Posts Tagged ‘UC Santa Cruz’

Your Inner Bushman

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The five groups of San or Bushmen are called the First People. Most call themselves Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from her book The Old Way

I wanted to open this article with that quote from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a great friend of the Kalahari Bushmen, so I would not be accused of using a derogatory term when speaking of the people from whom all humans on earth are descended. One of my favorite scientific discoveries of the last few decades is that every human being currently alive on the planet can trace his or her lineage directly to the same Bushman woman who lived in Southwest Africa 172,000 years ago.

The gathering of pertinent genetic data from around the world, as well as the complicated figuring that went into determining the identity of our great Mother, has now been duplicated by multiple scientific teams, and there is today universal agreement among physical anthropologists and geneticists (though not among members of Congress) that Eve, as the European-centric researchers have named her, was, indeed, a Bushman. The name I prefer for our Very First Lady is N!ai, the exclamation point indicating a loud click made by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth and popping it down simultaneously with the sound ai (I).

Among the many groovy things about tracing our collective beginning back to N!ai is that until the 1950’s there were still extant bands of Bushmen in and around the Kalahari Desert living very much as they had for tens of thousands of years, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her parents and brother were among the first and last non-Bushmen to gently interface with these people and to record in great detail, in writing and film and sound recordings, how our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. Thus we know, in a tangible way, from whence we came.

“Interestingly, no anthropologist wanted to join us, although my father tried hard to find one and would have paid for his or her salary and all expenses. However, unlike the modern Kalahari, where the anthropologist/Bushman ratio often seems to be one to one, in those days (1950’s) no anthropologist took an interest in our project.” from The Old Way

The first book I ever read about Bushmen was The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. What a great adventure story! I was sixteen and intent on becoming an actor and a musician, but I was so thrilled by van der Post’s book I decided if I had to go to college to avoid going to Vietnam, I would major in the study of Bushmen. I subsequently devoured the sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari entitled The Heart of the Hunter, and then I found Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People and read it twice. By the time I matriculated at UC Santa Cruz in 1967 with a major in Anthropology, I had read virtually everything there was in print about Bushmen.

Upon my arrival at that bucolic campus, and much to my dismay, I was informed by my snooty professors that Laurens van der Post and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas were to be ignored in regard to Bushmen because, heaven forbid, neither was an accredited anthropologist, and thus their data was suspect and I was a fool for admiring them. Nevertheless, their books introduced me to Bushmen and I have subsequently been privileged to correspond with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas about many things, most especially about the first people.

“What determined the size of our groups? Water was the single most important factor—water and the food supply around it.” from The Old Way

This may come as a surprise to you, but there was no pasta in the diet of the first people. Indeed, the so-called hunter-gatherer diet now being hailed by avant-garde nutritionists as the healthiest possible diet for most human beings contains no dairy, no gluten, no wheat, almost no grain, and very little sugar. I know several people currently reveling in newfound health since making the shift away from a grain-based diet to one composed largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and…wait for it…meat. And why is such a diet so good for most humans? Because, quite simply, our metabolism, our inner Bushman, if you will, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years eating what our hunter-gatherer progenitors ate and not much else.

I cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Old Way to anyone interested in his or her origins. Ms. Thomas published this remarkable volume in 2006, nearly fifty years after publishing The Harmless People, having decided to revisit the copious notes she made while living with the Bushmen in the 1950’s, and to tell a new story imbued with experiences and insights accrued over her long life of study, exploration, and contemplation. I have loaned my copy of The Old Way to several people, and every one of them reported that the book inspired a profound and positive shift in their perceptions of themselves and the world.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, as I generally do, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has also written two great novels—Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife—of what may ultimately be a trilogy of interconnected sagas focusing on a group of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in the northern hemisphere at a time when mammoths still roamed the earth, and when lions and tigers were much more likely to kill people than vice-versa.

“We lived in groups; we could dig roots; we could find water; we could catch grubs, snails, tortoises, porcupines, and other small animals that were not fast runners (sometimes called “slow game”); some of us could run down large antelopes; and we had fire. We had lived on the savannah for a million years.” from The Old Way

We lived in groups, and we dined in groups, and we shared our kills and harvests with friends and loved ones, which brings to mind our dear friend Juliette White, globetrotter, cellist, and patron of artists and friends, who died a little over a year ago. She was, among many things, the hostess of wonderful spontaneous meals devoured by lucky last-minute invitees to her cozy cottage a couple miles inland on Albion Ridge Road.  I met Juliette three years before she died. Her gift to me at the end of our first meeting was her blessing to marry her good friend Marcia, which I did. Thereafter, I was invited to a number of spontaneous dining soirees in Juliette’s commodious cottage; and some six months before she died, Juliette asked me to help her write her obituary.

