©1997 by Bill Appledorf
My family moved into Jackie Turco's neighborhood when I was 10 years old, and he beat me up. He was two years younger than I was, but he was tougher, and he'd beat up all the other kids in the neighborhood before me. I have no idea why he beat me up. He just walked up to me the first time he saw me and gave me a bloody nose. I ran home crying. Johnny Lindahl, who was with me at the time, told me he was a bully and suggested I avoid him, which I did. I didn't know how to fight, and I didn't want to learn. My dream was peace on earth and good will to everyone, like it said on Christmas cards.
My brother liked Jackie Turco, and he beat me up himself whenever he had a chance. Even when he appeared to be playing with me, which he did occasionally, he was actually being cruel to me. If we played catch, for example, he would throw the ball at me as hard as he could from not too far away and try to hurt me with it. When I turned my side and raised my leg, covering my face with my hands and my body with my arms, he would call me "fink" and "jerk" and yell at me angrily that I was supposed to "CATCH the ball!" It was obvious that he hated me. I have no idea why. I was just an ordinary kid who wanted to be loved.
My brother treated Jackie Turco like a substitute little brother who was much more to his liking than I was and generously spent his time with him conversing amiably. He played sports, which my brother admired, and when he got to high school, he was a jock, a star running back or something on the football team. I played trumpet in the high school band. My embouchure pointed off to the side and down at the floor because I had crooked lower teeth; and no one ever taught me music theory, so I couldn't improvise outside of the key of C; but I definitely felt the music, and I got to play first chair. In gym class, in the shower, a couple of jocks, not Jackie Turco, told me I had a little prick and made fun of me because of it. I avoided sports so I didn't have to be ridiculed in the shower by hairy guys with bigger pricks than mine.
For friends I orbited the periphery of several groups of kids. These groups did not have much to do with one another, and I did not identify myself with any one particular circle of friends. This means I was a loner, which does not surprise me, because I felt alone in my family. That I was not a hermit but craved affection does not surprise me either, because I was emotionally abused at home and wished to be accepted and encouraged to be myself. I did as a kid and still do feel ill at ease with groups of people, vulnerable and alone, because I did not accumulate in my relationships with my immediate family an anticipation of calm support. Even in adulthood, when I have made a little progress and built some genuine self-esteem, the bit of confidence I have continues to rest on a deeper weakness, an emotional ignorance that ensues from having lived from the beginning feeling nervous and on edge. I didn't learn from the experience of my family to feel relaxed or develop an understanding of what degree of emotional intensity to expect in relationships with other people. I felt alien and besieged at home and didn't learn to feel that I belong somewhere. I have never identified myself as a member of any group besides the human race, which interestingly does not even perceive itself as one inclusive family.
Some of the kids I hung out with, especially in Junior High, were outcast kids that no one liked. Not juvenile delinquent kids who drove cars, had girlfriends, earned their own money, and knew how to fight, but outcast kids who hung out in the woods, hypnotized each other, and did weird stuff like using hyperventilation to make each other faint. I didn't hang out with strange kids because I liked them. I found them quite bizarre, but I needed to be friends with someone, and they didn't beat me up. I would much preferred to have had a girlfriend.
I wanted a girlfriend more than anything else I could think of, but to have one, even if there had been a girl around who wanted anything to do with me, was completely out of the question. My family was one of about 25 Jewish families in a city of 35,000 people, making me one of a miniscule number of Jewish kids in town, and my mother was hysterically committed to preventing me from getting involved with a "shiksy", a non-Jewish girl. I found it easier to submit to my mother's irrational demands, which amounted to not having anything to do with girls, than to touch off a tirade that could easily last for days.
My mother was an eloquent orator. When she felt upset, she would unleash relentless, impenetrable walls of berserk verbiage to the effect, among other things, that her death, which she claimed was imminent, would occur because of some inconsequential thing I had said or done. If I tried to get a word in edge-wise while she was raving, the volume and intensity of her screaming would increase. She was completely unaware of how unpleasant it was for another person to be forced to listen to her delirious emotional outbursts, and there was nothing to do for it once she started but to let her blow herself out.
All my mother could feel were her own anxiety and her desperate effort to reduce it when it exceeded her ability to tolerate it. When one of her outbursts finally would subside, she would be as cheerful and bright as a daisy, oblivious to the suffering she had inflicted on the rest of the family and the resentment we all felt. My mother terrorized me into acquiescing to her dominating me by unleashing a wildly obsessive diatribe whenever I opposed her. In time I found it easier not to touch her off. She was completely out of her mind. Rather than to encourage me to develop a sense of my own autonomy and guide me in establishing my own little place in the world, she railed against me at the slightest indication I might be operating independently of her, her tenuous emotional security requiring that I be under her control. I received no valid instruction in how to assert myself appropriately or respect others and was discouraged, on the grounds I might be kidnapped, hurt, or lost, from participating in socially oriented activities that might have engendered confidence in myself. I was a lonely misfit as a kid, the object of my mother's efforts to keep me dependent on her, and I have remained at bottom a lonely misfit as an adult.
My dad was the only person in my family who seemed to like me. He expressed kindness to me, for example, by singing silly songs to me, encouraging me to laugh, and smiling when he spoke to me, but he spent almost all of his time hiding from my mother in his store and was rarely home. I also had a sister, 8 years older than I, who followed her own pursuits and chose not to involve herself with me. This is consistent with the way our family worked, not as a close-knit unit, but as solitary individuals struggling to establish isolated domains (which my mother moved urgently to eradicate at their merest hint). My sister developed a particularly short fuse, shorter than my brother's and shorter than mine, that she has cultivated throughout her life to protect herself from real and imagined threats of falling under the control of others, my mother having been obsessed with controlling her, as us, when we were kids. You can feel the explosiveness in my sister's personality just below the surface. It will erupt if you disagree with her about, oh, whether the rain is horrible or nice.
I remember my dad encouraging me one day with real concern in his eyes when I was about 12 years old to "be happy", but it was too late. My life as a kid consisted of being yelled at, beat up, and insulted by my brother, having to walk on egg shells to keep my mother from screaming crazily, and being emotionally blackmailed by my mother into doing and not doing what my mother wished. I got no practice conversing calmly with calm people about aspects of reality that were of interest to me as a juvenile human being. Later, much later, after Luella was dead and the feminists ruled the earth, I knew immediately the feminists had no idea what they were talking about in part because they broadcast, (a), that boys hate their fathers, with whom they are in deadly competition because their fathers always put them down, which is why, (b), men dominate their wives and rule their homes with an iron fist, unless, (c), you are a homosexual, which is the only kind of man it is OK to be because all the others ruthlessly exploit women and do not care about anyone's feelings, especially their own. The absurdity of the sex wars of the 1970's for me is summed up in the dictum that to be obsessed with control is characteristic of the male gender, which feminist women forbade questioning because they were in control.
I tried cigarettes when I was in the 5th grade, but inhaling made me nauseous. I persisted, though, and eventually became as good at smoking as I was at cussing, which was pretty good. I smoked Kents in the woods at Bears Cave with one group of kids and Winstons with another group in the basement of a home where both parents smoked and thus were not able to smell what we'd been doing. One summer an older kid by the name of Danny started coming around my neighborhood in his baby blue 4-door Oldsmobile 98. He invited a few of us who sat around smoking cigarettes on picnic tables at the playground while the other kids played baseball or tennis to drive around in his car with him, provided we wore suits and ties. I did that for a while. My mother liked that I was dressing up. Danny and we smoked Camels.
Johnny Lindahl didn't smoke. His father had a woodworking shop in the basement and taught him how to use his power tools. His mother didn't scream at him or forbid him to work with them because they're dangerous, so he knew how to perform useful repairs on his bike and furniture and construct things to occupy his time. His mother let him go skiing, and his father let him drive their boat. I liked the way his mother and father talked without yelling at each other, and I wished I had a mother like Johnny Lindahl's, not because I had a crush on her or anything, just because she was easy going and people could relax around her.
One day it started raining after I went to school. I didn't have my raincoat with me and wound up getting soaked on my way home. This was when I was in the 6th grade. When I got home, my mother started screaming at me about what I was doing to her by getting wet and gave me her line that if I got sick, I would have to go to the hospital because she was too busy to take care of me. I tried to get away from her and go upstairs to my room, but she stood in front of the stairs so I couldn't get by her and kept on yelling at me. I felt more and more stressed until I finally burst out crying. Flailing at her, I managed to punch her in the face and shrieked, "I want my mommy!" I pushed her aside and stumbled weakly to my room wracked by tortured sobs. This incident, like all the other insanity that transpired in my home, was never mentioned or discussed, especially with anyone outside of our family who might have been able to help us. A few awkward days of silence later, it blew over.
My senior year in high school I had to apply to college. I did not particularly want to, but my mother passionately insisted I was going to go. I had not developed any interests, but that didn't matter. My mother decided I was going to be a heart doctor or an architect. I had to ask my teachers to write me letters of recommendation. These letters provided my teachers an opportunity to pay me back for the years of grief I had caused them by disrupting class to draw attention to myself. I was unquestionably smart and good with words, but I used my skills to corner my teachers in annoying, class-long arguments, monopolizing their time and keeping them from getting any teaching done.
I was entirely lacking in social skills, particularly self-control. Small wonder, given the emotional maelstrom of my home environment. My entire family was lacking in self-control. My teachers and fellow students did not enjoy my appropriating and hogging the floor in class, and this is the gist of what my letters of recommendation said. My parents had to scramble hard and fast to buy my way into an extremely expensive college that still had an opening for sale near the close of the college admissions season. This particular college, by honing students' skill in demolishing others' arguments, educated me to be even more of a misfit when I graduated than I was when I began. Kids at other schools learned business or engineering. I learned how to identify the flaw in your understanding of the ultimate nature of reality.
First semester, I discovered alcohol and engaged regularly in guzzling large volumes of it, getting drunk out of my mind. The fact that other students drank in my vicinity while I did doesn't mean I drank socially or with other people. I drank pints of whiskey straight out of the bottle, wine, brandy, horrible sticky stuff like sloe gin that gave me the dry heaves, beer. A few guys I hung around with would carry me home if I passed out in a gutter downtown, started puking my brains out at a fraternity party, or just got too loud or wildly out of control. I routinely drank to excess, but I only drank on the weekends if you count Thursday night, and I rarely started drinking before dark. I was a binge drinker and didn't stay drunk all the time like some other kinds of alcoholics. From where I stand now it is obvious to me I believed I could make myself a happy person by re-calibrating my brain with alcohol. Obviously, I was wrong.
Shortly after the start of my second semester, I met a 15-year-old girl who had come to a fraternity party with another guy in my class. I was walking up the stairs from the basement and encountered her on her way down. She had a lovely, intelligent face and a gorgeous body, radiant, full, and fair. I'd been drinking, but I wasn't drunk. I looked at her in stunned amazement and said, "I love you. You're so beautiful. Will you marry me?" She knew I was sincere, if completely socially inept. "I don't know," she said smiling directly into my eyes, and I asked her if she would go out with me. Somehow I got her number and started seeing her within a matter of days.
What did I know? She was the first girlfriend I had ever had. I wanted sex, and she was terrified of getting pregnant. We spent almost all of our free time together for the next 3 years, me constantly pressuring her to go all the way with me, her saying, "Maybe next time," but never giving in. I guess I possessed the earning potential or the intellectual promise to keep her hanging onto me year after stressful year until she finally left town to go to college, but that infrangible sexual bond that would have drawn us together and bound our lives to one another forever never was to be. Sex was an ever-present barrier between us, not a source of joy, and the frustration we both felt because of it - her because I wouldn't let it go, me because she didn't want it, too - gutted our relationship of the potential for intimacy and peace that we both wished to share. Our focus always reverted to our problem with sex, because I forced it to, and we never enjoyed feeling completely satisfied with one another.
During Easter break my senior year, after having begged her innumerable times over the years to have intercourse with me, she asked me with great concern about my having taken LSD, "What are you looking for?" I couldn't tell her I was looking for a woman who would love me and give herself to me completely as I wished to give myself to her. "I don't know," I answered, although I did. I find that interesting because two women many years down the road in my life each answered the same question in the same way after having given up on ever getting from me what they'd asked for over and over again and knew I wouldn't give. The married woman in Omaha and Sara, each committed to other men but infatuated for a while with me, wanted me to be a "friend", but I wouldn't rest unless I could be more.
School was only a temporary refuge for me from the world. It never occurred to me that the experience would end when I graduated or that the purpose of it was not pleasure in the present but to prepare to function adequately in the world at large. Being a student provided me a pre-fabricated identity, invented by the institution of school, that I could slip on like a suit of clothes over the empty shell of my undefined and unarticulated self. I got good grades because I picked up on abstract principles readily and was able to perceive the relevance of theories in one discipline, say biology, to another, for example, history, but I was not at all an exceptional scholar. I was clever and perceptive, but lazy and uninspired. To experiment with drugs in part was an extension of the abstract, classroom view I had of life and of myself, but I only gave into doing drugs and sought them out in 1966, my senior year, after my girlfriend left town to go to school and I felt lost because I found myself alone.
During the years I had spent hanging out with her, although I associated peripherally with a number of kids as I always had, I was intimately involved almost exclusively with my girlfriend. No matter that she and I were hung up, stuck on the problem of consummating our sexual relationship. We were close in the sense that we were significantly involved in each other's emotional lives. I didn't cultivate close friendships with other kids at school while I was seeing her, and when she moved away, when I became aware of the distance I had left between myself and everyone I could have gotten to know better, I felt lonely and depressed. Despondent, yearning to feel happier and not to feel so alone, yet simultaneously, oddly, feeling that I didn't care what became of me, I latched onto the idea of trying pot. I had heard that getting high was exceptionally pleasurable, if potentially leading also to one's becoming emotionally unglued, and saw pot as a means to cheer myself up or put myself in the crazy house, one way or another to resolve my dismal life.
