Cecil B. My Father

The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. Cecil B. DeMille

From the time I was a wee lad, and no doubt before I was born, my father insisted there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something. I have no idea where he got this cockamamie idea, but it shaped his life in many ways.

He bought a series of the absolute cheapest gas-powered lawn mowers to use on the high grass in our orchard, and all these mowers were not only ineffective against the grass, but broke irreparably within a year or two, their carcasses piled in an enclosure near the house intended for firewood and eventually leaving no room for anything but the carcasses. When I cleaned out this enclosure shortly before my father died, I found nineteen of these dead cruddy mowers.

When my father was in his forties, he decided it would be fun and good exercise to commute to his office by bicycle a few times a week, a distance of three miles. He bought the absolute cheapest bicycle he could find, made the round trip once, and found the going so difficult and unpleasant, he never rode the bike again.

When his trusty Karmann Ghia needed replacing, he read about Fiats in Consumer Reports, which recommended only one model of Fiat, and that one with reservations. But when my father went to the dealership, he bought the cheapest model available, one that Consumer Reports declared a disaster, and lo Consumer Reports was right on. That automotive mess cost thousands a year in repairs and fixes that could never overcome the inherent flaws of the poorly designed machine.

Creation is a drug I can’t do without. Cecil B. DeMille

When I was sixteen, my father took my mother, my younger brother, my older sister, and me to Europe—the only time I’ve ever been. My father wanted to attend a psychiatric convention in Edinburgh in August and my mother insisted he take her and three of the four kids along, my eldest sister refusing to go.

In anticipation of our grand expedition, my father purchased a Super-8 movie camera, by far the cheapest one he could find (despite the grave warnings in Consumer Reports) because “they’re all the same.” And because he waited, as was his habit, until the very last minute to buy the camera, he did not shoot a test roll of film before we embarked. He also bought a chintzy little editing system with the intention of putting together a masterwork commemorating our European adventure.

We flew from San Francisco to New York and from there to Shannon Airport in Ireland. We then spent two days crammed inside a miniscule rental car driving across Ireland to Dublin, during which journey we were almost killed several times because my father kept driving on the wrong side of the road. We then spent two lovely days in Dublin before flying to Glasgow from where we drove across the Scottish Highlands, crammed into another tiny rental car, to Edinburgh where we spent a happy week.

And all along our way, every chance he had, my father zealously deployed his new camera, often going to dangerous lengths to get just the right angle for his shots of us gawking at castles and lochs and statues and fountains, as well as scenes of Irish and Scottish people and their adorable houses and farms and photogenic ruins—each roll of film giving my father three minutes of footage.

In Edinburgh we were encamped at Mrs. Covey’s Boarding House, and while my father attended his convention, we roamed about without him and his movie camera, and we were glad. Mrs. Covey took a liking to me and every day spoke to me at length, though I understood nothing of what she said, except one time I caught the name Kennedy in the waterfall of her Scottish English, though I knew not whether she was speaking of the deceased president or her neighbor.

From Edinburgh we took the train to London, a mode of travel I found vastly preferable to flying or driving with my father who was forever slamming on the brakes and jumping out of our itsy bitsy rental cars to film something he thought would go well in his impending opus.

Then we spent ten glorious days in London and I went to fabulous plays every night, sometimes with my family, sometimes with my sister, sometimes all by myself because I was sixteen and practically a grownup. In 1966 excellent plays abounded in London, and all British actors were fantastic compared to any American actors I’d ever seen. And you could get tickets at the door a few minutes before curtain and sit in great seats close to the stage for just a few dollars.

1966 was also the year the Beatles came out with Revolver, and I purchased two copies of the British edition of the album (that had more songs than the American edition) to take home and wow my music-loving friends.

And every day my father shot many rolls of film—our suitcases overflowing with the little round plastic canisters.

Then we flew from London across the channel to muggy, filthy, glorious Paris for ten days, and I had lots of time away from my folks, thank God. We stayed in an old hotel called the Hotel Moliere, and many mornings I would bid my family adieu and head out into the unknown with my French vocabulary of twenty words. My sister, fluent in French, sometimes consented to go adventuring with me, and she would speak for us at cafes where the food was inexpensive and delicious and our taciturn French hosts would become sweet and friendly when the American girl spoke such beautiful French.

At Versailles my father shot many rolls of film, and at Chartres he shot two rolls just of the stained-glass windows. And everywhere we went he risked life and limb to get the dramatic shots he wanted for his impending masterwork.