So one morning over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes bursting with huckleberries plucked from bushes growing in the forest surrounding her house, I interviewed Juliette about her long and multi-faceted life, and quite unexpectedly she said, “That was the year we went to Africa and lived with the Bushmen.” I nearly fell out of my chair. But it was true! Juliette had gone to Africa and made the long and dangerous trek by land rover into the Kalahari Desert to live for a time with the same Bushmen people that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with and wrote about; and Juliette had several gorgeous photographs of those Bushmen people to prove it.

I then had the pleasure of sending copies of Juliette’s photographs to Elizabeth, who then wrote to Juliette and told her that she recognized the people and was glad and very touched to see them again.

And that story reminds me of huckleberries, which Juliette loved, and which the hunter-gatherers in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s novels are frequently saved by in the absence of water or any other food as they trek across the rugged earth seeking food and safe shelter and, with any luck, dry firewood.

This past fall the huckleberries were thick on the bushes that grow around our house on the edge of the redwood forest. We picked several quarts to freeze so we would have berries through the winter and into spring, and this morning I made gluten-free pancakes with some of those huckleberries, and I thought of Juliette and Elizabeth and of the hunter-gatherer diet, and how chocolate is not on that diet, but honey is, because Bushmen love honey. Oh, yes we do.

There is a bird that lives symbiotically with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a brave and beautiful bird called the Honey Diviner. And this Honey Diviner comes to the Bushmen camp singing, “Hello my friends, I bring tidings of a big tree where the bees have amassed a great store of honey that is at this very moment oozing out of the hive and crying to be harvested. However, I do not have hands to get that honey from the bees, but you do, and I know you love honey as much as I do, so…”
And so the people follow the Honey Diviner to that big tree, even if it means running many miles across the desert, for they love honey as much as they love meat. And when they have braved the stings of those angry bees and filled their ostrich-shell bowls with honey, the people give the Honey Diviner a generous share of the sweet ambrosia, for without her they might never have found the hive.

Meaning of Meaning

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

I first encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1967 when I was eighteen, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. Wittgenstein’s little treatises The Blue and Brown Books were required reading for all freshmen enrolled at Stevenson College, the campus within the campus named after Adlai Stevenson and dedicated to the social sciences. I was a gung ho anthropology major, though my gung ho-ness would soon be replaced by the awareness that anthropology was a deeply conflicted realm best avoided by the already conflicted likes of me.

But in my early weeks on that lovely campus, free for the first time in my life from my parents’ incessant intrusions, the breezes eloquent and optimal for Frisbee, the bevies of braless beauties making of life an erotic potpourri, I was inspired to give academia the old college try. So I dove into my studies with youthful zeal, and things went swimmingly for a month or so, and then…Wittgenstein.

I beg the forgiveness of any Wittgenstein devotees who may read this dispatch. My sense of the man, based on a few biographical sketches and the four pages of his work I have labored through, is that he was an intimidating German charlatan for whom Oxford and the higher realms of academia were a field of clover, he a ravenous cow. But I don’t know.

In the introductory lecture on Wittgenstein given by a professor who would soon thereafter kill himself, we teenagers were told that the brilliant German transplant was initially intrigued by the meanings of meanings of words, but soon grew tired of such pedestrian mental gymnastics and was moved to pontificate for thousands of impenetrable pages about the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of words. To which my Jewish grandmother would have retorted, “From this he makes a living? Oy vey.”

Dazed and confused by the professor’s elucidation of Wittgenstein’s multi-layered inquiries into the meanings of meanings of meanings, and being mightily distracted by the nearness of so many outrageously cute and minimally clothed chicks (as we ignorant sexists called pretty girls in those days), I exited the lecture hall stuck on layer one. Woman. What is the meaning of Woman? Look! There goes one now. Okay. Wow. There she is. Woman means that. Her. And the meaning of the meaning? Hmm. What is the meaning of the word that means Her? Well, gosh, so many meanings, let me count the ways. But wait! What is the meaning of the meaning of the word that means woman? My head hurt.