The first time I approached a kid that I knew smoked pot to ask if he could get me some, I felt resigned to see the horrible truth about myself, the mythology surrounding pot at that time being that you couldn't hide your inner lies from yourself when you were stoned. A few years later the view was amended to read, "A pig who smokes marijuana is a stoned pig," meaning there is no great awakening upon getting high, although many people imagine they become more creative and more aware when they are stoned.
At my school, by 1967, altered states of consciousness could have been offered as a for credit course in philosophy, so many people were pursuing independent research in epistemology using pot. In fact, a group of us got stoned with one of our philosophy professors on more than one occasion. The theory was that you can get a better view of the world "as it is" if you disrupt with mind altering chemicals the patterns we impose on the raw inputs from our senses. Nothing intrinsic to the world, the theory went, requires that we perceive it the way we do.
There is a profound sense in which this is true, the Buddhist sense, but it was lost on me. I was preoccupied with proving I could see things differently - literally, visually - at the level of tables and chairs. I wanted to see "walls move", and with LSD of course I did, but I never noticed and I never questioned my assumption that I was the star of the show. I didn't know myself well enough to think in terms less abstract than space and time or form and color, and I missed entirely my exaggerated sense of my own importance in the fantastic images I saw.
I believed I was using drugs to free my mind to create a more loving, peaceful reality, and I think I sincerely wanted that, but it never occurred to me that fooling around with my brain chemistry was not making me aware of what needed to change in me. Drugs provided me a way to enjoy experiences more to my liking than what the unadulterated world supplies. I knew nothing of the world "as it is" and nothing of the courage required to live in it. All I knew about was school. I didn't know myself. That using drugs is beside the point, that it is an attempt to sweeten, rather than to accept, the raw sequence of events in our lives, escaped me utterly. Grandiose theories about perception aside, I used drugs to escape into my imagination and continued shamelessly to take issue with the world when it brought me experiences I didn't particularly like. I still got extravagantly sad, self-righteous, and upset. I knew nothing about peace of mind or what it takes to achieve it.
When I puffed on my first cigarette, in the 5th grade, I felt emancipated temporarily from the controlling influence of my mother. When I drank my first beer in my freshman year of college, I acquired an affectation as effective in my mind as florid cussing to attract attention, be amusing, and appear socially adept. When I took my first toke on a joint, I felt a kind of desperation and didn't care what the consequences were. Only thing is, pot didn't have any perceptible effect on me the first half dozen times or so I smoked it. I smoked it, waited, and felt nothing. Then one night I smoked pipe-full after pipe-full of pot alone in my room until a shift in my perception finally occurred and I realized I was stoned. Gradually, over a period of 10 years or so, I created an alternative reality for myself, for the most part more pleasant than actuality, into which I could escape whenever I liked by smoking pot.
I took a strange mix of classes when I was in college, at one point having completed enough credits to major either in biology, psychology, or philosophy. In my senior year I had to choose, and I decided to major in biology, because I was afraid I would flunk statistics (which was required to major in psychology) and I was lousy in languages (required to major in philosophy); but my favorite of the three was psychology, and when I applied to graduate school, psychology is what I applied to do. The University of Pennsylvania offered me a generous fellowship in psychology, and I accepted their offer. I sent them a telegram saying I was "most pleased" to accept their offer, I was that pompous of an amateur.
I also applied to study Physiology at UCLA, not because I believed what I told them, that I thought the way to understand the mind is to understand the brain, but because the good acid, Owsley acid, was purported to be found in California, and I wanted to be close to that. "California Dreamin'" by the Mama's and Papa's was a big hit on the radio. California was the place to be. Besides, 3,000 miles away from my mother seemed just about far enough to guarantee she wouldn't intrude on my privacy.
UCLA offered me a fellowship in physiology maybe a month after I told the University of Pennsylvania I accepted theirs, so I telephoned the head of their psychology department and asked him to let me out of going there. Boy, was that guy mad, not because I was such an irreplaceable prize, but because it was late in the season, I was creating an empty spot they would have to fill, and they'd already sent rejection letters to the applicants they figured they would not be able to accommodate. Needless to say, I was an idiot. If I had gone to graduate school in psychology, I might have done something useful with my life rather than to have spent it surviving various nightmares and reaffirming over and over for myself the same fundamental truths about getting along most people have down by the time they start kindergarten: people like you when you listen to them, don't tell people off.
Before I left for California, the summer after I graduated from college, I went on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Europe for 5 weeks. A professor of mine who had gotten his masters degree at the University of Paris had put together a tour to take high school kids to Europe. He needed one more chaperone, and he asked me if I would like the job. "Wow! Yeah!" I guess he thought I was a pretty cool guy. I had written some papers he liked on the philosophy of science, and he considered me fairly creative intellectually. I also think he liked me because before I took LSD, I told him that I had, and I told him I was not that impressed with it.
Not to have been impressed with LSD probably gave this guy the impression that I was a master of self-control, already clear in my mind at the age of 21 about where my emotional center lay. This professor was a genuinely cool guy. He had class and was refined. When he was growing up, his family associated with people whose names you'd recognize. He'd been acculturated at a high level of society. He'd studied in Europe to broaden his horizons. He projected himself with confidence. True, he was a bit of a phony, about as much of a phony as you have to be - a little too sharp-dressed, a little too impressed by people he thought were dumb - but he was unquestionably a very substantial guy. My telling him I had taken LSD when the truth is I had not is just one manifestation of an involuntary impulse I felt in those days to try to impress people. If it took embellishing myself a little to accomplish that, well, that was easier for me emotionally than humbly to state the truth about myself. The fact is I had overheard a guy who really was that self-possessed telling someone else that LSD hadn't done that much for him. I imitated that guy when my professor asked me if I had taken LSD and I couldn't bring myself to admit the awful truth to him that, no, I hadn't taken LSD.
I lied about myself because I was insecure. I don't mean to say I routinely fabricated grandiose inventions. I just let the occasional half-truth slip. I was planning on taking LSD. I had some in my drawer. But I was afraid I would not be accepted in those days, or worse that I would be forced to play a socially subordinate role, dominated or not deemed credible, if I admitted to being just an ordinary guy. My mother had raved when I was a kid that her Billy would "never be a ditch digger!" because of my special qualities, whatever they were - that I was hers, I think - but I'm not blaming her. It was convenient for me to pretend I was bigger than I was, even though I lacked the skills to convince others of it without taking an occasional liberty with the truth.
By the time we went to Europe, I had taken LSD, and believe me, I was anything but nonplussed by the experience. The intensity and the pleasure of it, in contrast to the narrow scope within which I ordinarily experienced my life, dazzled my imagination. But it also left me terrified, although at the time I would never have identified what I felt as fear. My ordinary life felt to me as though it had been reduced to being pathetically beside the point. To compensate, I believed that to have had that experience made me a very important guy. Nothing had ever been clearer to me than that "it's all bullshit", and I appointed myself spokesman for that particular truth. Outwardly I became even more of an idiot than I had been up until then. I started wearing impractical, inappropriate clothes and arguing that reality is an illusion. (Obviously, on the contrary, illusion is illusion.) I found LSD so compelling, I considered it to be a window into the ultimate nature of reality. It never occurred to me that reality is reality and that LSD is a drug whose effect is to distort your perception of it.
My professor was more than a little disappointed in me, and I was left, after we arrived in Europe, to hang out with the high school kids. Since I was a hopeless unsophisticate wearing loudly clashing clothes and arguing incomprehensible points, I was not exactly in great demand among the adults. Inevitably, I fell in love with one of the high school girls. She was 17 or 18 years old. It wasn't like she was a baby, and we didn't have sex, although we did hold hands and hug and kiss a lot. I'm not going to say her name. Our big thing was splashing around in fountains together. Fortunately we didn't get arrested. In the fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome in particular we came close. A few people shouted at us angrily in Italian to get the hell out of there.
Jumping into fountains was my idea. She probably went along with it because it was a fun way to cool off. Maybe she shared some of the exuberance I was feeling about getting to be close to her. In my own goofy way I did express my love for her romantically, enthusing over the look and smell and feel of her. She was elegantly beautiful, blonde, exquisite, delicate. I loved to breathe her in and tell her how exhilaratingly beautiful she was, the fleshy fullness of her supple lips, the subtle blueness of her lucent eyes, the chiseled edges of her fragile nose and cheeks. Jumping into fountains, silly as it was, expressed something of the wing we gave our feelings inwardly. I might have brought that out in her. We were beyond the limits of the ordinary world. I loved her beauty joyously. It must have felt good to her to be admired so unabashedly.
My first Christmas break in Los Angeles, she flew out from New York City to visit me. Like a number of other friends of mine from back east, she availed herself of her acquaintance with someone on the west coast to come out for a look around. When she came, however, I was no longer the innocent she had known in Europe. I had recently had sex with a woman, an easy woman I am sorry to admit (no, I didn't pay - I never have), and contracted gonorrhea. My symptoms developed after my fountain friend had been in town for a couple of days. I had gotten her to fool around in bed with me to an extent, although she was a virgin when she arrived and remained one when she left. It was conceivable, though, for her to have caught the clap from what we did. For me to allow her to be ravaged by it internally rather than to tell her I might have given it to her, I thought, was unconscionable. Naturally, she didn't catch it, and the examination she endured after she returned to New York was so painful and unpleasant that it cost me the opportunity ever to see her again. She hated me for it, in other words - told me so when I phoned to ask her how she was - and became the first of a short but significant list of beautiful women in my life whose love for me for one reason or another would turn in the end to hate.
When I arrived in Los Angeles in September, 1967, my first order of business was to check in at the Physiology department office at UCLA to let them know that I was there, but for a few days I couldn't bring myself to go. I was gripped by a fear, like nothing I had ever experienced before, that felt like a limitless emptiness inside myself. I felt that my being there was a lie, not only to UCLA (which I was using to escape from "repressive social influences" on the east coast - namely girls who insisted on remaining virgins and my mother), but also to myself.
It is true that some of the grandiose philosophical extremes to which I went in college with respect to the "theory dependency of facts" - especially with respect to LSD, illusion, and reality - derived from an ignorance about myself and the world that I was too proud or scared to recognize, but the fact is I was onto something in a larger sense and could not as a matter of principle commit myself to science as the overriding framework from within which I was going to experience my life. I cared most about how people treated me and to a lesser extent how they treat one another. (Making judgments about the latter afforded me plenty of opportunity to feel morally superior with regards to the former.) My fascination was with the play, not the composition of the ink with which it is written on the page. I cared about what is communicated between people, what is felt, not the aspiration of the words or the audition of the sentences with which we reveal ourselves to one another. To comprehend emotionally and resolve my pain and isolation was the driving force in me.
In college I had stuck to mainstream subjects as far as my studies were concerned, but my secret dream and what I would have preferred to learn was to write, because it is the emotional content of a situation or a life, not the circulation of the blood in the veins, that occupies my mind. Psychology came close and indeed did fascinate me, because it addressed the question of how we understand ourselves. Philosophy, too, stimulated my intellect, because it concerns itself with the sense we make out of our relationship with the world. But science is an answer, a method that purports to tell us something about the ultimate nature of reality, which is fine, but I'm not good at getting excited about explanations of what is going on behind the scenes. The experience of being here, for me, is far too compelling. I don't understand it, and at bottom I don't want to. I want to experience it, more as a simple sponge in those days, more with an attitude of appreciation and kindness now, kindness being fundamental to the exchange between whole people, but not the sort of thing you find in the Periodic Table of the Elements. Science in the end is colder, more of a smooth rock, than the warm embrace of living that arouses me.
I had no training in the arts. I had brushed up against the humanities - read some literature - by pursuing a liberal arts education, but I was too intimidated by my mother when I was an undergraduate to defy her and pursue flat-out my ambition to be a writer. Besides, my parents paid my bills. I didn't have any money or any idea how to earn it. When I expressed interest in going to another school to learn to write, my mother worried volubly that I could never earn a living doing that. Science came easy to me, not that I was a genius or cultivated an encyclopedic mind - I didn't - but I did not find the nuts and bolts of math, physics, and chemistry the least bit difficult to understand, and when I reported home what good grades I was getting in those, she crowed.
There on the verge of a career in Physiology, lying to the institution, lying to myself, that being there was what I wished to do, I pushed myself to go through with it because I had no idea where else to go. It was easy to slip between the cracks at UCLA once my course began. The department was big, I was small, and everyone else was too involved in their own work to wonder what had become of me. Later, in Canada, at Dalhousie, I became more visible in a smaller department. The expectation was that I would apply myself, and I simply reached the point where I couldn't pretend I was interested in Physiology anymore. In the meantime, in L.A., things came along to distract me: beer, women, touring the US in my car, resisting the war in Vietnam. I committed myself emotionally to everything but my career: getting stoned, getting laid, trying to change the world. There was a guy in my class at UCLA to whom things did not come easily without studying, as they did to me, who wanted more than anything else to make a career in Physiology. I wandered through the library one night chasing down an article on the history of science I was after to read for fun. That guy was pouring over a pile of his books in one of the reading rooms. I wished he could have had my aptitude for that kind of stuff. I didn't need it, and it would have worked out better for him if he did.