Our last stop in Europe was Amsterdam and way too much Van Gogh. The highlight of Amsterdam for me was wandering around in the red light district at dusk and seeing the prostitutes sitting in their windows, knitting or playing cards in their scanty outfits, waiting for horny customers to ring their bells.

There was an airline strike at the time of our European sojourn, and only American Airlines was flying from Europe to America. As we were about to board our homeward flight, my father was nowhere to be found. My hysterical mother sent me into the vast duty-free market to find him, and after a frantic search I found him far from the boarding area standing at a magazine stall flipping through Popular Mechanics. We then ran to the jet where my mother was throwing a crying fit to hold the plane for my unapologetic father. The stewardesses and captain were furious with us, but we made it aboard and took off.

Lastly we flew from New York to San Francisco, but not before my father shot roll after roll from atop the Empire State building and in the colorful hubbub of Times Square.

Home at last, my father had those hundred-some three-minute rolls of film developed, set the first roll on the viewer of his chintzy editing machine, cranked the film through the little viewer, and thrilled to see his opening shot. And then there was nothing more on the roll until the last few seconds when images appeared again.

This was true of all the rolls of film he’d hung from bell towers, so to speak, to shoot. A few seconds of imagery at the start, a second or two of imagery at the end. Did he throw the film away and admit that perhaps there was a difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something? Nay. He edited all those tiny fragments together and created a title shot (after he got the camera repaired, sort of) of a piece of paper on which he wrote in sloppy cursive Our Trip To Europe—his movie a five-minute fever dream of tiny fragments he projected on the living room wall one time and never again.

A year later, he made another movie while on a Sierra Club base camp trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. And this time the thrice-repaired camera actually captured images on the film. However, being a profoundly crummy camera, the colors were wonky. Everything green came out turquoise, lakes and rivers were pinkish, and human skin was a hideous orange.

Yet from this nauseating color blend he pieced together a movie and showed it to a gathering of people who had been at the base camp. The movie was ostensibly about a girl who doesn’t want to go on a trip into the mountains, but she eventually falls in love with the majesty of the oddly colored wilderness. The film starred my sister for the first half, but then she quit the production and my father found another girl at the base camp to star in the second half, which was confusing since this other girl looked nothing like my sister.

The best part of the film was the beginning. My sister runs across an expanse of sand and trips and falls, and as the camera tracks beyond her, we see scratched in the wet sand The Trip.

My father never used the movie camera again, and for the rest of his life continued to buy the cheapest one of everything he ever bought because he knew, as a person who knew everything, there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and a more expensive version of that something.


Not So Sure


The Rico Chronicles: 1966

Guild Theatre, Menlo Park circa 1967

This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.

March 1966. Menlo Park, California

About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential favorite Waiting For Godot.

Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became an instant counterculture classic. At some point our Waiting For Godot nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.

I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he signed his letters to me Rico and I never called him anything else.

When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and my being Jewish (before I understood I was Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.

As far as I was aware at the time, we became best friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also known in those days as brittle bones), Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and brothers.

Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago, Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform Synagogue.

When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the 1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese, pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent lunch entrees at the Rees household.

Jefferson Airplane 1966

The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.

Dave and I started writing folk rock songs together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the band’s talent.

With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso playing and gorgeous vocals.

One night when Dave and I were writing a song for Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the list of things I aspired to be.

In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the British LP of Revolver that had two songs not on the American LP. Was I hip or what?

Gail Land and Rico in On Borrowed Time
Joe Tiffany, Todd, Scott Oakley in On Borrowed Time

The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.

The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.

To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful high school play.

What I remember most vividly about the production is the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in harmony with the rest of the play.

Shortly after On Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short, and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system of education.

What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.

But before he got tenure and started rocking the boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by association, was Todd.

And the poetry reading he took us to was not just any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.

In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen and including Lew Welch’s great poem I Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently in the early pages of Ruby & Spear, complete with a cameo by Rico.

Here is that account.

And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.

We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently. “My god, my god.”

“Who is he?”

“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of tears. “My numero uno hero.”

“What did he write?”

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.’”

The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex? Money?

Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight, looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.

And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.


(Ruby & Spear is available as a Kindle or Apple Book, as a used paperback, and as a delightful audio book narrated by yours truly.)

Miles In Mind