We hoped, my fellow freshmen and I, that our section leaders (philosophy graduate students) would be able to shed some light on the dazzling introductory lecture so we might be able to cobble together passable papers on the subject at hand, whatever that subject turned out to be. I can see us now, a section of ten anxious neophyte scholars, gathered in a little room with a prematurely bald graduate student saying to us, “So…what comes to mind when you hear the word chair?”

To which one of my fellow scholars replied, “A chair.”

“Aha,” rejoined our section leader. “But do you think of a specific chair? Wittgenstein says you don’t. He says that when you hear the word chair, your brain accesses an abstract symbol representing the essence of chair, or what Wittgenstein calls chair-ness.”

A silence fell. I want to call the silence profound, but I’m unsure of the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of profound, but I do know that particular silence spoke volumes filled with blank pages.

“A picture is a fact.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Despite the confusing introductory lecture and the confounding discussion with the philosophy graduate student, I clung to the hope that Wittgenstein’s actual writings might burn off the thickening fog swirling about the prolific German of Oxford. So I hunkered down with The Blue and Brown Books and deduced from their brief introduction that these tracts were to Wittgenstein what Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff were to learning to read. That is to say, The Blue and Brown Books were the equivalent of Wittgenstein for Dummies.

Reading every word, and checking them twice, I made my way into the equatorial regions of Page Four of The Blue Book. Up to that point, or perhaps it was not a point but a moment, I thought I kind of sort of maybe sort of partially understood what Wittgenstein was driving at, but then his construct, so-called, fell apart for me and I had to start over at the beginning. I amplified my concentration and focused my entire being on following the steps (or threads) of his argument, and by the time I arrived at the North Pole of Page Three I felt sure that if Wittgenstein were only still alive and I could meet him, I would try to hurt him, though I had not theretofore been prone to violence.

This was my first powerful experience of feeling wholly unsuited to the academic life, and I was bummed because of the aforementioned erotic potpourri and the eloquent breezes, etc. So I wandered despondently across the bucolic campus to the Whole Earth Café (yes, the original Whole Earth Café of Whole Earth Café fame) and ordered a mango banana strawberry and yeast smoothie to soothe my jangled psyche. And as I was paying for my drink, I asked the hippy guy manning the cash register, “You ever read any Wittgenstein?”

And without missing a beat, he said, “The meaning of the meaning of the meaning of a turd.”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Rumi

Coleman Barks, the renowned co-translator of Rumi into English, traveled to Turkey one summer to soak up the atmosphere in the home environs of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet who is today more popular than Rod McKuen. One very hot day Barks went into a café and using his rudimentary Turkish ordered a bottle of water. The waiter seemed startled and asked Barks to repeat his order, which Barks did. The waiter hurried away to the kitchen and returned with a chef. Barks repeated his order to the chef, and a heated discussion ensued. Barks eventually got his bottle of water, but why all the fuss? Barks had mispronounced his words. Instead of asking for a bottle of water, he had asked for the secret of the universe.

“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” Groucho Marx

Once upon a time in Turkey there was a man named Halim who was a waiter in a café. One very hot day, a foreigner, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair, entered the café, bowed politely to Halim, and asked, “May I have the secret of the universe?”

Halim was startled by the foreigner’s request because that very morning Halim had woken from a vivid dream of strolling with a beautiful woman on the shore of a lake in the moonlight. In the dream, Halim and the woman had kissed, and then the woman had said to him, “I will gladly make love with you if you will tell me the secret of the universe.”

And now this middle-aged foreigner had made the very same request. What could this mean, this confluence of identical and unanswerable questions?

Halim rushed into the kitchen and said to the chef, “Toros, help me. An English man, or possibly he is American, has asked for the secret of the universe.”

“Ey Vaay,” said Toros, shaking his head woefully. “No doubt he is another of those blasted Rumi tourists. I’ll give him what for.”

So the chef and the waiter returned to the foreigner, and the chef said in his flawless Turkish, “Why do you want the secret of the universe?”

To which the foreigner replied, “To quench my thirst.”

“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” Mark Twain

In Turkey, in the very neighborhood where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived so long ago, there stands a humble café. And on the kitchen shelf in this café there is a bottle of water among many other bottles of water that appears to be no different than the other bottles of water. But there is, indeed, a difference; for the water inside this singular bottle contains the secret of the universe.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Gertrude Stein

A man, having guzzled a bottle of water on a hot day, wanders onto a barren field to take a piss. His urine rains down on a tiny fig seed that has lain dormant in a little crevice for seven hundred years. A pool of urine engulfs the fig seed, which pool evaporates over the ensuing hours, but not before the hard shell of the seed dissolves, the seed germinates, and tiny tendrils grow out of the seed and delve into the earth.