Outside of the university, on the fringes of society, you find strange characters who know a little something but are not informed comprehensively enough ever to be taken seriously by the credentialed world. You meet these guys in coffee houses and artist colonies, amateur philosophers with good hearts and gaping holes in their theories about things. In Venice, I lived in an apartment at 30 Dudley that was managed by a guy like that by the name of Roger Fagan. He was to me then as I am now to the college kids who live around me in my neighborhood in Pacific Beach. He was 50 plus, could see through me, and never in a million years would have been able to get me to see through myself, because we were engaged in completely different phases of our lives. One thing about life Roger Fagan had figured out for certain is that we want to be good at the things we have no talent for, and we find the things we excel at effortlessly a bore. He found that tragic, and I suppose it is, unless you have the time and can settle for a hobby, which regrettably I cannot. Roger is the guy who evicted me after I scrawled "Fuck Cops" on my door in black paint that time I was arrested for being drunk and disorderly after those guys in white shirts beat me up in the men's room at that bar. He did it resignedly. He knew I was capable of better than that, but he had to do what the situation warranted no matter what he felt.
A few months before I moved to Venice, shortly after I started classes at UCLA, I encountered my friend Carl for the first time stepping into an elevator in the basement of the Health Sciences Center. "Where the hell am I?" I asked no one in particular.
"In the heart of the beast," Carl said provocatively, eyebrows raised expectantly. He leaned back against the wall in the elevator, not in a hurry to reveal too much about himself, struck by my unchecked feral energy, and studied my expression frankly.
I smiled broadly and said, "What are you? Some kind of a revolutionary?"
"No," he answered, "just a first-year medical student," but of course the implication was that he was considerably more. Carl believed things strongly and was clear in his own mind which side he was on. He would chortle knowingly at the ruling elite's stupidity and immorality, savoring the injustice of his painful alienation from society at large, and he loved to laugh at what he called "the ironies of life", people's ethical blind spot when it comes to applying ethics to themselves. Note that I said "themselves" not "ourselves". Carl's focus and the tenor of those times was not to dig inwardly for the truth about oneself but to fight sedulously to rub the noses of the powerful in their own inhumanity and greed. Not that the powerful were anything less than inhumane or rife with greed, but that the Establishment was corrupt, flaunting the moral imperative of our generation, was a distraction that kept Carl and me from doing the work of exploring the disquietude in our own troubled hearts. We were too busy being angry to be particularly attentive to our assumptions about ourselves.
Carl and I spent a lot of time hanging out together during the years I went to UCLA. His ideas provided me with a readymade identity - I hadn't given much thought to politics before meeting him - and I took advantage of every opportunity they afforded me to luxuriate in righteous indignation. The war, the cops, the government all were easy targets for my anger. I don't mean to say that my opposition to the war and the way it was rammed down our throats was wrong, but my preoccupation with the arrogance and deceit of others blinded me to my own. I would have done better to have mellowed out and grown emotionally, but instead I did a lot of acting out and didn't see myself with any clarity at all.
I felt trapped in academia and had no idea how to accomplish my dream of expressing myself for a living as a writer, but I did nothing constructive to change that, settling instead for feeling wronged by the forces that put me in the situation I was in. I wrote a little crappy poetry, a couple of far too wordy songs, some confused and angry musings in a journal, but being a graduate student was the only reliable way I knew to survive, and the monthly stipend it provided me for doing next to nothing paid for gas and beer. I rebelled against my role as a student outwardly, but inwardly I depended on it for emotional and financial security. I had no idea what a writer did or how a writer lived, and I wallowed in discontent.
I did quit graduate school briefly, if unofficially, in 1968 and took a job driving delivery for a couple of months for a typographer in Hollywood, but that job provided me no advantages other than to convince me to return to school before my teachers noticed I was gone. Working took up too much of my time, and after a very short while driving around the city, I was thoroughly bored with it. The job paid about the same as school, which didn't bother me, because I have never been motivated particularly by money and at that time was opposed to the idea of money as a matter of principle. I had watched my father, who was the wallet for my family, work 13 hours a day 365 days a year to bring home money and be treated with disrespect in his own house. And the "system" clearly valued money more than life itself. Bucks in the world at large obviously mattered more than the truth or fairness between people, but truth and fairness mattered most to me, and I felt thoroughly alienated from money as a result.
In the midst of my confusion and discontent with regards to who I was, all I had to do to feel like I was in command of my life was to tag along with Carl to the beer hall, assimilate his politics, and parrot his beliefs. I'm not saying Carl was a deliberate accomplice in this, although my not having an identity of my own certainly made it easier for him to expound his views to me in the sense that he was looking for a drinking buddy, not an argument. I don't even think he realized I was modeling myself after him, at least not until after I got involved with Linda in 1968 and became so obviously dependent on her emotionally. Carl was pretty opinionated and figured his opinions were pretty right. He probably figured I agreed with him. To tell you the truth, I probably did, although aiming my emotional guns at the political issues of the day provided me an object for the anger I was carrying around inside of me rather than a solution to it.
When I initially arrived in Los Angeles, I rented a room near campus for too much money with no desirable features and a curfew, which should come as no surprise given how unworldly I was at the time. Carl wanted to rent a nicer place than he was in and suggested we rent an apartment together, which we did for a few months until I discovered Venice and moved out to rent a place at the beach on my own. Carl rented a place in Venice himself not too long after that. The place we shared was on Wilshire Blvd., month-to-month, not too far from school. That whole area has been torn down and replaced with giant high rise condos long ago. In those days, though, living there was very Californian: two-story stucco walk-ups with outdoor stairwells, blue and green floodlit palm trees, kidney shaped aquamarine swimming pools white lit from below. It was L.A., 1967. School was easy, and, except for the moral thorn in our side of the war in Vietnam, which necessitated our fighting with the cops and everyone who believed you had to be a communist to oppose it, life was good.
Carl thought the neighborhood reeked of tastelessness. I liked that the weather was always warm. He did make the point that every intersection in L.A. is substantially the same as every other intersection in L.A., but I thought the smog was classy, emblematic of the big-time nature of the city. Carl thought the urban sprawl was deadening and missed the country flavor of the Midwest, where he'd gone to school. Neither of us could understand how the average Los Angelean could remain preoccupied with buying another car and another house and not even notice that Vietnamese people were dying - actually losing their lives in their own country - because of the vague political machinations of American politicians about which we were lied to daily.
Our respite was beer. Carl was absolutely infatuated with it. I swilled it to get drunk, but Carl idolized it, treating it as something far more wonderful than the basically crappy tasting stuff you have to pour down your throat to get a buzz on. He treasured a drink of beer, rapturously fondling a cold wet glass, sucking it down, grandly drawing the back of his hand across his lips, "Ahhhh," lost in the act of drinking it, like a spinning dancer turning his head to the side and gracefully opening his arms. I don't know if relishing beer like this is an affectation he learned at college, but even if it started out like that, by the time I met him he was thoroughly sincere. Beer for Carl was the sine qua non, and he doted on it in all its forms like a junkie loves his awl.
He and I smoked pot together a few times, but west coast dope was a lot stronger than anything I had ever had before moving to L.A. I got too paranoid on it and actually quit smoking dope almost immediately after I arrived. I didn't start again until after I moved to Canada in the fall of 1970. Dope was all the rage, of course, it being 1967 and all, but Carl liked beer, and when it came to getting intoxicated, he was a purist. He saw dope as a fad and the people who used it as weak willed sheep following the herd. If there were no such thing as dope, Carl would not have cared as long as there was beer. When we got drunk, we terrorized whoever was around by passionately arguing politics and lambasting their apathetic preoccupation with their own material pursuits.
There was another guy in L.A. who worshipped beer, and Carl and I got to meet him through a friend. The friend who introduced us to this guy was Harold Norse, an expatriate American poet who had lived in Greece for the previous 13 years and moved to Venice on his return to the United States. Harold was about 50 years old when we met him. His mother lived in Venice. I think he said he set up housekeeping there because he wanted to be close to her. His coming back in the first place had something to do with his almost dying of hepatitis over there - or maybe that happened to him a number of years previously. I never listened to what Harold told us about himself very carefully. My friend Howard Schrager, the guy I got off the freeway to visit in Sacramento in 1989, spent a lot of time hanging out with Harold. He knows much more about his life than I do.
The guy that Harold introduced us to, after we begged him to for months, was Charles Bukowski. At that time Bukowski was still writing poetry, and his poetry was amazing, not because his imagery was unusually great but because his story lines and his dialog express such clear, unapologetic insight into what people want from one another and his language is so easy to understand. For some reason no one has ever explained to me, Bukowski considered Harold Norse the greatest living American poet. When Harold told us that, I didn't believe him (I felt like Harold was always trying to impress us with what an important guy he was), but I was there in his apartment when Bukowski started growling on in that Bukowski voice of his telling Norse, "Norse, you're the greatest living American poet. I've learned more about writing poetry from you than any other poet who's alive and writing today," or something very close to that. Maybe it was the way Harold laid his stuff out on the page that inspired Bukowski to do something he hadn't thought of on his own before. Maybe it was something else, but if I put some Harold Norse next to some Charles Bukowski and read them side by side, I can't see the influence. But I'm not a poet, so what do I know?
I have to be careful what I write about Harold, because I've already made him mad once by getting the facts about him wrong. When I was working for the Georgia Straight in Vancouver in 1973, I found out that Harold had started up a small literary magazine, in San Francisco I think, called "Bastard Angel". I tried writing an article about it by pulling the few things I thought I knew about him together out of my memory. I was proud of having gotten the article published in the newspaper and sent him a copy. He was livid about the mess I'd made of the facts. I admit I did a terrible job. In Venice Harold was always talking about Henry Miller and Anais Nin. I still don't know if he knew them or not. Maybe he admired them like I admired Charles Bukowski and he got to meet them or maybe he wanted to meet them and never did. In my article I said they were his friends. Whatever. Harold finally invited Carl and me to a private reading by Charles Bukowski in the back room of a bookstore in Hollywood in, oh, maybe 1969, and we got to go to back to Bukowski's place and drink beer with him until 6 o'clock in the morning.
Neither Carl nor I was anything to Bukowski. He didn't know us, and aside from drinking at his bungalow a couple of times after listening to him read his poetry and hanging out with him once or twice in Venice, we didn't know him. He didn't particularly extend himself to either of us, unless you count that he let us in his door, and we didn't do anything in particular for him, unless you count that we went out to the liquor store and bought him a couple of 6-packs of Miller High Life once or twice. I'm not trying to give you the impression I was best buds with Charles Bukowski here, but I did get to meet him. You've probably gotten to meet someone famous, too.
Charles Bukowski was an amazingly talented writer. His stuff draws you in immediately, and he has you laughing by the second or third line. Back in the 1960's, when he was writing a column for the L.A. Free Press called "Notes of a Dirty Old Man", word was that his writing style was changing the English language, and I suppose it did, because he captured contemporary speech so flawlessly, but Bukowski was completely wrapped up in acting like a tough guy, and he resolved every incident in his writing, as he apparently resolved every incident in his life, by taking another drink. Typical Bukowski stuff is, "We drank all the red wine. Then we drank all the white wine. Everybody else passed out. I drank all the beer," which is amusing to read, but it's a lousy way to live your life.
Carl saw taking another drink as the ultimate, too, but Carl was a medical student with a spot reserved for himself in the everyday, normal world. Bukowski was a million times more extreme, an authentic skid row alcoholic bum who had been left on the street for dead with bleeding ulcers on more than one occasion. That he'd really lived in puke stained flop house rooms and was not just dabbling at being a loner tough guy drunk elevated Bukowski to the level of a hero in my eyes. I felt like as big of a big shot for having gotten drunk with Hank Bukowski as I had for having tripped on LSD. I started imitating the way he spoke, affecting the tired arrogance of his tone, talking tough, pretending my heart was cold, as if I were he.
That I imitated the guy is not his fault, and at the end of his life, as I understand it, he did get to enjoy some tenderness with a woman sculptor that he knew. I mention having drunk with Charles Bukowski because he was the misanthropic, alcoholic, self-assured, insightful, tough guy I thought I could be. Only thing is, I had never been anything but a student. No matter that my identification with my role was negative, I had a role. I hadn't fought myself to learn to stand in the world alone, and I had not been forced by the events of my life to acknowledge anything of the truth about myself. I knew how to argue angrily and cleverly, but that was a device to keep the world from touching me. Someone else was wrong.
A woman I fooled around with once for a few days in Venice told me, "I feel like I'm looking at you through a one-way mirror." It took me years to understand what she meant by that, which is that the way I related to her was to confirm my preconceptions rather than to let the reality of her in, and I didn't because I didn't dare. I had no respect and couldn't hear and wouldn't listen or feel the truth of other people's lives because I couldn't trust myself to know how to respond. I was afraid of being embarrassed by the reality of life, and I was too proud to admit that, least of all to myself. I had to feel like I was in command of every situation. I didn't know how to allow myself to be at the mercy of whatever is in front of my nose. I called people chickenshit because Bukowski did, but I was as chickenshit as a sallow bureaucrat holding himself a little war, and I didn't even know it. I'm not saying I was a chicken because I wouldn't fight in the War. I'm saying I would not allow myself to be touched inwardly, to be made aware of my own emotional ignorance, by life. Of course, Bukowski drank and used that solitary tough guy thing to feel like he was safe and in control. That's as far as he was able to go. I have no idea whether he ever figured out you can let go of that.
