three main guys from that group who found their way into these distant strands of my life are William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings and Theodore Roethke. I know there were others, but they didn’t “stick,” and among the three who have? Williams and cummings “stuck” because I couldn’t forget them (even though I wanted to). Williams proffered that infernal red wheel-barrow glazed with rain water beside the stupid white chicken, and cummings inflicted my life with a little lame balloon man who whistles far and wee (???).

But Theodore Roethke stuck because a couple of his poems informed my life (and are beautiful).

There were other poets, of course, the main guys, Frost, Sandburg. On my own I found the Beats, but Roethke has remained a different kind of voice.

So there we were, a bunch of kids, analyzing poetry written by this very, very, very complicated man. The poem that my teacher thought was most important was “The Waking.” I did not know when I was 17 how true it is, but I know now. And she was right. It is important.

The Waking


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Featured photo: Me, Mr. Nichols, D. Ballard, Miss Decou looking at a drawing for our literary magazine which was very grandly named The Empyrean. And that’s how we dressed in high school until sometime my senior year.

In other news, WP just informed me that I’m on “a streak” and have posted “8 days in a row.” Huh? Seriously, “encouragement” from WP creeps me out.

Ride Through the Time Warp

I’ve always written and for a long long time my writing was just transcribing my daily life. That would have been during the late eighties and early nineties. I thought my life pretty strange, often incomprehensible, and also because I just HAD to write. I didn’t have a story. Among the stuff I wrote were narratives of the time I spent with the boys on bikes, a bunch of neighborhood boys who piled their BMX bikes and selves into the back of my truck and went with me to Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego where I hiked and they rode. I also wrote a screen play for the video we were making. I knew that the boys were incredible and that their sport was beautiful. Most of all, we were all having fun.

I’ve recently been in contact with one of the boys on bikes, well, one that I never lost contact with. He’s now a dad in his 40s and he’s teaching his kids to ride BMX. They are all on a team together in Phoenix, AZ. I see his posts on Facebook, and I feel a warm little thrill inside. I know how hard it was for him to get past the chasm of the teen years. He didn’t have a dad, and he’s being the dad to his kids that he never had. He and the other boys — and maybe the lady driving the truck (that would have been me) — were all square pegs, so to speak, and all of us were on the verge of being hit by some major life shit.

I asked him sometime last week if he’d like the stories I wrote about us back then. I was so happy that he does. So, I put the stories I still have together in a little book with some of the few photos that still exist. We took a lot of video, but few still pictures and of them? I’ve moved house twice… It’s a pity because, as he told me, they are the only photos of his childhood that he has. The same with the stories. I don’t have that many. I’ve gone through my notebooks of writing practice (there is some really BAD writing in there) and a lot of it (besides being bad writing) is only marginally about the boys and mostly about my deteriorating marriage. As if the 26 journals comprising The Examined Life weren’t enough!

It’s a Pulcritudinous Day in the Neighborhood

Back in the day, when we were approaching high school graduation, we began prepping for the college boards. College back then wasn’t community college; it was a four year liberal arts institution that’s still around, I think. ANYhoo, there were a couple of exams we had to take in order to apply to institutions of higher learning and these were the ACT and the SAT. There was a little debate about whether we needed to take BOTH tests but since some schools wanted one and other schools wanted the other, many of us took both. Both exams are still around.

I didn’t expect to pass the math sections of either exam. I don’t believe I did. That was about the time “pocket” calculators came out and they were incredibly expensive and not allowed in the exams, anyway. I didn’t go to school with any kind of math tool except my strange brain that moves numbers around and recognizes 3 as B and 5 as S and l as 1 etc. and my two hands. My teachers coached me around my fear and frustration, “It will be fine, Martha. You’ll score very high on the verbal sections, and you have all your extra-curricular activity to make you an attractive candidate.”

It’s true. I did a lot of extra-curricular stuff in high school. I don’t even remember all of it at this point, but I got a full ride to a woman’s college in Denver. That was my mother’s dream. I couldn’t really go very far away from home because my dad was so ill and the family so friable.