Some weeks later, a man on his way home from the café where he works as a waiter, espies the fig sprout growing in the otherwise barren field. With great care, the waiter digs up the seedling and carries the baby plant home to his garden where he will water and feed her so she might one day become the mother of ten thousand figs.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Travels With Frisbee

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Fredrick Morrison, the inventor of the Frisbee, died at the age of ninety on February 11, 2010. I still carry a Frisbee in my knapsack as I have since 1965 when I bought my first one at Woolworth’s for 69 cents, a flimsy little thing much smaller than the smallest Frisbees sold today.

Though it may seem a preposterous boast, I am very likely the first person to introduce Frisbee to the University of California Santa Cruz in 1967. If perchance someone came before me, I was certainly one of the pioneer users there, and took it upon myself to teach dozens of young men and women the fundamentals of tossing the holy disc. I used to joke that I majored in Anthropology and minored in Frisbee, but the reverse is true. The happiest hours of my two years in college were spent running over hill and dale in pursuit of far-flung Frisbees, my college buddy Dick Mead capable of prodigious tosses across the Elysian Fields of that cattle ranch turned university.

In 1970, a year after I dropped out, I traveled through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist and his family. I brought along a dozen Frisbees because they were easy to lose and I thought it would be fun to introduce new friends to the delights of the floating disc. Little did I anticipate the sensation we would cause whenever and wherever we started flinging our Frisbees.

Perhaps our most memorable demonstration of the art took place in the central park of San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. We happened to arrive at the height of a massive protest we later learned was the beginning of the horrific civil war instigated by the CIA that would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Salvadorans and the subsequent ruination of that tiny country.

As a result of my tireless tutelage, the eight-year-old son of my employer was by then capable of flinging a Frisbee an accurate thirty yards, and so we positioned ourselves on a spacious greensward and commenced to fling the disc back and forth. As usual, we first attracted children, then adults; and on this day, moments after we began, we were surrounded by hundred of onlookers roaring their approval of our every toss and catch. Cheap thrills, but so what? Darwin, it is chronicled, traveled about South America on his famous Beagle expedition blowing minds wherever he went by using a magical thing called a match to start fires.

So we brought out a few more Frisbees and proceeded to run a clinic for the countless folks who wanted to try their hands at throwing and catching the discs. I will always remember the laughter and gaiety and enthusiasm of those people. We were rewarded for our labors with an invitation to join a group of schoolteachers for a picnic.

At the picnic, we asked about the many placards showing the faces of two handsome young men, and were told that these were the medical student martyrs whose deaths had inspired the protest. We had heard nothing about the political situation in El Salvador except that El Salvador was at war with Honduras—the so-called Soccer War. To reach El Salvador, we had to traverse the war zone between the two countries, and I had negotiated our way past several roadblocks manned by scary soldiers armed with scarier guns, wartime profiteers extorting extra-legal money from tourists and truck drivers willing to pay.

Meanwhile, the CIA-backed despots of El Salvador had ordered the killing of these two medical students for leading a protest of their fellows against the bogus public health clinics that were closed more often than open and lacked adequate medicine and supplies. For their impudence, these young medicos were assassinated by a paramilitary death squad, and their bullet-ridden bodies left on the steps of the university as a warning to other would-be dissidents.

This protest was a spontaneous and wholly peaceful uprising of working and middle-class folks decrying the violent response of the government to the reasonable complaints of the murdered medical students. Tragically, most of the people at this event were themselves murdered or forced into exile during the decades-long CIA-funded genocide that followed.

I eventually returned to the United States. Years went by. Larger Frisbees eclipsed the original Frisbee. Ultimate Frisbee was born. Frisbee Golf came into being. The Aerobie was invented, a plastic ring that can be thrown like a Frisbee and travels hundreds of yards with ease. Frisbees with LED night-lights embedded in their rims appeared. Frisbee competitions proliferated. Frisbee-catching dogs now star at halftimes and during the seventh inning stretch at ballgames everywhere. Over 200 million Frisbees have been sold. So far.