Lacking the perspective that comes with the experience of functioning as an integral person in the world, I could never have drawn as deep and powerful an understanding of my life as Charles Bukowski could of his. I could emulate his mannerisms and superficial aspects of his style. I could try to act like him, but for all my self-important posturing, I knew nothing about myself. I must have come across as pretty silly swaggering around talking in my imitation Bukowski voice when I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia a few months later, because my affectation far exceeded the depth of my understanding. I was sorely in need of a lesson in humility, which is what I received when Luella committed suicide four years later.
Not long after I moved to Venice in 1967, I discovered I could have about as much sex I wanted. All I had to do was find a girl with low self-esteem (which included about 90% of girls at that time), tell her she was beautiful, keep my mouth shut as much possible, and let her talk. When I felt like having sex, all I had to do was say, "Let's take off our clothes and fuck," or start nuzzling her cheek, lightly stroke her hair, and murmur in her ear. Girls liked having sex with me because I tried to give them as much pleasure as I possibly could. I always thought that's what sex is about. The problem was that in almost every case what they had to say didn't interest me in the least. It is very important to me that you understand I was not at all prejudiced against girls or what they said as a matter of principle. I wished more than anything to have heartfelt conversations with the girls I met, and I was stunningly depressed that I could not, because they didn't say anything. Except for the remark about the one-way mirror, I can't remember one thing a girl from that period of my life said. Carl and I called having to listen to girls talk between having sex with them "guilt time". You had to do it, but it wasn't fun. We lamented about that over many quarts of no-name beer and gallons of cheap wine.
Girls in those days giggled and flirted simperingly, affecting baby talk to divert your attention from ideas to them if you brought up politics or how attitudes are circulated in society; and they declared all sorts of subjects (mostly to do with how they felt about sex and how their moods worked) taboo so they couldn't be discussed. All that girls basically wanted was for you to marry them, bring home money, buy them things, and pay the rent. Why the heck did they need me to get their money, I wondered. Get your own money, I thought. I was chasing after truth and beauty, understanding, passion. Money, status, power were a rigged game as far as I could see that didn't interest me at all, and the people who were sold on that stuff struck me as so sneaky that just thinking about them made me mad. After all, the logical extension of materialistic greed is war at one end of the spectrum and thoughtlessness at the other. Pleasure, authenticity, seeing eye to eye - heart to heart - with another human being were everything to me. Also, what aroused me sexually were the details of a beautiful female body. Girls, on the other hand, were aroused by things like being smart or funny. I could never understand how a person could get physically aroused by something that has nothing to do with physical arousal. In the 70's, of course, with the advent of "women's anger", women blamed all of these discrepancies on men.
Sex left me empty because I wanted to feel emotionally bonded to the women I was sleeping with, but I was feeling alienated instead. I would walk out onto the boardwalk at 6 o'clock in the morning after a night of pleasure, watch a wino pissing against a building or rummaging in a garbage can for breakfast, and feel horribly forlorn. After a while, although the faces and bodies of the women I slept with changed, everything else began to stay the same. Women who believed I found them ravishing and imagined I was hanging on their every word were boring me to death with dissertations on cute jewelry and the people that they knew. Eventually I realized I was seducing women to prove to myself that I was desirable sexually but what I really wanted, as I always had, was a girlfriend I could love. Painfully aware as I was, though, that I wanted to feel connected to a woman deeply, I wasn't meeting anyone I could trust to understand my feelings or my dreams. Girls came across to me as painfully materialistic and thoroughly self-absorbed. I longed to meet a woman I could admire and respect.
I was not a master of communication either, though. Given that the most influential women in my life so far - my mother and my girlfriend at college - did not understand, accept, or encourage me to be who I was but thwarted me instead, I anticipated that if I expressed my desires or my fears to a woman, she would hassle me about them, put me on the defensive, disapprove and demand that I not be me. I was afraid to ask for what I wanted or to tell the truth about some things. For example, I was seeing a married woman who enjoyed sex with me in the afternoon while her husband was at work. One day while she was riding on top me, I reached up and started fondling her breasts. Afterwards, she asked me how I knew that she wanted me to do that at just that moment. I couldn't tell her that I did it because I felt like it and hadn't been thinking about her at all. I was afraid she would hassle me about not having been thinking about her. Rather than to marvel with her at the coincidence, reflect on the perfectly complimentary feelings that nature has evolved in women and in men, I said nothing at all. I kept my mouth shut to avoid provoking an argument I assumed would inevitably ensue if I told her the truth.
Meanwhile, keeping girls at arm's length even after having gone to bed with them (especially after having gone to bed with them), I had broken several hearts. I felt guilty about that and like something of a failure as a person, too. Other guys had girlfriends. Other guys fell in love. What was wrong with me? I started singing that stupid song, "What kind of fool am I? Why can't I fall in love / Like any other man?" to dramatize my plight. I finally decided - this was in 1968 - that it was my own inability to be vulnerable that was standing in the way of my loving someone, that I was expecting more than an ordinary person can give, and I decided I would love someone purely as an act of will. I went to the Oar House looking for a girlfriend, and I picked out Linda.
Linda was sitting in a booth with her girlfriend Heidi, and I approached her easily. I spoke to her with an air of familiarity, assuming she wanted to talk to me, but I didn't act so familiar as to appear phony. She seemed to welcome my curiosity and opened up when I asked her probing questions about issues she somewhat apologetically mentioned when I asked her how her life was going. Heidi, who was defensive and answered every question rhetorically as though she had an axe to grind, exited the scene after 15 minutes or so leaving Linda and me alone. Not long after that I took Linda home. She was distraught about having given a baby up for adoption recently, and her financial situation, which had deteriorated precipitously when she broke up with her boyfriend a few months ago, wasn't good. Although her life was a mess, I was impressed with her because she was a serious person dealing with serious issues. She was anything but a giggly naïve girl. I was genuinely drawn to her, looked up to her, in fact. She was a couple of years younger than I, but she had lived considerably more life and was without a doubt the most beautiful woman at the Oar House that night, probably in the whole damned town. Linda fit my criteria for a girlfriend perfectly.
When I had gone out to the Oar House earlier that night, my plan was to select the most beautiful woman in the bar and allow myself to desire her with the intensity with which I had desired my first girlfriend, not holding any of my feelings back. To love a woman, I had decided, meant to experience such an extreme sexual attraction to her that in the act of making love I would be rent by staggering paroxysms of the most wildly exquisite pleasure one could possibly imagine. I figured (on an emotional level, not in conscious thoughts) that love equated to letting myself go, letting my deepest, most potentially embarrassing feelings show. Trusting someone at that level, allowing myself to experience enjoyment of that intensity openly in their presence, I believed was love. I know. I was nuts, and it embarrasses me to admit that at that particular moment "I love you," essentially boiled down for me to, "You are going to give me the fuck of my life." I was a total idiot.
For Linda, love was a role that people play in one another's lives. She had left home at the age of 17 because her parents, who had money and every material advantage, drank, fought, and didn't know how to communicate with each other or their kids. She had worked as a change girl in Reno and at a number of menial jobs in San Francisco; had sex before me with dozens of men, without much feeling she said - sex is what the men she'd been around had wanted her to do; and she had a bright, remarkably secure, well-spoken 3-year-old little boy. Linda was involved in the practicalities of living and did not seem too concerned with the intensity of the emotions people feel about one another. She was as amazingly uninterested in sex as she was amazingly beautiful, and that disturbed me greatly, because I assumed that everyone's sex drive was as extreme as mine.
When we first started seeing each other, Linda was physically unable to have sex. She had recently given birth to the baby she'd given up for adoption and was under doctor's orders to abstain for 30 days. During that time I professed my love for her repeatedly in a crazed delirium. How beautiful I found her is about the extent of what I was telling her, but I felt I was expressing so much more, my attraction to her was so strong. I lived in Venice Beach and was regularly driving almost an hour to see her in Tujunga Canyon. After her boy would go to sleep, she and I would neck and whisper quietly for hours, gently holding one another close and kissing tenderly. After we all had breakfast in the morning, I would drive back to the beach. Linda and I talked about moving in together with that false matter-of-factness people do when there is not a chance the underlying emotional and practical issues are similarly understood by each. I imagined she agreed because she was as sexually crazed about me as I was about her. She imagined I wished to provide financial security for her and her boy, and she believed I was capable of doing so. Once those 30 days of abstinence had expired, Linda "serviced" me as part of the unspoken arrangement she in her own mind had agreed to. Being "serviced" is about as flattering to me as being allowed to attend the reception following the ceremony provided I pay for my meal. She told me she'd never had an orgasm. I took it upon myself to give her one. She felt more and more beset as weeks went by the more I insisted she submit to my efforts to satisfy her. I began to doubt she was as inorgasmic as she claimed.
Since she was living with me but not particularly interested in sex, I imagined she must be having wild erotic encounters with someone else behind my back. I accused her of messing around behind my back and even asked a guy in the neighborhood, Yann Kaloustian, a handsome guy who was every girl's heartthrob, whether he was doing it with her. Linda said, "I can't help what you want to believe." Yann said, "No, man, I'm not messing with your old lady." Again, the issue wasn't that I thought I owned her or the sex rights to her or something idiotic like that as the feminists claim. It was a question of honesty, whether she sincerely valued me above all other men as I valued her above all other women. I felt vulnerable in my relationship with her and didn't want to be taken for a fool. I wanted not to be lied to. I wanted not to be used as a wallet or thrown away. I wanted to be loved. Being jealously obsessed, of course, is about the most effective way to make you thoroughly despised in your lover's eyes.
The last few years that Linda had been living in San Francisco, before she returned to L.A. to reconcile with her father, she had been involved in a Buddhist sect called Nichiren Shoshu, a mantra based meditation practice that revolves around chanting, "Nam yoho ringah kyo." Linda had thought a lot about Eastern philosophical ideas, and she tried to discuss the Law of Cause and Effect with me. I thought she was spouting a bunch of mumbo jumbo. I had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from an East Coast university and was convinced I knew the score. I was completely indoctrinated into the assumption that the universe is "out there" and I am "in here" outside of and separate from it, and I had never been exposed to any other view. My conversational style, smart guy that I thought I was, was to try to demolish the ideas of anyone whose beliefs were not the same as mine by finding the contradiction, the impossibility, or the absurdity in the things they said. I had never heard of looking for the sense in other people's views and felt called upon to demonstrate in every case that I had the right answer. Only thing is, Linda was not to be demolished. Her experience had taught her that what you put out into the universe comes back to you, and she knew enough not to try to talk me into something I wasn't ready to understand.
Linda engaged in a practice called Shakabuku, which is to go out onto the street and invite home anyone who wants to come along to chant "Nam yoho ringah kyo" with you. Nichiren Shoshu believes the karma associated with doing that is good, so when she felt like charging her spiritual batteries, she would go out and talk to people on the boardwalk at Venice Beach about the mantra and bring home a few she'd managed to convince to try it. I locked myself in the bedroom when she brought home people to chant with her! I was that uptight. I was so afraid my little world might shatter or that I might find myself in a new world that I knew nothing about if I did it with her, I had to lock the possibility away on the other side of the bedroom door. In my smug little world, I was the smart guy. I was the star. If that world were to crumble, I would have to trust the guidance of others, or find my own inner guidance, to understand where I was. I was not at all emotionally prepared for that. In fact, for me, the only way that my bubble was ever going to burst was if the universe were to smash it for me with a million pound sledge hammer, which is precisely what eventually it did.
After Linda and I had been living together for 6 months or so, we left her boy with Heidi for a weekend and drove to New Orleans. This was to heal our relationship, which wasn't going well, and to improve the communication between us. I thought as soon as we got into a motel our first night on the road, she would want to make passionate love to me. At least that's how I felt about her, but sex was the furthest thing from Linda's mind. Aside from the fact that Linda was having a hard time seeing me as the most wonderful man alive, I think when everyone of the opposite sex finds you awesomely beautiful and wants sex with you, the pure availability of that opportunity drains you of your sex drive. I think feeling like you have to work a little bit to get some sexual attention keeps you interested. Linda wanted something else, and it wasn't deep conversations to help her work out her problems either. She wanted a man who was completely independent and self-assured to hang out with, to take for granted in a way, and not to feel particularly obligated to emotionally. She wanted to enjoy good times with someone and not get wrapped up in each other's insecurities. As much as I was looking for intensity, she was looking for tranquility. As blind as I was to my own inner process, she was looking for someone self-aware. Inevitably, she had to break it off.
She did around the time I met Bukowski. I begged her to stay. She cried and said she didn't want to, I wasn't happy, and it brought her down to be with me. I told her that I loved her. She said I didn't, we were different, and I only wanted her to love me. I asked her if she did. She said she didn't know. Everything inside my body ached. I was a wrenching empty pit. A few months later I was drafted. Then I left for Canada. When I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia I was miserably depressed. I felt powerless, defeated, and driven out of my own country by the military, and I felt rejected and unattractive in the eyes of women because the love of my life discarded me. I also felt intimidated by the prospect of deportation. My fear was that if I drew the attention of the cops (who in contrast to the storm troopers of the LAPD were fatherly gray-haired men), I would be deported, wind up in Leavenworth Prison, and be fucked in the ass.
You're probably wondering about my relationship with Linda's boy. I loved him. He was at just the age where letters and numbers and words were fun for him. I loved reading him Dr. Seuss books and teaching him how to spell and count. He was like a wizened old man in the body of a little boy. I was fascinated by him and loved it when he talked to me.