We were intensely prepped with vocabulary, but anyone with the predilection I had for Victorian fiction was ahead of that game. People back in the 19th century seem to have truly loved words. And then, those with a good education usually studied Latin, Greek and a modern language bringing even MORE words into their world. At that moment in my education I believed that truly educated people had a classical education and I meant to get one. Learning vocabulary for the college boards was a breeze for me. Pugnacious, bellicose, belligerent, quarrelsome. Bring it on.

I suppose I was pretty obnoxious because the best friend of my boyfriend said, “You kiss HER? Isn’t that like kissing a book?”

Fighting words.

October 31 again

Since I was a kid some 60 years ago Hallowe’en has become a really big deal. People decorate the outside of their houses elaborately, while we just carved a couple of pumpkins and called it good. During the interval, a transition period, if you will, before Hallowe’en became a big business, I decorated the outside of my house with stuff I made. My neighbor across the street played a tape of scary music on a boombox in his open garage and I hung sheets and stuff from my palm tree. I was living in City Heights, a “ghetto” part of San Diego, known for being the part of the city where many immigrants made their first American home.

Hallowe’en is a multi-cultural holiday and it was so much fun to see all the kids and their parents, still dressed in their various “old countries” clothes as costumes, coming to say “Trick or Treat.” It was sweet, inspiring.

My dad sometimes reflected on his childhood Halloweens. They would have been different anyway — fewer cars on the roads, no giant bags of candy. His stories involved more tricks than treats; much pushing over of out-houses, that kind of thing.

My dad is the little kid with his eyes closed blowing on a noisemaker. The witch is his big sister, the other kid is his cousin, probably 1932 in Loveland, CO.

My brother and I learned a trick from my dad and we pulled it a few times. It involved one kid standing on one side of the street, the other kid across from him on the other side and both pretending they were pulling hard on a rope. Then, when a car stopped, the kids “dropped” the rope and walked away.

I think that was the last year they let us go out. 😀

When I was teaching, having learned how scared kids are of English class, I didn’t feel a costume was necessary. I just painted a little vampire blood in the corners of my mouth if Halloween fell on a school day. It was plenty. Students would see me on campus, come up to talk to me, and when I came out of the shadows, and they saw the “blood,” they screamed.

Featured photo: My brother Kirk dressed as a rodeo clown, me dressed as I have NO idea, Debbie Mahotca, our neighbor, dressed as a gypsy, 1961. Hallowe’en was always cold in Bellevue, Nebraska, and often snowy.

Goethe’s 250th Birthday

August 28, 1999, the end of my first week teaching writing at San Diego State, my teaching dream come true, I was going meet my good friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan, at Pacific Beach. Our plan was to eat sausages at a German restaurant. We were celebrating — well, Denis was helping me celebrate — Goethe’s 250th birthday.

Before dinner, we took an end-of-the-day walk on the beach. There in the near distance was an immense beautiful sand castle with candles burning in the windows. Dusk had arrived and the light from the candles reflected on the water left behind when the shallow waves retreated. It was marvelous.

“Goethe’s birthday cake,” I said to Denis.

On our walk back, Denis said, “Would you mind pie instead?” in his Staten Island accent. In Denis language “pie” = pizza. I thought, “Why not? Goethe loved Italy.”

Caveat: I didn’t take the featured photo.

Boot Laces

Everything is a project. The tiles fell off the area at the bottom of the bathroom window — three and a half 6 inch tiles — another project. I’m pondering options for repairing that. The BIG problem is it an awkward height for me to work.

Training Teddy is a project. My yard is a project. I picked two Scarlet Emperor Beans (young ones) yesterday and ate one raw. It was incredibly sweet. These are green beans for salad. We’re having good bean weather. Three days of rainy afternoons followed by three days of sunshine and warm temps.

Getting rid of books is an endless project (though I did actually read one — You Can’t Catch Death by Ianthe Brautigan. That was a project, too. As for Richard Brautigan — Ianthe’s father — I never got into his books much though he was one of the luminous voices of “my” generation. His daughter has written rather lyrically about her life with her dad — who was a binge-drinking alcoholic — and how she redeemed herself and him after his suicide. Now I have another book to get rid of.