And I, at sixty, stand on Big River Beach and fling my disc into the teeth of a steady incoming breeze, the disc banking off that strong flow of air and returning to me as if on a long and invisible yo-yo string. Adult passersby rarely stop to watch my mastery of disc and wind, but children do, wanting to try their hands at the magical thing, and I am reminded of those bygone days when the world seemed a safer and happier place than it is today, but only because of what I didn’t know.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

The Devolution of Basketball

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

birthday jester

John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team just turned ninety-nine. Wooden coached the UCLA team from 1948 to 1975 and won ten National Championships in a span of 12 years, including 7 in a row from 1967 to 1973, a feat so unimaginable today it seems more myth than fact. As a college player, Wooden was a three-time consensus All-American, the first ever, and spent several years playing in the early professional leagues while simultaneously coaching high school teams. During one 46-game stretch as a pro he made 134 consecutive free throws. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He never made more than $35,000 a year as the UCLA coach, and never asked for a raise.

Wooden said: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” and “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”

In an interview with him on the day before his 99th birthday, he was lucid and wry, and made a fervent wish that “they” wouldn’t do anything special for his birthday. “If I make it to a hundred, well, okay.”

Among Wooden’s many famous protégé’s was Lew Alcindor who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. We often hear superlatives connected to the superstars of today, but none of them single-handedly changed the game of basketball as Alcindor did. Few remember that when Alcindor began his college career at UCLA, freshmen were not permitted to play on varsity teams. Alcindor’s freshman squad played the UCLA varsity squad, the number one-ranked team in America, and beat them 75-60. Alcindor scored 51 points, many of his baskets dunks.

As a result of this overwhelming display of his dominance, and before Alcindor could join the varsity squad as a sophomore, the NCAA banned the dunk in college basketball, a ban that was lifted three years later when Alcindor graduated and turned pro. That’s right. They imposed a national ban to contain one specific player. But even without the dunk, Alcindor was so dominant (and seven-foot two inches tall) that for the first time in the history of basketball, referees allowed defenders to constantly foul another player (Alcindor) to keep him from scoring. I am absolutely certain that when defenders were given the green light to hold and push and hack Alcindor, the game of basketball began its swift devolution to the completely different game we have today.

Basketball was invented as a non-contact sport in 1892. And by non-contact, I mean No Contact. No touching; something hard to imagine as one watches the physicality of today’s pro and college games. When I played basketball in high school in 1964, we were stringently coached that any contact with the player we were guarding was a foul. Any touching at all, even a slap on the wrist, was a foul. The only permissible contact was when players bumped each other going for a rebound. If you went over somebody’s back or intentionally pushed another player to get a rebound, you were committing a foul. Five fouls and you were out of the game.

I played on the university team in the early days of UC Santa Cruz. We played in an industrial league that included Sylvania, a cannery, a meat packing company, a couple taverns, and a Bible college. No contact allowed. Good referees. Big fun. When I dropped out of college, I continued to play in pickup games and on city league teams wherever I lived. Then in 1974 I moved to Eugene, Oregon and encountered the newest kind of basketball, a dangerously violent game wherein if I dared call a foul when someone shoved me or punched me, I might get punched again.

As it happened, John Wooden was in his next to last year as coach at UCLA when I lived in Eugene, and he seriously considered forfeiting the Eugene game with the University of Oregon because “the kamikaze kids”, as the Oregon team was nicknamed, might seriously injure one or more of the UCLA players as part of their game strategy. Yikes. I soon discovered that such intentional violence had taken hold in the gymnasiums and on the playgrounds of Eugene, along with another truly absurd wrinkle in the game: legal traveling. Traveling in basketball refers to a basketball player carrying the ball several steps without dribbling the ball, a thing that used to be verboten. But in Eugene, players were suddenly taking several steps with the ball before shooting or passing, and the few times I called someone for traveling I was threatened with bodily harm.

I am not a large person, and one of the supreme joys of the original game of basketball came from knowing that the rules protected me from having to go mano a mano with anyone, let alone someone a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller. Finding these protective rules removed, I spent the remainder of my year in Eugene shooting hoops solo or playing volleyball with a net separating me from my opponents.

John Wooden was horrified by this sea change in the game he loved, and he became a vocal advocate of raising the height of the hoop from ten feet to at least eleven feet, and the addition of a new rule: when the shooting team got a rebound, the rebounding player had to make a pass before that team could take another shot. He tried using this new rule with his teams in scrimmages, and sure enough, much of the bullying big man domination was neutralized.