Halifax did not afford anything like the availability or the anonymity of women that Los Angeles had. I went out of my mind with loneliness and started writing to Carl telling him what a bummer I was on. In Halifax, which was a tiny town to begin with, one girl typically hung around with a group of 4 or 5 guys, and it wasn't clear which guy if any she was taking home to bed. This is a much different social environment than I had gotten used to in Los Angeles, where everyone, man or woman, travels essentially alone and anyone is fair game anytime as far as sexual overtures are concerned. I felt in Halifax as though to seduce a girl I had to seduce her entire circle of friends. I don't do well in groups in the first place and am essentially a one-on-one kind of guy. On top of that, I had come from a completely different culture and had no idea how local people thought. I found the secretive aspect of people's sex lives hard to understand. It reminded me of why I had left the East Coast when I originally moved to Los Angeles, and I was too afraid of making a fool of myself even to think about letting my sexual feelings show in a sexually repressive environment such as that.
If I started a conversation with a girl, I found myself immediately talking to three guys I didn't particularly want to talk to. Of course, if I had not felt as I always had that I had to be on top of the situation - if I had felt secure enough in myself to learn in an objective sense how the process worked - if I could have listened, in other words - there is a small chance I might have gotten the hang of it. I did meet one house-full of guys who were interested in me because I was from L.A. They welcomed me like a traveler returning home with news of the world outside of Halifax and showed me how to make potato casserole. But I steered the conversation mostly to my own concerns (really pouring on that Bukowski voice) and missed out on the opportunity to learn much about how life worked for them. The external pressures of the mass society in America were huge in relation to the tiny social world of Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the details of the way people interacted in Halifax held all the potential for emotional fulfillment the most grandiose public spectacle did in Los Angeles - more, probably, because Halifax offered the opportunity to communicate intimately in person with actual human beings - but I was nowhere near ready to appreciate the enormous importance of that yet. I understood myself in terms of monumental abstract principles, not the people I could see and hear and touch.
I was at a critical juncture emotionally in Halifax as far as learning how to live in the world as an individual human being is concerned, and, as in every other crisis in my life prior to that, I missed the chance to become aware of my defenses. Instead, I felt very important to be suffering so much. Being that bummed out was one more reason I was a big shot in my eyes. The old familiar trip. I saw myself on my knees head bowed, which in actuality I was, but rather than to accept that, rather than to sit there on my knees and bow my head until whatever strength of spirit materialized spontaneously from within me to carry on, I rebelled against my circumstances as I always had and demanded with dramatic eloquence that they change. I wrote a lame 2-chord song called "Lonely Wednesday" that I managed to tape at the AV department at Dalhousie: "Lonely Wednesday comes to me like a chilly wind in my face / I drag myself up off my bed and stumble out of my place / Drive into town with my heavy load / Conning myself with things I've been told / Like maybe today I'm gonna find a woman, etc." Harold Norse heard the tape and thought it was pretty good, not meaning it was a good song, but there was some honesty of feeling there that looked promising to him. Note the phrase "conning myself". That's me imitating Bukowski, trying to sound like a tough guy who knows the score battling his inherent weaknesses. It was all a lie, trying to hold my head up when I should have been kneeling on the floor head down.
I rented an apartment when I first arrived in town in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the sister city of Halifax on the other side of the A. Murray McKay Bridge, and started drinking Schooner beer. Boy did I get drunk on that stuff. Canadian beer at that time was about twice as strong as American beer, and Canadian bottles were bigger, because the Canadians measured volumes using the British Imperial System. I bought a French fry cutter and a deep fat fryer. French fries and mashed potato casseroles were staples in the local diet. One night, drunk out of my mind on Schooner beer, I forgot to turn the deep fat fryer off and it burst into flames. I had no idea how to put it out. Thick black smoke billowed through my apartment. I threw open my windows. It was cold. I pounded on my neighbor's door. The guy rushed into my apartment and threw my jacket over the fryer, smothering the flames. He was under 30 and looked 45. He worked in a fish packing plant for next to nothing and was supporting a wife and kid. That's how people lived in that part of the world. They married young, had kids, and worked hard to pay the bills. Halifax wasn't a party on Venice Beach.
A woman on the faculty in the Physiology Department at Dalhousie invited me to her home for Thanksgiving dinner, which Canadians celebrate in October, not November. She figured I was all alone and didn't know anyone, and she wanted to make me feel at home. Her husband, Innes MacLeod, was a retired Attorney General of Nova Scotia. I went over there talking in my Bukowski voice and acted like a complete idiot. My legal imbroglio with the U.S. Military and my being in exile over politics had me thinking I was some kind of revolutionary outlaw. I was looking to keep company with people way out on the fringes of Canadian society, not in the mainstream there with retired Attorney Generals and respectable university professors. The meal was great. Too bad I wasn't emotionally mature enough to appreciate it.
I was anti-everything and wanted to live in the country rather than within the megalopolean crush of the Halifax city limits. A high rise building project had run out of funds in Halifax a few years previously, and that empty hulk looming on the skyline symbolized to me the resistance of "the people" to "oppression" by the technocratic monster trying to reduce them all to faceless pawns and cannon fodder and all that stuff. Actually, the unfinished high rise was a symbol more of the lousy economy in the Maritime Provinces that had sent so many young people "down the road" to Toronto looking for work that very few people between the ages of 18 and 65 lived in the area. In the fishing village, Bald Rock, where I rented a cabin, it seemed that even the dogs wore false teeth and walked with a cane. I rented the cabin from a hard drinking Dartmouth longshoreman who downed about a quart of bourbon a day, which is fortunate, because later on, when I returned to Halifax with Luella from Montreal, broke and needing a place to stay, he was so drunk he let us in there without us having to give him any rent up front. That was a life saver for us, because it was the height of winter and we had nowhere else to go.
The cabin was at the end of a mile long dirt road off the highway that runs from Halifax to Sambro. One night, driving out to the highway to go to town, I rolled my car. That particular night I wasn't drunk, a rare occasion. For some reason I felt exuberant and stood on the gas as I skidded through the turns. I hit one a bit too fast, couldn't recover before the next, and rolled over three times into the ravine by the side of the road. The roof was smashed down to the seat on my side in back and on the passenger side in front, but I did not get squashed and crawled out of the shattered driver's side window, wheels spinning in the darkness, my VW bug resting on its roof. I thought I knew which way was home when I climbed up onto the road, but I chose the wrong direction and to my surprise walked all the way out to the highway. I was so disoriented I didn't even know I was. Eventually I made it home and crawled into bed. Next morning, I told my neighbor, Pat Parnell, whose outhouse was on the hill above my well, what happened. He called a few of the local fisherman, and they dragged my car out of there with great effort, using a number of winches and jacks. No charge. They helped me because I was a neighbor. A body man in Halifax pounded out the dents, put glass back in all the windows, and primed the car, where the metal was bare, in black. My tan bug had black splotches all over it and looked like a camouflaged marine helmet driving down the road.
Graduate school to me had always been a paycheck for doing nothing, a glorified form of welfare on which to stay drunk. That's the way I'd played it at UCLA, and until it ended that's the way I played it at Dalhousie, too. One of my classmates was from Montreal. One Friday night about 11:00 pm, drunk on Schooner beer in my apartment (I was still living in Dartmouth at the time), I suggested we drive my car to Montreal, so he could show me around. He had a quarter ounce of hash we figured we could smoke all night to keep ourselves awake. I thought Montreal was maybe 500 miles down the road, but in fact it was more like 1500 miles, and the miles were nowhere near as quick as on freeways in the United States. At one point in New Brunswick, in a construction zone between Fredericton and Edmundston where the surface of the road had been torn off right down to the dirt, we had to climb a miles long hill in the rain in axle-deep pure mud. Later in the night, somewhere between Edmundston and Riviere-du-Loup, I woke up from a sleep in the back seat to find our car was spinning like a top in the middle of the highway with a trailer truck bearing down on us horn blaring. By some miracle we spun off onto the shoulder an instant before the truck arrived and barreled past us, water spraying in a heavy mist from all of his 18 wheels. My friend's parents were not at all pleased to see him. He was supposed to be at school studying, not traipsing around making pointless car trips to Montreal. We had barely enough time to get some sleep and drive back to Halifax in time for class on Monday morning.
I visited the Manpower office in Halifax when I started thinking seriously about dropping out of school. Manpower is a government agency that brokers jobs and places workers, similar to EDD in California. I told the lady who interviewed me about my Bachelor's degree and Masters degree and Phi Beta Kappa and all that stuff, and she said, "Do you have a driver's license?" I was about to be launched, at the age of 25, into the real world for the first time in my life.
A guy from Toronto offered to hook me up with a job at a crisis center there if I drove him home. He was my kind of person, not a retired Attorney General or a faculty member at the university, but a counterculture kind of guy offering me a job at a counterculture kind of place. He spoke my language. He smoked my brand. Marijuana, if you know what I mean. Another guy I met at the university expressed the opinion to my face that all draft dodgers should be shot. He wore a jacket and a tie. Not my kind of guy. So, yeah, I gave this guy a ride to Toronto. But I only got as far as Montreal. One of that house-full of guys I met who had me over all the time and showed me how to make potato casserole had a brother in Montreal. That was our intermediate destination. I asked Dalhousie to send me one last check after I dropped out and left the brother's address in Montreal with the Sambro Post Office so they could forward me my check. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do for money when that 300 bucks ran out, but never having had to deal with money before, I didn't even realize it was an issue. I gave away just about everything I owned and lit out of Halifax for Montreal in December, 1970.
Montreal was cold. My face hurt so badly when I stood in the open door, I couldn't step outside and stayed indoors for 2 weeks. I was crashing on my friend from Halifax's brother in an apartment in Outremont. He was holed up in one of the rooms with a dark haired woman he was fucking day and night. Whenever they opened up their door, her in a bathrobe, him wrapped in a towel, the musty smell of sex would waft out of their room. They only came out to eat. A lot of times she would rush out into the kitchen, put something together, and take it back into their room for them to eat in there. I was crashing on a couch in the living room. A full-sized acoustic bass stood against the wall. A bay window overlooked the street. I spent time jamming on the bass with a Richie Havens album watching exotic people passing by on the sidewalk below. Old Jewish women pulling wire shopping baskets, smartly bundled business people, students, ethnic types in woolen hats and leather boots, a steady stream.
A blonde girl from Vermont was staying in another one of the rooms in the apartment, her brother's room, and was waiting for deportation proceedings against her brother to complete. He fancied himself some kind of a classical music aficionado and had freaked out on a Trans-Canadian train trip because the Muzak playing on the train had offended him to the point where he started trying to tear the speakers out of the ceiling to make it stop. He'd gotten extremely violent and it had taken three or four burly men to restrain him. I liked his sister and got to go to bed with her. I had to beg her and tell her "I love you" to, because I had no confidence and still felt so bad because of Linda. I was so excited when I got in bed with her I started rubbing myself between her legs and came before I got inside of her. That made her really mad, and she threw me out of her room. Twenty years later, in Sacramento, I met an angry blonde woman from Vermont, in Rancho Cordova, who had had a kid from precisely that kind of an encounter twenty years previously. She was attracted to men who wore uniforms. When I met her, she was going out with a cop. I think she associated uniforms with power, which she seemed to value more than life itself. She complained to me angrily that she had gotten pregnant and suffered through having to raise a kid without even having gotten to enjoy being fucked for it. I never had a chance to ask her if she'd been to Montreal and have often wondered if both women were one and the same.
A group of French artists living in the neighborhood had arranged to take care of a farmhouse that some people who made big money producing TV ads had recently bought about 60 miles southeast of Montreal in a town called Waterloo, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. These artists were big city people with big city political views. They were impressed with the material sacrifice I was making to dodge the draft and wanted to help me as a matter of principle, sort of like an underground railroad would. I was too ignorant to realize I was vulnerable economically and figured I had been invited to stay on their farm because they thought I was a cool guy. Maybe they did. I don't know. But when they asked me to stay with them, I said OK, and my friend from Toronto left town by train to complete his journey to Toronto.
I have never been a fist fighting kind of guy. I've always been small and not particularly strong and never learned how to box or anything like that. You can count the number of times I tried a sport as a kid on the fingers of one hand. Every time I tried one, I got hurt. I tried to catch a grounder at David Johnson's house one day when I was in maybe the 5th grade . The baseball jumped up, hit me square in the middle of my face, and gave me a bloody nose. I tried catching a bullet pass at the Commons one day about a year later, and the football hit me square on the end of a finger, breaking it. I tried pole vaulting when I was a freshman in high school and landed square on the end of my wrist, breaking that. For me to lash out physically is highly unusual, because it is not my most effective means for hurting people. I have always expressed hostility most effectively with acerbic words and a cutting tongue.
One of the guys living in the apartment across the hall in Outremont, a friend of the people with whom I was staying, invited me to come along to the train station when he gave my friend from Toronto a ride to catch his train. After we dropped him off, we took a drive around Montreal in his car. We were driving down St. Catherine's, me in the passenger seat, and I couldn't convince him to turn down a street I wanted to explore. For some reason my frustration with that reached the point where I threw a punch at him. My punch must have felt like a fly landing on his nose. It did convince him I was pissed off, and I guess he decided at that point he didn't particularly like me. I have no idea why I reacted like that. I think I might have been coming to the realization that outside the university I was not in control at all.
While I was holed up in that apartment, I accumulated about $250 worth of parking tickets because a giant snowstorm hit Montreal and my car was towed from street to street about 10 times by the snow removal crews. I was antsy to get out of town to that farmhouse before the tow trucks ran my bill up any more or impounded my car outright, but I was stuck there waiting for my check from Dalhousie to arrive in the mail. A letter arrived for me from California forwarded from Sambro. If I hadn't left a forwarding address for my check, I never would have received that letter, and the whole rest of my life would not have occurred as it did. That is inconceivable to me, because who I am depends so much on what happened between me and Luella. If I hadn't received that letter, the person I am right now wouldn't even exist.