Reading Ianthe’s book I saw some of the old tropes about writers. Troubled people, seeking solace in alcohol or drugs or both. And male. I thought about my own life as a writer. There are a few huge differences. 1) I’m not successful in any conventional way shape or form. One of the high points of my success as a writer was meeting a buyer of Martin of Gfenn one cold day last January in front of the Del Norte library. She climbed up in Bella, gave me $16, told me she loved my books and got out. It was like a drug deal. 2) I’m not tortured. There might be a connection between those two. Reading Ianthe’s book made me wonder that again.

Once Brautigan published his big hit novel, Trout Fishing in America, he was trapped. It wasn’t his first novel. That was A Confederate General from Big Sur. I found both of those books uninteresting and semi-unreadable, but everyone was reading Brautigan so I kept trying. I bought In Watermelon Sugar at the bookstore at my college, Colorado Woman’s College, in preparation for a trip up to Boulder to visit a high school friend, Malerie, who was attending the University of Colorado. I arrived, went to her dorm, we hung out, ate lunch at the Alferd Packer Grill then, that night, we went up Boulder Canyon to hang out with her then boyfriend, who as “old.” He was 25 or 26, a Vietnam vet, and a drug dealer. He had some opiated hash.

We passed around the pipe — which was a beautiful cedar burl — and I got very, very high. I didn’t do a lot of drugs — never did — so I was a lot more vulnerable to the effects than were the people around me. Everyone thought I was very funny. The boyfriend handed me his marine boot and a shoelace and told me to lace the boot. That was incredibly amusing to all and sundry. It was also very very difficult. Finally, fed up with these sadists, I took my boot (toward which I’d developed a kind of loyalty) and went to a quiet dark corner and went to sleep. When I woke up at 6 am, my arm around the boot, I got my things and took off.

I walked down the canyon to town. I had my bus ticket, my little backpack, and In Watermelon Sugar. I went to the bus station and waited for the first bus, trying to read Brautigan’s book. It just seemed to be more of the same scene I’d left behind me, an inscrutable grim world of unkind people.

I set the book on the bench in the bus station and went back to Denver without it.

Denver Morning

I slept in. Till 9. I think the weirdness tires us out. I was thinking of moments in life that are just slow and beautiful in their strange way.

In my 20s I lived in a “colorful” neighborhood in Denver for a while — Capital Hill. It was a great place to live, and if I were ever to live in Denver again, I’d go back (never going back again). During that time all my creative work had to be done on weekends because I had an 8 to 5 job. One Sunday morning I got up (earlier than 9 because you do not waste weekends when you’re working) and realized I was out of water color paper. At the time I was painting with gouache and watercolor. I had the prospect of a show coming up in a couple months.

At 11, an hour before anything opened, I put my wallet in my jeans jacket and headed up my street — I lived on 12th and Marion — two blocks to Colfax Ave, one of America’s most historic streets and most colorful. I turned left. My destination, Meininger’s, an art supply store, was more than a mile away, beyond downtown a little bit.

This crazy, busy street was almost deserted. The only people anywhere were hookers and partiers straggling home from whatever wild night Saturday had been for them.

The parking lots were empty. The stores closed and shuttered. One or two proprietors were sweeping in front of their cafes preparing for noon. It was solemn, spacious, sweet. If it had a color it would be pale blue and gray. At the end of the street the distant Rocky Mountains reminded me of the transience of this moment. I slowed down. I had plenty of time to get there.

Colfax, 2019 on a Sunday afternoon

Examples of the Gross Food My Mom Cooked

OK, I know a lot of people like these dishes and I’m not dissing you. But I hate them.

“What’s for dinner?” I might ask home from school.

If one of these was the answer I knew I was in for a salt-laden hell.

“Tuna casserole.” My mom never used noodles. She used potato chips.

“Creamed chipped beef on toast.” It didn’t just taste like someone had stirred pieces from the bottom of the Great Salt Lake in a pan with flour and milk, it looked horrible.

“I just can’t make you happy,” she said when I groaned or (oh my god!) didn’t eat (much) of the portion on my plate.