But Wooden’s suggestions came too late, as size and brute strength and dunking became all the rage in college and pro ball, and by the time Magic Johnson played one year of varsity college ball as a freshman and then turned pro in 1979, the old game was dead. Magic was six-foot nine inches tall, and played guard, the little guy’s position.

In 2008, the NBA added yet another new rule to professional basketball: players who have the ball low in the key, within five feet of the hoop, can charge and knock over any player between them and the hoop without being called for a foul. They’ve even painted a No Charge Will Be Called stripe in the lane to mark the magic boundary. This ridiculous new rule allows huge players like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James to use their enormity to shove or scare defenders out of their way. Violence has now been officially written into the professional rules, along with allowing players more and more steps without dribbling prior to a dunk. This new dunking protocol facilitates more spectacular dunks, which are now the most popular part of the professional game.

As a teenager, basketball was my escape from an unhappy home, and as a young adult basketball was a big part of my social life. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent shooting hoops from age twelve to forty I could buy a nice new Japanese pickup truck. Two of my eight published books are novels with basketball as backdrop to the human comedy, which is to say the devolution of what was once my favorite sport saddens me. My novels Ruby & Spear and Inside Moves can be purchased for mere pennies, and I mean a few coppers, from myriad used bookseller on the internet.

For many of us who knew the game thirty years ago, today’s professional games are fairly redundant variety shows of semi-staged performances by amazingly gifted athletes, but not often contests between whole teams. And as the pros play, so do the young players who watch them. I recently gave a ride to a tall young man hitchhiking with a basketball under his arm. We began to speak about the game, but within a sentence or two, I realized he might as well be Russian and I Turkish, with no common language regarding the game, so we fell silent.

I have a friend with whom I used to avidly play basketball. For the last twenty years, he has been playing basketball four mornings a week at the YMCA in Sacramento with a bunch of guys who play by the old non-contact rules. He says the game continues to be a fabulous workout and a supreme blast, and I am deeply jealous.

Todd’s web site is underthetablebooks.com

Three Presidents (and a First Lady)

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

For most of my sixty years on the planet I have been a social recluse. Yet through no conscious intention on my part, I have come face-to-face with three presidents of the United States (and a First Lady).

In 1962 I was in the seventh grade in Menlo Park, California. I was a baseball fanatic and not much interested in politics, though I was fascinated by Fidel Castro and the possibility of nuclear war.

“Class,” said Mr. Arbanas, our perpetually befuddled teacher. “President Kennedy is coming to the University of California to give a speech. Each core class will elect two students, one boy and one girl, to attend. If you want to go, raise your hand.”

We all raised our hands. By secret ballot and the intercession of angels, I was the boy chosen to represent my class. On the morning of March 23, 1962, I boarded a school bus with several other students and a gang of teachers, and we rumbled across the San Mateo Bridge and up through Oakland to Berkeley. We had been advised to bring a sack lunch and binoculars. I was one of those unfortunate children whose mother had no interest in making my lunch. Ever. From the age of five I made my own lunch, the same lunch, every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and a carrot. This is the lunch I brought and ate on that historic day.

I did not have a pair of binoculars, but everyone else had a pair, so my plan was to borrow. We most definitely needed binoculars since our seats were the very highest in the stadium, the podium on the stage at midfield barely visible to our naked eyes.

There came a great parade of men and women in caps and gowns representing their illustrious alma maters, the day being the 94th anniversary of the charter establishing the public universities of America, which is what Kennedy spoke about. To my twelve-year-old ears and mind, the speeches preceding Kennedy’s speech, and his speech, too, were numbingly boring. I certainly enjoyed my glimpses of Kennedy and his marvelous hair through borrowed binoculars, and I thrilled to his voice, but not nearly so much as I thrilled to the myriad alluring females filling the stands around us.

Near the end of Kennedy’s address, a lunatic classmate threw an orange that struck the back of my neck. The shock of this sudden and unexpected attack caused me to pick up the exploded orange, turn in my seat, and hurl the gucky missile back at my assailant. He ducked, and the mess struck Miss Imbach (destined to be my eighth grade teacher) in the face. For this heinous crime, I was immediately yanked from my seat and marched out of the stadium by someone (I can’t recall who) to wait in ignominy on the bus.

However, my ejection coincided precisely with Kennedy finishing his speech and exiting the stadium ahead of the ceremonial finale so he might escape the ensuing gridlock. In the tumult outside the stadium, I was separated from my escort and swept along in a crowd of people hoping for a glimpse of the president.