Luella said in her letter that she wanted to come to Halifax and stay with me. She mentioned the cabin I was living in outside of town and said she'd like to share it with me. She had recently moved out of her boyfriend's house - he had broken it off for good - and was staying in the house that Linda was renting in Sierra Madre Canyon. She said she was looking for a "spiritual physical union" with a man. I had met Luella once when I went to Sierra Madre Canyon to try to patch things up with Linda. There was to be no patching up, because Linda was already thinking about moving in with a guitar player she'd met who lived in a truck in the Tahoe National Forest. In the minute or so I had to size up Luella at Linda's place, she appeared to me to reject mainstream materialist society and to take things seriously. She wore a long skirt, in other words, and was not in a good mood. Carl was still in touch with Heidi and had forwarded my letters and the "Lonely Wednesday" tape through her to Linda. Linda felt bad when she learned I was so bummed out and wanted to help me out. Things were not going well for Luella either. She had rolled her van, totaling it, and couldn't afford to replace it. Of course she was bummed out about having been kicked out by her boyfriend, too. Linda suggested that Luella write to me.
My current thinking about love, now that the intense sexual attraction approach with Linda had left me with a broken heart, was that all that was required for a relationship to work was for me to take a woman seriously. This meant for me to care about her, be there for her emotionally, try to understand her, attend to her needs, and not stipulate who she has to be. My previous approach - to select the most beautiful woman in town - I concluded was purely selfish. Now I was prepared to love any woman who needed me. Of course, I assumed that everyone's needs were the same as mine. Years later I would figure out that you can't commit your future to just anyone, that essential qualities must be mutually valued, understood, and shared. Luella and I did have a lot in common. We were both running away from our inability to live in the world. But we were also worlds apart. We loved each other desperately, and that desperation led us to believe that the other would change into someone else that person could not be.
I called Luella on the phone and told her I was in Montreal. She asked what I was doing there. I told her I couldn't stand going to school anymore and had finally dropped out. She asked what I was going to do for money. I told her I didn't need any because I was going to be living with a bunch of French artists who had invited me to stay with them on a farm in Waterloo, Quebec. She said she wanted to move to the country and live in a community, not a commune where everyone lives in the same house, but a community where everyone lives in their own place on a shared piece of land. She told me she had rolled her van and couldn't afford to replace it. I told her if she wanted to live with me, she could fly up to Montreal, we could stay on that farm in Waterloo, and we would have my car. We also talked about the "spiritual physical union" between a man and a woman and how we both wanted to be with someone we could love with all our hearts. She bought a ticket and flew to Montreal.
Luella didn't drink much, and she only took an occasional hit on a joint. I, on the other hand, had been getting seriously into alcohol and pot ever since I arrived in Halifax. Joints were passed around continually in the circles in which I had been traveling in Canada. Beer, too, was a key component of the social experience there. Someone was always taking up a collection, and I mean always, to go and get some beer. Anyone who showed up from out of town to stay for a while or came cross-town for a visit would make it a point to bring some beer or wine and certainly some dope to share. Dope and alcohol were social currency, the way to express your appreciation for someone's hospitality, the proper thing to bring. There were occasions, in more domestically oriented situations - in which a man and a woman had a household going - when the women would bring food, but that was usually for a scheduled potluck dinner, and the food was always supplemented with alcohol and drugs. When someone just showed up out of the blue, the offering might be Black Afghani, Red Lebanese, Thai Sticks, Hash Oil, Oaxacan, Home Grown, anything that would get you off. I didn't notice the effect drugs and alcohol were having on my mind. Just about 3 years after she got off that plane in Montreal, in the days before she left me on Quadra Island, Luella told me I was like a different person when I was drunk or stoned. Once I finally quit, in San Francisco in 1977, I could see that in others, too. A perfectly charming person gets more and more difficult to communicate with as the alcohol or marijuana begins to take effect.
I'm going to leave a hole here from December, 1970, to December, 1973. Luella and I did stay on that farm. We ran out of money there fairly quickly and went to Halifax, where by some miracle I was able to find a job. We stayed in Halifax for a while, traveled to British Columbia by car, spent some time in the Okanagan Valley picking fruit, worked in Vancouver for a couple of years, and moved to Quadra Island. In the last cabin we rented on Quadra Island, from a shake and shingle maker by the name of Dave Scott, Luella hung a picture above the stove of a boy in a driving cap and a girl in patent leather shoes and a short skirt holding hands walking through the woods. That picture expressed her vision of what she hoped she and I could be, two kids holding on to one another, looking out for one another, giving each other courage, keeping each other company in a big and lonely world. I wanted it that way, too, but I had stopped trusting her to understand me long ago. She didn't like me for who I was. She wanted me to do what I didn't want to do, to be what I didn't want to be. To me, bringing home a paycheck is a necessary inconvenience. To her it was what she wanted from me most. I didn't want to own anything. When my cabin burned down at Homefree a year after she had left me, I lost all of my stuff and was glad that it was gone. I felt liberated from worldly things. Luella wanted a house. It meant everything to her. For me it was absolutely inconceivable even to think in monetary terms that large. On a trip to Vancouver we watched Boris Karloff in "Frankenstein" on Dwight and Boo's TV, and Luella picked up on the way the monster said "friend". For months she'd been saying "friend" like Boris Karloff in the movie. She wanted us to start again as friends, but I didn't like her as a friend. Why she left exactly when she did is anybody's guess. She had been sobbing alone for days. She knew it was over, that I resented her, and she wouldn't talk to me. When she left, she said we were different people, that it was no one's fault. She walked out into the world alone, although what she wanted more than anything else was a home and a friend.
A few months after Luella left, Dave Scott asked me to move out of his cabin to make room for his son-in-law and daughter. They lived on a boat called Thundercloud and weren't even thinking about moving in, I learned by accident when I spoke to them one day. He just wanted me out of there, because all I was doing all day was getting drunk and stoned. A guy down the road offered to let me stay in his geodesic dome for a while if I would feed his puppy and look after his place while he and his family went to Toronto to visit his folks. After I moved my stuff over there, I became acquainted with a city slicker by the name of George, an English speaking guy from Montreal, who had recently bought a piece of land on Quadra Island and was planning to build a dome on it. I met him at the pub at Heriot Bay, where I had been spending most of my time since Luella left me. While George was getting his dome off the ground, he was renting a house that was scheduled to be torn down in the spring. He offered to let me live in one half of the house if I would learn the Japanese stone game, Go, and play it with him, like a sparring partner, so he could improve his skill. He was devoted to the game, which I found ridiculous, and he was determined to become a master at it. I moved into his place because it was handier to the pub than the place I was supposed to be taking care of and learned the rudiments of Go. I started only checking in on that puppy every few days or so. As you might imagine, the puppy would be berserk with hunger and thirst by the time I came around. He would be hunched over like a wolf, panting frantically from deep within his little abdomen, searching ravenously for food. I am sure he grew up to be a completely insane dog, entirely because of me.
I bought a clinker-built boat while I was staying at George's house. It had a 12 foot lapstrake hull, set up for a Briggs and Stratton engine, and had been beached in Campbell River for a while. The hull was dry but sound, and it had a little hinged-window mahogany cabin on it that could easily be restored. A guy from California who was staying with the hippies at Homefree had a boat trailer with him and helped me haul my boat back to George's place. We set it up in the front yard, I painted the hull with copper paint, caulked it, and was painting it to get it ready to drop into the water. Luella was staying on Lasqueti Island, about 35 miles to the south, and heard about the boat. She showed up one day to have a look at it. It was a lot less of a boat than she expected. The communication between us was not as bad as it had been, but I was in no hurry to get back together with her right that minute. I wanted to be sure she liked me. I didn't want to get set up to play a role again. Just before she left, walking her up to the road on her way to the ferry, I squeezed her hand. Something of the old spark was there for both of us. I held her close, but I didn't ask her to stay. I wanted to give her time to decide she liked me for who I was.
That night, after Luella left, I wrote her a tender letter telling her how much I loved her and giving her all the space and time in the world to make up her mind about what she wanted to do. Those are the feelings I wished I had, and when I felt them, I guess they were real, but they were overshadowed by a flood of much more powerful, hateful feelings. The following day I woke up full of rage, obsessed that Luella was taking me for a patsy and a fool. I wrote her a second letter, pages long, a spiteful angry diatribe telling her how much I hated her for leaving me and fucking another guy. The letter even looked as though another person, a violent madman, had written it. The handwriting was messy, angular, and small. I followed that letter up with a postcard the day after that telling her I never wanted to see her again and that I hoped she would rot in hell.
Luella told me when we were staying in Halifax together - it took me years to remember this - that after her boyfriend in Sierra Madre had refused to let her come home the last time they broke up she had gone to Arizona to commit suicide. She had taken a bottle of pills with her and checked into a motel to kill herself, but she didn't take them and returned to California. She also told me that if she and I ever broke up and I told her she couldn't come back that she would kill herself. I thought she was exaggerating, as people do, to express how much she cared for me. She routinely used words like "horrible" for example, where "lousy" would do just fine. I didn't take the extreme statements she made literally. I didn't take myself literally half the time. The fact is, though, that 5 months later she was dead.
After Luella left for the ferry that day I thought, "Jesus! Don't let her go! Go ask her to come back!" and I hitched a ride to the ferry terminal. Someone was walking out to the kiosk at the end of the ramp, their back to me, when I arrived. I thought it was her and ran out to catch up with her, but the previous ferry had taken Luella with it. The person out there was an Indian guy I'd seen around, but didn't know, who walked with a bad limp. I looked at him, he looked at me, and my blood ran cold. I didn't have the faintest idea that Luella was going to die, but when I looked into that guy's eyes, I was filled with dread. My brain was seriously impaired by all the drugs and alcohol I had been doing. They had certainly exacerbated my propensity for wild mood swings. I might even have been experiencing drug induced psychosis. For weeks I had been seeing spirits in the woods - a golden deer, a Haida shaman - and had been feeling a malevolent force pursuing me. I don't know what I knew or if I knew anything, but that crippled Indian represented something calamitous to me. It probably scared the shit out of him to see that in my eyes.
While Luella and I were still living together, I once caught my wedding ring on the latch of the wind wing on the driver's side of our VW van leaping out urgently to assist her. She had been left by the side of the road near the ferry terminal, unable to hitch a ride home, and was sobbing there despairingly. I was springing from the van to comfort her. She had taken a ride to town and was without her own transportation in the first place because we'd had a fight. That wedding ring damned near tore my finger off, partially degloving it. It stripped the skin away from two thirds of my finger's length. It is amazing how quickly the focus of my concern moved from Luella's feelings to my finger. I imagined that some cosmic force was ripping her away from me and that holding onto her, as I was desperately trying to do, could only bring me pain. A few nights before she killed herself, I thought I heard her sobbing, crying my name once, in the southeast wind blowing up the Gulf across Lasqueti Island and in the trees of Quadra Island above me.
I hitched a ride back to Heriot Bay with another Indian, a fisherman I'd never seen before who had his boat tied up at the government wharf outside the pub. This guy's boat was a filthy mess, and he was a drinker. The day I met him, all keyed up and confused over Luella's leaving, I was susceptible to his whining about his wife having died of cancer and felt meeting him was an even stronger premonition than the Indian with a limp that I should tell Luella how much she meant to me and ask her to come back. As weeks went by and I saw this guy around, it became obvious that all he ever did was weep about his wife having died, which I'm sure was hard on him. It was hard to be around him, though, because there wasn't anything you could do for him. But that one day, listening to him talk about it for the first time, I felt like I was being told to soften myself emotionally and not let Luella drift away. In the letter I wrote that night, the nice one, I told her about this Indian guy crying to me about his wife having died and leaving him all alone. Who knows what she thought I was telling her?
When George's place was torn down in May, I moved into a 2-room cabin on the south end of the island with a local kid who invited me to share it with him. I didn't even know the place was there, probably because it was on skids and had been dragged there recently. Whoever owned it would haul it off to a logging camp one day just as unexpectedly when the need for it arose. The kid told me that the owner of the cabin or the owner of the property, I never got which, was letting him use it, but I think he just found it and moved in. He told me a number of times about having stolen a rear end for his Chevy pickup out of a truck the same model as his but in better shape. Having done that was a source of considerable pride for him, so he obviously was a thief. I didn't even know what a rear end was. One night the kid brought home an unimaginably obese girl from the pub. I'd heard about her but hadn't seen her yet myself. Word was she'd come down from up north somewhere and was fucking every guy in town. The kid offered her to me, but I declined. I had a little Yamaha guitar I liked to play back then, and while I was picking out some "Devil Blues" that night they got into it pretty good in the other room. Next day they told me that they liked my song a lot.
I had my little boat tied up at the government wharf at Quathiaski Cove and was working on it every day. Despite having written Luella an insanely angry letter and a hateful postcard, my plan was to get the boat fully restored, put an engine in it, and motor down to Lasqueti Island to ask her if she wanted to get back together with me. People behave terribly all the time believing afterwards they are doing fine. I gave no consideration whatsoever to the impression my writings might have made on Luella. From my own point of view, which is the only point of view I was capable of considering in those days, that letter was a momentary outburst from a side of me I felt perfectly comfortable forgetting all about. One of Luella's complaints about me was that I never finished anything, and one of the main reasons I was working on that boat was to prove to her that I could finish something. I dreamed about how wonderful it would be if she agreed to come with me, and I figured if she said no, well, OK, I would be able to let her go because I would know that I had tried my best.
