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!

Oppressed by Trees…

Back in 1982, I married a guy (the Good X). He hailed from Delaware and, in the normal course of things, we went to visit his parents.

His mom had a beautiful backyard and garden. The yard was fringed all around by very tall trees. We’d sit outside and talk and after a while, I began to feel very uncomfortable. Everywhere we went were the same very tall trees. I am serious. Literally everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong. I like trees. I like forests and running on narrow forest paths. One of my adventures here was a hike through the Rio Grande National Forest to see the Biggest Tree in the entire, immense forest. My best friend and church is a tree. I am grateful for what trees give us and (honestly) more grateful for their beauty, but that first venture of a woman from the open wild west to the humid, lush, tree-laden east coast?

I was really getting uncomfortable there in Delaware. I didn’t know what was going on, but after a few days I realized that this relentless canopy of trees had given me claustrophobia. I desperately needed to see the horizon. “Jim,” I said, “is there a hill anywhere around here?”

We started with a walk down the street, but there were even MORE trees. Finally we ended up walking to a big bridge over the Delaware River. As I looked over the city and the river, the vast horizon, the weird panic feeling in my chest began to abate. I could see for miles and miles and miles.

A couple of years later, returned from China and living in San Diego, we invited one of Jim’s also newly hired co-workers and his family for dinner. They were from Philadelphia. Doris — the wife — HATED the open wide skies of San Diego. “I don’t care WHERE we live in this place as long as there are TREES!!!!”

She was oppressed by the sky.

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.

Qi Whiz…

I heard a lot about “Qi” during my year teaching in China. Everything involved Qi. In a way, it’s “breath” or life. I interpreted it as “life force.” A person’s Qi could be blocked because their house was too cluttered for the Qi to move. On New Years it was very important to clean the steps in front of one’s house and to wear new clothes to attract the best Qi of the new year. Qi is constantly in motion.

Qi exists in our minds, too. If you’ve ever puzzled over something a long time only to have an epiphany, that’s Qi being released and the mind clearing. Tears at something beautiful, music, a painting — Qi releasing, the heart opening. The complicated graceful motions of Tai-chi? Designed to help Qi move as it should, as it wants to.

I like the idea of it, but a lot of my Chinese friends considered it a superstition. I don’t really think so. I think there are a lot of complicated “micr-forces” that act on our well-being and not all of them are supernatural or even out there. People often have a higher self-esteem when they’re dressed well. Light coming into a house has a cheering effect (because we can see better?) Neatness and orderliness in our homes makes life less frustrating because we’re not perpetually tripping over stuff.

After I finish projects in my little studio I clean the surface I’ve been working on. I’m not thinking that I’m opening it up so the Qi can flow, but any Chinese would. Sometimes (and this is Qi, too) I discover things that challenge or lighten the Qi in my mind. This happened the other day.

I had cleaned off the surface of the table that is the “table of all work” in there and I found a little pile of treasures I’d set aside and hadn’t dealt with. I picked up the treasures and put them in the Big Envelope of All Small Treasures I Cannot Throw Out. All of them went into that envelope but one photo that I missed. It is a photo of my brother, his wife and me in 1979 working on a giant snow bear behind my mom’s condo in Denver. My mom took the picture.

It was my niece’ first Christmas. She was just a 6 week old baby. It was a very happy Christmas for all of us and it was improved by a massive dump of snow.

My mom really hated the fact that my brother and I were artists. “My children are NOT going to be artists,” she said. “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But my brother was an artist and I am an artist and there really wasn’t anything she (or Kirk or I) could do about it. Her attitude was one of the things I’ve had to overcome in my life, and I’ve only succeeded in fits and starts. I guess the support and approval of our parents (duh, Martha) is important, but not everyone has that, or even parents for that matter. We have to do our thing without it, but there is a gnawing ugly thing inside that messes up our Qi.

I’d seen this photo many times but I had never turned it over. I didn’t turn it over this time, either. I dropped it. On the back I saw my mom’s handwriting…

I’m never going to understand that very complex woman, but that she wrote this, expressing wonder over what her two strange kids were doing?

Let the Qi flow. ❤

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