And lo and behold, I found myself walking beside President Kennedy. Right beside him. And he was smiling. And he had a big head and fabulous teeth. And here’s the thing, honestly, he seemed genuinely happy, even perhaps enthralled, as he strolled along in the excitement of Berkeley in early spring being President of the United States. Then he looked at me and said “Hello,” or “How are you?” though I might have imagined that. But I didn’t imagine what I said to him, which was, “Thank you.”

I’m not sure why I said “Thank you”, but it may have been because I was grateful he hadn’t started a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba.

Back on the bus, one teacher after another chewed me out for throwing the orange at Miss Imbach. I was threatened with expulsion for dishonoring our school, and told I would definitely not be allowed to go on the upcoming field trip to the beach. But all I could think about was how happy Kennedy had seemed, and how I wished I had said to him, “Can’t we be friends with Fidel?”

The text of the speech Kennedy gave that day, which is both sad and ironic in light of today’s economic and educational meltdowns, can be read at the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum web site.

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May 1969. I was nineteen and in my last few weeks of college (forever) at UC Santa Cruz. The People’s Park revolt was underway in Berkeley and I was involved in sympathetic protests at our new university in the redwoods. At the height of the carnage in Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California, including Governor Reagan, came to the Santa Cruz campus to hold their annual meeting. Perhaps they thought Santa Cruz was far enough away from bloody Berkeley for them to be safe, but it’s more likely they were just arrogant despots.

So the fat cats had their meeting in the new cafeteria at Crown College, and I went with a gang of demonstrators to mill around outside and voice our dismay at the university’s support for the war in Vietnam and to protest their violent response to unarmed people trying to create a park in Berkeley on vacant land. That’s what I was dismayed about. The more sophisticated demonstrators were dismayed about many other things, too, but I just wanted the stupid war and needless violence to end so I wouldn’t lose any more friends and we could have, you know, a cultural renaissance.

I suppose for the same reason Kennedy made an early exit from the stadium in 1962, Reagan was hustled out of the Crown cafeteria several minutes before the regents’ meeting officially adjourned. We saw the governor board one of the large snout-nosed yellow school buses used to ferry people around the bucolic campus, and we, the people, went chasing after him.

Crown College was a maze of buildings on a steep hillside with more dead ends than through streets, and it was up one of these dead ends that Reagan’s misguided driver turned. We followed en masse and effectively corked Ronald’s escape route with our bodies, and then several of the protestors began to rock the bus. There were some, perhaps, who hoped to roll the bus, but most of us just wanted to scare the crap out of our putrescent governor.

The cool thing was, before the police came and chased us away, we had several minutes of this good college fun, during which I was hoisted onto the shoulders of my fellows and brought face-to-face with Ronald Reagan. His nose and mine were no more than two feet apart, only the glass of the bus window separating us.

I suppose I might have shouted, “Off the pigs,” or “Get out of Vietnam,” or “Free People’s Park,” but I could only muster a hopeless, contemptuous, bewildered smile, because I really couldn’t think of anything to say that would mean anything to him. I could see by his face and demeanor and, if you will allow me, his aura, that he didn’t have the slightest understanding of why we were so upset. To Reagan, we were just hooligans, and to me Reagan was just a mean man of no great intelligence working for a bunch of other mean men and saying whatever they told him to say. He was a puppet. He was the guy who introduced Death Valley Days and sold Borax. He was nobody. He was a rich dupe and he was annoyed we had him temporarily bottled up, but he wasn’t afraid. He looked me in the eye and smiled a sneering smile, and then he slowly shook his head as if to say, “You’ll be sorry,” and he was right because my comrades dropped me like a hot potato when the cops converged on us, and I hit the ground hard before I ran off into the woods.

Okay. So Reagan wasn’t yet president, but he would be soon enough.

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My dear friends Bob and Patty were married in Sacramento on September 4, 1975. I took the train down from Eugene, Oregon to be in their wedding in an old brick cathedral. The processional was Stevie Wonder singing, “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever,” and the recessional was the overture from Camelot. Thirty-five years later I’m delighted to report that Bob and Patty are still happily married.

The morning after the wedding, I was strolling down L Street and nearing the capitol when my way was blocked by a barrier of police tape stretching across L Street and the sidewalk and up to the capitol building. Why? President Gerald Ford was staying at the Senator Hotel on L Street and was soon to cross over to the capitol. Had they not strung up this barrier, I am certain no one would have known or cared that Gerald Ford was planning to cross the street there; but that was only the prelude to a most peculiar presidential event.