Most everyone who came and went on the wharf conversed with me. One guy I got to know, a guy by the name of McGoo (his real name was McGee), invited me to stay at Homefree in a one-man teardrop trailer that the guy currently living in it was going to move out of soon. At Homefree I would have to pay rent, something like $25 a month, and to do that I would need a job (I was living on unemployment from the Georgia Straight). It just so happened that my friend Terry Quinn, who lived on the Jones Farm, the other commune on the island, was giving up his job as relief night watchman on the Quadra Queen. He was moving his family to Read Island where he was going to work a cedar claim, and he offered his job to me. It was an easy job, basically sleeping on the ferry two nights a week for $33 a shift. I met Captain Scott, who asked me if I was a hippie (I told him no), and I got the job.
Homefree was a hardcore hippie commune. In contrast to the Jones Farm, where almost every one of the men made a good living working as a journeyman carpenter, Homefree was a ragtag mix of transients, potters, and musicians, all of whom had in common a deep and abiding interest in getting drunk and stoned. Homefree was on a 10-acre piece of land owned by a group of people off the island and was usually inhabited by somewhere in the vicinity of 18 souls, give or take a few, living in a variety of trailers, sheds, and shacks. It felt like a hillbilly outpost, ramshackle, poor, and filthy, in contrast to the Jones Farm, which was on a quarter section of beautifully maintained land at the south end of the island. The Jones Farm, with its breathtaking views of the Gulf of Georgia, the Coast Range, and Vancouver Island, was owned by the surviving children of an Antioch College pottery professor who had died in a private plane crash a few years previously and had been developed by imaginative artists who had populated the landscape with a few hand-built storybook houses fabricated from found materials. Homefree was a slum.
I got deeper into drugs at Homefree than I had ever been before. Besides working on my boat and sleeping on the ferry Friday and Saturday nights, I was doing absolutely nothing but hanging out in the "Green House" - a communal cookhouse - smoking, drinking, or ingesting whatever whoever came there brought. In the fall we ate and smoked psilocybin mushrooms in addition to the marijuana, hashish, LSD, cocaine, and alcohol that was our staple fare. I began spending more and more of my time in an imaginary world in which people read each other's minds, communicate telepathically, and in general navigate the magic of coincidences that are not coincidences but perfectly timed synchronicities of monumentally significant import. Psilocybin makes you feel intelligent. A certain clarity pervades your thinking and your sight. You feel spiritually connected to an interplanetary mycelium that communicates wisdom and insight between its component parts, like the one here under the ground on Earth, and all who ingest a piece of it. We smoked marijuana to come down from LSD and drank as a matter of social protocol no matter what we happened to be high on whenever a visitor offered alcohol. LSD was brilliantly hallucinogenic. Dust on the road became the filigree of a Hindu temple. Vibrating guitar strings became sheets of golden light.
George took a break from working on his dome to go on a 5-day meditation retreat at the north end of the island with a few people from the Jones Farm. He had never meditated before, and apparently the intensity of the experience had a sudden impact on his mind. The group was waking up at 5 am and meditating for 2 or 3 hours at a time until 9 o'clock at night. They only broke a couple of times to eat and spoke almost not at all. Something snapped in George's head, and a day or two after he came back from that retreat, he jumped in the water next to the ferry terminal in Quathiaski Cove. Some people fished him out, but he tried to jump back in saying something about merging with the ocean. The RCMP came and drove him down to the mental hospital in Comox. Apparently he jumped in the water again on the Campbell River side before they finally managed to cart him off. I saw George again about 6 months later when he was on furlough from the crazy house and had come up to check on his partially constructed dome. He was on some heavy duty medication. I thought he'd complain about the way they were treating him down there, but he spoke highly of his doctors and felt they were helping him a lot. He was too drugged to remember much of the thought process that led him to jump in the water. Everyone thought he meditated too much his first time out.
The RCMP came looking for me at Homefree one day in August when I was working at my boat. When I found out about it later on that day, I thought, "My mother's dead," without any feeling at all. I assumed they had come to tell me that and forgot their call entirely. Next day, an RCMP cruiser pulled up at the wharf where I had my boat tied up. I ran up to get the news from the Mountie that my mother was dead. He asked me to sit in his car - the front seat, there was no crime or anything. I figured, "Hey, she's really dead." Then the guy asks me if I am married to a woman who goes by the name of Luella Turgeon. "What's this got to do with Luella?" I asked. He says, "She's committed suicide." I was too numb to cry. I looked out of my eyes into a place that wasn't really there. Yes, I can come to Parksville in the next couple of days to identify her body. Everything I was living for had fallen out of my world. I had been thinking about Luella constantly, getting back with her, being in love with one another again. That I had killed her was perfectly plain to me. No other reason than the way I'd treated her could explain why she had committed suicide. I couldn't move. My stomach rose into my throat. My arms hung limp, my eyes stared emptily, my feet felt like heavy stones. That she did not exist anymore was incomprehensible to me.
The ferry came and went, the Mountie with it, leaving me in the parking lot alone as I had asked. A bratty kid said something to me. I have no idea what. I stared at him stupidly, mouth open, rooted to the spot where I was standing, and I watched him walk away without thinking or saying a word. I dragged my feet to Homefree about a mile away sick with disbelief.
Next day I took a bus to Parksville and went to the RCMP station. They asked me some questions, told me it had happened 4 days previously and that their investigation led them to conclude it was a suicide. She had shot herself in the heart with a sawed off .22. I had to identify her body because I was her closest kin. I said OK and asked them not to let me see the wound. We went into a cooler. A white body bag was on a table. One of the cops unzipped the bag. He opened it to her belly button and spread the sides apart. It was clearly her. A small incision had been made in her chest, I guess to dig out the bullet. Her body looked like a wax dummy, and in the days and months that followed I would believe sometimes that she and the cops had planted a dummy there to make me believe she was dead so I would get out of her life and never bother her anymore. Other times I was obsessed with what she felt at the instant of her death.
The cops drove me to the ferry terminal at Nanaimo and cautioned me not to jump overboard on my way to Vancouver. Apparently a certain percentage of bereaved spouses in cases like this kill themselves in their grief. I tried to talk to a few passengers about my wife having committed suicide, and each one rushed away from me with a look of horror on their face. I came upon a cloth-wrapped elastic hair band on the deck like the ones Luella used to tie her hair back when she gave me oral sex. I imagined she had placed it there somehow to make me feel guilty about the physical pleasure she had given me. I had been fantasizing about sex with her ever since she'd left me in December. Now I was forcing myself not to think of her in that way, because I felt disoriented and depraved imagining myself making love to someone who was dead. Somehow I made it to Dwight and Boo's place. They were Luella's and my best friends the years we lived in Vancouver. Boo felt hurt and guilty, as I did, and was angry and confused because Luella killed herself without revealing her emotional problems to her. Luella's death seemed unreal to all of us. It took me years to fully accept that it was true.
I worked on the ferry until January, 1975. Then I left Quadra Island and moved to Victoria. I left primarily because I didn't fit in at Homefree. There had been constant tension between myself and the rest of the group over a number of issues ever since I moved in. We had a rampant staph infection at one point, for example, because of poor hygiene in our kitchen and our sauna. I suggested we all be put on antibiotics, but I was overwhelmingly shouted down by the ones who knew that garlic is the cure for staph. I went to Campbell River and got a prescription for myself, which identified me as a turncoat in the eyes of many. Three months of smelling like garlic later, one by one the rest of the group straggled into town to get their own prescriptions for antibiotics. I also ran afoul of the hippie precept that all are welcome to lend their stamp to one person's individual project. A rudimentary cabin floor, 10 by 13 feet, had been built in a corner of the property. I asked Charlie, the de facto leader of the group, if he thought it would be all right if I built a cabin on it to live in during the coming winter. Great idea, he said. This would give everyone a chance to pitch in and design a structure we could all be proud of. One guy involved himself in the project, a violin player who lived in a Dodge panel van welded under the top third of a VW window van. His truck had a wood burning stove and ample room to stand. This particular contributor to the fabrication of my cabin did not have a democratic attitude toward his design ideas. We did it his way. I can't complain, I suppose, as I was the one who got to live in the shack we built, but I was roundly criticized for arguing for my own ideas.
I was also criticized for bringing people home. During the summer, for example, I had invited a French woman by the name of Berthe to come and stay at Homefree. She had sailed into Quathiaski Cove with a sadist she'd hooked up with in Vancouver, and I rescued her by offering her a place to stay. I caught the guy she was sailing with torturing his dog, making him jump into ice cold water laughing and he wouldn't stop, so I figured it would only be a matter of time before he would torture her. The others, especially Charlie, did not take kindly to my being so generous with our space, and I was the object of a torrent of bad vibes until Berthe hooked up with a mooch from Toronto who was living in one of the trailers and she became an official member of the commune. The guy she moved in with was well liked by the others because he knew all the words to "Rocky Raccoon" and sang them with a certain flair that came across to many as sounding very professional. Berthe was still living on Homefree, but not with him, when I left.
For several months prior to New Year's, 1975, I had been burning a twig or two, whatever I could scrape up easily, in my airtight stove to take the bite out of the air in my cabin before I went to sleep each night. A couple of days before New Year's, someone who obviously liked Berthe gave her at least a cord of rounds of super dry fir, dumped them in front of her trailer (which once had been the mooch's trailer). I helped her split that cord, and in appreciation she gave me a wheelbarrow full for my airtight. That night, the night before New Year's, 1975, I stoked up my stove and damped it down figuring, "Tonight I am going to have me a FIRE." What a fire I had. I was lucky to get out of my place alive. My stove was too close to the wall, and the wall caught fire in the middle of the night. I woke up because it was so bright in there. I lost all my stuff and was completely bare-assed in the middle of the night in the middle of the woods in the middle of the winter in the snow without even a pair of boots to keep me warm. It was a fantastically liberating feeling, although everyone offered condolences about my stuff for weeks.
Someone gave me an old coat. Someone else a pair of boots. I was clothed. I crashed in an empty cabin on the property. I ate as I always had. For a few weeks after the fire I was feeling freer than I ever had before. I was obsessed with the moment of Luella's death and was terrified by the moment of my own; there was no question in my mind that I was responsible for her suicide, and I felt as though I'd murdered her; but having lost all of my stuff in that fire, I felt liberated from material possessions. I found a tremendous feeling of freedom in that, because owning nothing, I felt that I was living in the world purely as myself, not constrained in any way by belongings. For a long time I'd been trying to get my stuff pared down to just what would fit in a backpack. I've never identified with things. I've always understood myself in terms of my intrinsic qualities as a human being, and I've always wished to be related to and liked as simply who I am. About a month later Charlie and another guy offered to go in on buying my boat, which we'd put up on blocks on the property in the Fall. I took the money and left, because I knew I wasn't really welcome there. I thought differently than the people I was living with. It was pointless to stick around and continue arguing. It was time for me to move on.
One reason I chose to move to Victoria was that Luella and I had never been there together, so places there would not remind me of specific incidents in our life. I was also curious because I had met some musicians at Homefree who spent time in Victoria, and I decided to see what it was like. I was preoccupied with Luella's death, overwhelmed by guilt and fear. Anger, which is also part of surviving a suicide, wouldn't come for years, because I felt too guilty to be angry at her. Being immersed in drugs and alcohol as I was intensified the paranoia and feelings of alienation that dominated my emotional life. While I had been living in the woods on Quadra Island, it had become the rage among women to castigate men cruelly for liking sex and to deny that women wanted it at all, but every word out of a woman's mouth when I got to Victoria, every move she made, it seemed, was laced with sexual innuendo. I was flooded with ambiguous and surreptitious sexual overtures by women bent on using me to gratify themselves. I felt like a puppet attached to strings at the other end of which was a sadist. I yearned to be loved. I ached to be understood, but instead I was beaten over and over again with the feminist line that men are incapable of commitment, men aren't interested in relationships, men don't care about feelings. All the while below the surface raged an undercurrent of extreme, selfishly oriented sexuality. I felt like I was looking at women through a one-way mirror, trapped in a nightmare that didn't end for nearly 20 years.
The year I lived in Victoria and the following year in Vancouver, as in the subsequent years I lived in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, and to a certain extent in Omaha, Luella's suicide was the central feature of my emotional life. The first few days after her death, on Quadra Island, I woke up to an understanding of her I had never had before. I realized how afraid she had been of her feelings, that she was not as tough as the front she had put up. I wanted to talk that over with her, let her know I understood what she was going through, but she was dead. The finality of that made me crazy with frustration. But over and above that, far more devastating than the fact of her death, which was awful enough, Luella had committed suicide. If she had been run over by a truck, I thought, I would have been able to accept it, but she had killed herself. I felt that there was something wrong with me, I knew not what, because Luella had deliberately taken her own life rather than to talk to me. When I married her, I envisioned myself as her best friend, the person she could always turn to who would always be there for her. That's what loving her and being her husband meant to me, but the communication between us had deteriorated to the point where she had preferred to die rather than to talk to me about her problems. I lost all confidence in myself and was racked with self-doubt. I didn't know whether I wanted to walk on the north side of the street or on the south. I couldn't trust my judgment. Meanwhile, women I had never met were taking it upon themselves to inform me of all kinds of things - things that changed with the fashion from one week to the next, none of which made any sense - that were wrong with me because I am a "man".