My dad called creamed chipped beef “army food” but he liked it. My brother liked it. My mom liked it, but I hated it. “You’re just fussy,” my mom.

There were other gross looking dishes that weren’t quite as terrible to eat. Creamed hard boiled eggs on toast.

Hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.

Then there was boiled beef and potatoes which stank up the house. Even after all day in the pot, the beef might still be chewy. It might also fall apart. No way to know. When I was very small and didn’t understand three dimensions, I tried to hide it by sticking it under my plate where, at least, I couldn’t see it.

“Take that good meat out from under your plate, put it on your plate and eat it.” Followed by, “You’re going to sit there until you finish your supper.” It was a test of wills at that point.

I think my mom was a good cook, but the foods she enjoyed were just different from those I enjoyed. In order to make this blog post a little bit more interesting and less about my own personal experience, I did a little research into why taste preferences vary between people. I didn’t get any surprising information. Some of it is based on the associations we have with a particular food.

My mom grew up on a farm during the Depression, and I think creamed chipped beef on toast might have been both a treat and a kind of comfort food for her. In my mom’s world, as she was growing up, there were no refrigerators. Dried, salted meat was safe meat. I took a survey years ago. Not a Facebook quiz, but a legit quiz to determine what people believed was the greatest invention of the 20th century. Among the choices was refrigeration.

The boiled beef and potatoes? Home food for my mom. She lived in a world replete with vegetables but where meat could be scarce, and definitely not the fancy cuts.

I can’t speak to the tuna casserole except maybe she didn’t have taste receptors as sensitive to salt as I do. I guess that could be a product of our individual DNA, or her chain smoking.

My mom liked to cook and over time she tried out a lot of new recipes and made many delicious meals, but the memory of these old standbys from my school years could never be erased by prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. The was the ever present possibility of their return. I started cooking at age 7. My mom knew a good thing when it happened to her. She took advantage of what seemed to be my aptitude for the culinary arts and started teaching me. I was able to make stuff I liked like tacos and spaghetti (not together).


When I was a little kid I lived in Nebraska in a town whose eastern border was the Missouri River. This means that “my” Nebraska wasn’t the Nebraska of myth and legend — flat, treeless, grassland — but forest, bluff, and butte. Almost literally across the street from our house was a forest. It belonged to the Columban Fathers, the branch of the Roman Catholic Church that is concerned with books, publishing and missionary work.

The geography was a narrow strip of deciduous forest, a wide open meadow ruled over by an ancient oak tree, then a kind of road. To the right the road went past many strange relics of an arcane faith that had little meaning to a kid brought up American Baptist. At the end a life size Christ hung from a giant cross. Along the way was a “grotto” made of concrete to look like natural rock. Now I know it was meant to be Jesus’ tomb. If my memory is right, there was an angel somewhere on that very convincing concrete climbing wall (how we used it). The passage was lined with trees and, especially in fall, it was very lovely.

My brother took this from the top of the grotto. 1965

Beyond this passage was a real road but I never saw a vehicle on it. It led to the buildings of the cloister. We never went there. Instead we crossed it and went into the REAL forest. This is where things got good. There was a ravine across which we rigged a rope and tire. My brother rode that across the ravine — and I’m sure others did — but it wasn’t my thing. There were mulberry trees from which a friend and I once shook berries. There were my favorite; narrow trails to run on and, in winter, on which we could ride our sleds.

Above: a drawing I did a few years ago of my brother and me sledding at the Mission.

From time to time, we would see a monk walking between the trees, reading from a small book. I never thought they minded us being there, but in time a high fence was erected. We just went under the gate and went on as always. In the intervening years, the cloister has been built up and some of the forest is gone and the meadow is now an area filled with buildings, but…

Years and years later, when I read the life changing book, How the Irish Saved Civilization I learned something strange and wonderful. My “mission” was home to the spiritual descendants of one of the Irish monks who, with St. Gall, crossed the channel to bring books to Europe in the 6th century. Columbanus.

We live in innumerable parallel universes and are oblivious to many of those in which we live. “Here, Martha Ann, this will be very important to you someday.”