I was no fan of Gerald Ford or the mass murderer he’d replaced, but I thought it might be fun to see the president and then tell Bob and Patty I had. There were only a few dozen people on hand to witness Ford’s transit, all of them “caught” as I had been and not there out of any abiding love for Gerald. As we stood behind the flimsy barricade in the growing heat, I noticed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood on the wrong side of the barrier chatting with a state policeman. They spoke amicably for a moment, and then he gestured for her to get back on the spectator side of the tape, and she did so, standing a few feet away from me.

A moment later, Ford came out of the Senator Hotel flanked by several men in suits. They crossed L Street and started along the walkway that transects the lawn to the capitol building. I remember being struck by how big Ford and the Secret Servicemen were, as if they had armor on under their suits. I remember, too, there was nothing festive in this transit, and that when Ford was ten feet away from me, his face looked grim to the point of horror.

Then Gerald abruptly veered away from the tape until he was at least thirty feet away from the nearest spectator, at which moment one of the Secret Servicemen launched himself toward, I thought, me, but actually toward Little Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson. The big guy wrestled the little woman to the ground as Gerald was literally picked up and carried into the capitol building by his huge henchmen.

Squeaky was sentenced to life in prison for what she allegedly did that day, attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford. She was released from prison in August of 2009 after serving nearly thirty-five years for pointing an unloaded gun in the direction of the president. At the time of Squeaky’s symbolic act, there was hope among Republicans that Squeaky’s and a similarly bizarre attempt on Ford’s life by another woman two weeks later, might improve Gerald’s chances of election, but that was not to be.

The odd thing from my point of view was that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, none of the authorities on hand were interested in speaking to me, though they eagerly recorded the testimony of people standing much farther away than I had been from the flying Secret Serviceman. Perhaps my unruly hair and raggedy clothes and overall counter culture appearance rendered me an undesirable witness. And, yes, whether it was or not, the entire event seemed so obviously staged as to be laughable.

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Three years after my brief encounter with Gerald Ford, I published my first novel Inside Moves (you can download my new reading of it from Audible.com) and the publisher was Doubleday.

My editor was a young woman named Sherry Knox. She and I had spoken on the phone while working on the rewrite, but we didn’t meet in-person until I flew back to New York for the publication party in the spring of 1978. Judging by her voice and her manner of speaking, I assumed Sherry was a highly educated white woman. As I sat in the foyer at Doubleday, I rose twice as white female editors came out to meet their authors, but neither woman was my editor. Then a beautiful black woman emerged from the editorial catacombs, recognized me from my author’s photo, and introduced herself as Sherry.

And I, thunderstruck by the realization that Sherry must have bought my book (about black and white people loving each other) at least in part because she was black, said without a care for political correctness, “Sherry, I never once thought you were black.”

To which she replied, “I’m glad.”

On our way to Sherry’s office, we stopped to pay obeisance to Betty Prashker, the powerful editor-in-chief who lent Sherry sufficient clout to purchase my unlikely novel, and then Sherry whispered, “Would you like to meet Jackie Kennedy? Her office is right next to mine.”

So we popped into Jackie’s office, and there was the former First Lady looking trim and slim in a crisp white blouse and a gray skirt, her eyes shielded by gray-tinted glasses. She was poring over proofs of an enormous glossy coffee table book, probably something to do with the lives of the super wealthy, of which she was an authority. Sherry introduced me. Jackie took off her glasses, smiled a crinkly smile, and shook my hand.

What I remember most about her was that she didn’t sound at all like the soft-spoken Jackie Kennedy I recalled from her days as First Lady. There was nothing soft or slow in her speech, but rather roughness, even harshness, as if she had taken on the accent of greater Manhattan.

“Sherry’s great. You’re in good hands,” said Jackie, her grip impressively strong. “Good luck to you.” And then for some reason she laughed, and I heard the same harshness in her laughter, and I laughed, too, though more out of nervousness than because anything was funny.

Then Sherry took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant where we were joined by Sherry’s close friend, Olga Adderly, the widow of a great hero of mine, the tenor sax giant Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. And for the entire meal I marveled that both Jackie and Olga had been married to men who were now legends, both men dying at forty-six, which even at my tender age of twenty-eight seemed terribly young to me.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)