As the years passed, my feelings about Luella and about myself in relation to her death evolved in many ways. For more than ten years I struggled to accept her death and understand that she, not I, had killed her. The work centered entirely on learning the truth about myself. The more I learned, the more alienated I felt from the thoughtless, self-centered rank and file, particularly feminists, who projected everything, as Carl and I had done in the 60's, and accepted ownership of none of their own emotions. For almost 20 years I felt ill-at-ease in the company of women. I was insanely attracted to them physically, but I couldn't talk to them. Women had become so wrapped up in materialistic assumptions and in getting their own way - so touchy about giving anything to anyone - that communication was a battle. I met few people, let alone women, who had a clue that power in life, peace of mind, comes with surrender to the process of being alive. The longer and harder I searched the agonizingly humbling truth of my own ignorance, the less I was able to tolerate women's incessant game of sexual exploitation. I hoped against hope for a "spiritual physical connection", someone I could talk to, but women had given themselves over almost entirely to the self-flattering agenda the feminists had sold the masses: domination and control.
In Victoria, I was 28 years old. Frivolous people were chasing all around me after fun while I experienced the world from within my own isolated hell obsessed with emotional issues relating to being alive and dead. I felt clobbered by the universe and in my own inimitable way felt I had survived a test by fire. I was destroyed by it, shattered, and had begun the work of sorting through the pieces of my psyche one by one, evaluating each, discarding what I couldn't use, to assemble what was left with care, once and for all, in a way that I could respect in myself and be proud to present to the world. Silly, egoistic people getting huffy about not having things their own way, seeing themselves as so big and so important, ignorant of the awesome power of the universe to fragment your personality and gut your world in an instant, struck me as self-important fools. It was very hard for me to relate to anyone. "Happiness is being single" was an enormously popular slogan in those days, as people dedicated themselves in droves to the ideal of using others to indulge oneself. In the midst of this, feeling guilty in the extreme - paranoid - isolated in a serious struggle with my own capability to live in the real world as a real person, I searched for a meaningful way to connect with another human being. All this among people who had no idea anything exists beyond their flatteringly inflated perception of themselves, no idea that anyone feels anything besides themselves.
I wasn't making any money to speak of playing music on the street and went to Manpower to take an interests test to determine what kind of a job I should try to find. In Campbell River I had terrorized a clerk at Manpower once when I was forced to go in there and look for work in order to stay on unemployment. I had told the clerk he was unemployed just like me. The only difference, I said, was that he got to sit behind a desk all day and pretend he was a bureaucrat. Without me, without my being unemployed, he would have nothing to do: he was unemployed. But in Victoria I was serious. I was still getting stoned first thing in the morning and drunk almost every night, but I knew if I didn't get some kind of a niche established for myself in society, I was going to flounder alone among people I didn't want to be around. I took the test and learned that my first, second, and third favorite careers all were to be a writer. I felt fairly flattered by that and looked in the book of jobs under writer. The book said job prospects for a writer are rare and are not clearly defined. People who want to write have to find a way to finance their effort and take a huge risk of going broke, because writing is one of the hardest and least reliable ways to earn a living. I walked out onto the street in tears. I knew what I wanted to do, but I felt no confidence I could support myself until I could succeed. I needed a job, for God's sake, and the job I wanted to do did not exist. It took a lot of years for me to develop enough emotional distance from the influences in my life to be able to begin to write. The anger I felt about the draft, the guilt and fear I felt about Luella's death, the anger and resentment I felt about feminists blaming me for their never having thought to do anything, reduced my writing for many years to doctrinaire bitch fests. Then I got serious about accepting what is in front of my nose - from the time I was about 47 to 50 - and I began to be able to write some of what I'd been through down.
In Vancouver the following year, 1976, I saw a doctor for bronchitis. He asked me about drugs. I could tell he wasn't going to be moralistic about it but medical, and I told him what I was doing. He told me to cut out caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and all other drugs if I wanted to be well. That got me thinking for the first time that maybe the solution to my problems would come if I did what that guy said. I had been thinking ever since Luella's suicide that if I could just calm down, I would be able to enjoy getting high. Now I realized that if I quit taking drugs, maybe I would be able to calm down. I was paranoid out of my mind, and smoking dope made it worse. Every sharp sound reminded me of the shot that killed her. I was constantly aware of it. A burned out match on the pavement, a traffic signal turning red, someone I didn't know shaking their head "no" in a conversation with someone else, a red light reflecting on a window, all confirmed for me my being rejected by the world. In 1990, when I had some money, I saw a psychiatrist for a while at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego. I quit seeing him when he suggested that I use a woman for sex to get over my inability to use a woman for sex. I can't use anyone for anything. It is entirely counter to my understanding of what I am doing on the planet. In any case, this guy diagnosed me as having Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As I look back, I suppose I did. PTS primarily involves attaching a sense of heightened significance to small events, which was certainly true for me. I was flinching emotionally at everything that occurred.
I moved to San Francisco in 1977. I was still doing drugs and alcohol, and I was still paranoid out of my mind. It was good, though, to be away from the sexually antagonistic women I had been running into in Canada, where every conversation seemed to be laced with furtive sexual innuendo and fervid sexual denial. Feminists beat up on men in San Francisco, too, and spouted all sorts of crazy sexual beliefs (men hate their fathers, men see their dick as a weapon and want to use it to hurt women, men want to dominate and own women), but there were other influences in San Francisco, women who were a little less extreme and American guys whose thought processes were similar to mine. I encountered people fairly regularly who supported me emotionally and intellectually and liked the person that I was.
I had figured out a few things on Quadra Island, not the least of which is that I am alive. For months immediately after Luella's suicide, I was obsessed with what she felt at the moment of her death. Trying to imagine her dying sensitized me to the moment of my own death, and I became terrified that in the next instant I was going to die. Every step I took I would think, "The next step I take I am going to die. The next step I take I am going to die." One day I noticed a dead branch lying across the branches of two trees in the canopy above. In that instant, preoccupied with death as I had been, I was thunderstruck with the realization that the forest is alive, not only the individual trees, but the forest as a whole. The bugs, the brush, the logs - the air, the ground, the rocks - all participate in the life of a larger, living thing. It was plain as day to me that the place itself is alive. In that instant I understood that the planet is alive, the universe is alive, and I am alive, a living thing participating in an all-encompassing universal event unfolding in each moment of its own accord. As I became more used to the idea that I am actually alive, the more it sank in that the moments of my life are actually occurring. I began no longer to be able to pretend in my mind that I behaved more adequately than I did. I saw for the first time the reality of my shortcomings in my dealings with other people and realized that with effort I could learn to communicate better. I became less obsessed with how it feels to die and in time even accepted the inevitability of my death, but the more I saw myself participating in the totality of the universal moment, the more committed I became to living my life well. I don't mean to be well off necessarily, but to do a good job of living consistent with the ultimate nature of my participation in the process of being alive. This was the Law of Cause and Effect that Linda had tried to tell me about: moving in concert with the fundamental vibrational energy of the universe brings peace, struggling against it brings pain. It took me 20 years from that moment of epiphany to learn how to relax and enjoy life, always coming back to the unwavering truth that I am alive and part of a larger spontaneously occurring whole. From that instant on I understood that my job is to surrender to the experience of being alive, to live on its terms and not to fight it out of fear.
I had been living in nature without electricity, running water, TV, newspapers, magazines, or radio, for about 2 years. I had watched the progression of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the angle of the sun, the cycle of the plants, the migration of the birds and had developed a sense of the velocity at which the natural process moves. I began to conceptualize Nature as a giant stone wheel of unimaginably huge mass moving inexorably, barely perceptibly forward with enormous momentum. If you stand in front of it and try to push it back, it doesn't even notice you, like a freight train crashing into a bus. The train doesn't feel a thing, pushing the bus for blocks without any resistance at all. I understood that to push against the process of the unfolding of the universal moment is as futile as to push against the wheel of Nature. Our inclination is to push, because we fear death and desire pleasure, but our job is to feel into the process and allow ourselves to participate in it, to appreciate it as it manifests itself, and to have faith. Faith. Faith is the belief that you belong here, because you are a part of this. You don't have to prove you belong here. You don't have to earn the right, because you are. Faith is the unwavering conviction that as the process of life unfolds, there will be a place for you. It is the willingness to learn how not to push but to trust. You don't have to trick the universe into keeping you here. In fact, you can't.
The fact that anything exists at all, I concluded, is an unfathomable mystery, a miracle beyond anyone's comprehension. There could just as easily be nothing, but there is not. Typically we see ourselves from a much narrower perspective and get all upset over the details of our own personal circumstances, usually missing entirely that the world and we are even here. We are locked inside our heads, where we fabricate beliefs and self-centered evaluations of what occurs. I arrived in San Francisco with a deep and abiding love of the experience of being alive. I knew that I was going to die and accepted it. I knew that everyone else is in exactly the same boat I am in, that we all live life completely in the dark with respect to what this place is or how it came to be and that we all believe we can will it to behave as we wish it would. I felt a consuming reverence for life. I identified with the pain and fear that every person feels, and I knew from having studied myself that we all disrespect one another as we blindly try to calm our fear of living in the world. I was still heavily using drugs and hallucinated all the time. The day I flew back from San Francisco to Vancouver when I come down to check out the City, for example, everyone at the Canadian Airlines terminal looked like a dead person to me, pasty bloodless white. Canada represented death to me. I saw it as the land of the dead and was terrified that when I returned to it I would be trapped there never to escape again. That hallucination passed only to be replaced each day by something worse.
In San Francisco I was drinking heavily and smoking a lot of dope. One afternoon, not drunk, not hung over, but drained from weeks or years of incontinence, I stepped off the sidewalk near Union Square oblivious to a bus tearing down the street in my direction. It passed inches in front of my nose. I felt the mass of that bus push against me and realized that if I kept assailing my body the way I was, one way or another I was going to be hurt. The doctor in Vancouver planted the thought in my mind and that incident with the bus reinforced that maybe I should stop doing alcohol and drugs. The last time I saw Dwight before I left Vancouver, he and I were walking down the ramp of a government wharf in False Creek. We were talking about the reality of being alive. "These are scenes from your life," Dwight said. "This is really happening." We talked about how in the end all that's left when you die is what you've done, not meaning the grandiose accomplishments you have achieved, but the kindness of your words, the consistency of your actions with the miracle of this place. "Ecstasy in mystery," he said, "and worry adds nothing to the experience." I drove over to Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County one afternoon from San Francisco and sat on a hillside overlooking the ocean. I had cigarettes on me, a couple joints, a book of matches, and I thought why do I have to put all of this stuff in me to appreciate looking at the ocean from the side of this mountain? Why do I have to leave matches on the ground and cigarette butts when I am gone? Why I can't I enjoy the experience of being here just with what I am?
I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Vesuvio, a bar on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, and began to notice that drugs and alcohol were making me feel bad. I took them to make myself feel good, but one toke on a joint and I would get cold from head to toe, start to shake, and go to a place in my head that was like a science fiction horror movie, total paranoia. Why was I getting stoned? On my tenth trip to the men's room one particular evening, standing in front of the urinal for the tenth time, I asked myself, do I really enjoy pissing so much that I want to stimulate myself to do it over and over again by drinking alcohol? Upstairs everyone was shouting and laughing with wild, intoxicated eyes. I asked myself, is this what life is for? The point of the miracle of being in the world? To get stoned on alcohol and drugs? A few of the regulars invited me out to the alley to smoke a J. We were standing in a circle. Blue and red and white lights shimmered on the puddles around our feet. A narrow slice of cold black sky pierced the clouds above the dark brick walls of the alley. A guy about 50 was squatting in the center of the circle sucking on a roach, a tiny little roach not more than two minute pieces of cigarette paper perfused with resin glowing between his fingertips. I looked at that guy - I was 32 - and thought, "When I'm 50, I'm not going to be squatting in an alley trying to get off on a roach." In that moment I knew that drugs and alcohol were getting me stoned, but the only way I was ever going to be happy was to make my life work.
I frequented Vesuvio regularly for more than a year after that, but from that night on I drank soda water with a squeeze. After a few months I put down dope, and a couple of years later I managed to quit smoking cigarettes. I never started using anything again. I kept going to the bar for a long time after I quit drinking because I didn't know what else to do with myself. As time went by, I liked the energy of the drunks less and less and started spending more of my time alone. The humbler and more sincere I became, the less I had in common with people who use everyone to stimulate themselves. I met a girl, a 25-year-old girl, my type, named Stephanie. She insisted on remaining a virgin, the story of my life. The relationship didn't work out. I was too intimidated by the feminist line that love is sexual harassment to feel comfortable expressing my desire to her, and I couldn't handle what appeared on the surface to be her lack of desire for me.
Ten years passed. I had been living in Sacramento since the summer of 1979. I was walking down Folsom Boulevard from the house I was renting on Janey Way. It was summer, 1987. Near the corner of 45th Street, I approached the Hilltop Bar. I hadn't been in a bar since San Francisco, except for that one time I went to hear Jessica Williams at the Beverly Garland Hotel. I walked up to the door. The smell of stale tobacco smoke and stale beer sank onto me heavily. I opened the door a crack and looked inside. The sky above was brilliantly blue and sunny. Inside, the bar was windowless and black. A dim light shone. When you live your life inside the reality of the bar, the world is a string of dark rooms connected by the society that moves between them. The world outside becomes unreal, as do straight people, who are absent from the party. You hurry through the empty sober world to get from one room to the next, looking out at streets and squares through cynical and bleary eyes. You don't know you are alive. All you care about is getting off. But looking in from the world of sympathy and sky and light, it's a hard, cold string of rooms blinding you to what is real.
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