About Me

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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Monday, March 4, 2019

 Becoming Cesca
High School Days

All my life I have been attracted to stories of the steppes of Asia, and the nomad peoples who roamed them. Scythians and Sarmatians, Parthians and Hiung-nu, Visigoths and Magyars. As an adolescent I heard some echo of their lives in the music of Rimsky Kosakof. I did not care if it was romanticized.  I tried to visualize stepping outside my yurt to behold seas of endless grass, or long trains of horses and camels and packed wagon carts, or the horse battles between archers with tattoos and braided hair, or the great trading centers at the edge of the deserts.  As drums found their rhythm and violins rose, I imagined horses at a gallop, and even fantasized centaurs, half woman, half horse with streaming long hair and tails, who galloped in fierce dignity next to our car as my parents drove. I imagined these creatures even somehow creating the Russian symphonies that enfolded them. They confounded the US military with their power and beauty and broke through attempts to encircle them in massed charges. On long trips I maintained this fantasy for hours.
Maybe this yearning comes from some lost past life. Maybe only from this one, for most of my childhood, we moved every year. At least, after my parent’s divorce when I was four, I moved. I looked forward to  it. At first they lived only blocks apart, and I trudged between them, pajamas in a pillow slip. As their divorce took hold, the distances grew longer. I lived with one or the other in places too many to mention, Westwood and Fullerton and Manhattan Beach with my mother,  Menlo Park and San Francisco with my father. When I lived with my mother, my father would come, as often as he could, to take me away on weekend adventures, to climb cliffs next to the sea, or ride horses in the mountain pastures of Arrowhead. He taught me to stop chattering and be still, as we listened to the conversations between trees in the in a mountain forest.  He showed me how to climb down sandstone cliffs above breaking waves and helped me notice the tapestry of jewels slowly forming as we looked down on the city of Los Angeles in the twilight from the hills of Palos Verde.

But as my parents began to settle into their adult patterns more solidly, our moves at last became rarer. In my high school days I moved with my mother into the first of three Malibu houses and stayed with her for several years. Living over  twenty miles from my high school, I rose each morning before the sun, hating the cold and the shock of it,  and went out to take the bus that ferried us an hour along the coast to Santa Monica High School. In the late afternoons I roamed the long beaches and dry hills of Malibu. With my brother Chris, then six and seven, we went out to lean into the Santa Ana winds that came each fall from the hills east of us, turning the sea flat and indigo blue and pushing against us so strongly that we could lean diagonally into it, our arms held out like airplane wings. Three more moves were made with my mother, but these came, not from any urge to adventure, but as my mother’s new husband, Charlie Farrell mounted the ladder of Hughes Aircraft promotions and invested in better houses. We remained in the same familiar area.
In the first one, on Malibu Canyon Road, I learned to play beach volleyball, babysat 10-year-old neighbor Christie Brinkley, and wore bikinis. At 15,  I gathered the admiring glances of older men like talismans, bits of secret strength I planned to use only when needed one day when I really wanted a man’s love, as if the power endowed by youthful beauty were ever something one could store.  For the time being, I remained as virginal as ever, an outsider to the coy games of young people. The sea and sky and dun hills were still my balance pole, my refuge.

     High school itself therefore came as a shock to me at 14, a cultural dissonance so jarring it almost shattered me that first year. I had always liked school. I liked carrying books and notebooks. I loved reading and new knowledge. I had had good teachers, and was even jumped by my elementary school teacher to fourth grade half way through my third grade class. One English teacher in 6th grade was so inspiring, I went home and manually copied our entire textbook of grammar rules into my own notebook, just to see the pages fill. She taught us English with real devotion, from diagramming sentences to punctuation to writing short stories. Every detail mattered to her. The foundation she gave me was so strong it gave me almost everything I needed years later when I in turn began to teach English to immigrants and try my own hand at writing.
A teacher in junior high invited me to come after school for lessons on the philosophy of Plato. For the first time my mind examined philosophy and understood there are questions to be asked, a bigger picture to stand back and see.  How are two differently shaped tables still a table? How should a leader of men be trained?  When I was 13, my algebra teacher turned out to be a survivor of Auschwitz. She told us she had maintained her sanity as a 16-year-old there by working out theorems in her head. With her stories and emotionally charged understanding of math, she made every formula feel important and elegant. They had saved her life after all.
But my first memory of Santa Monica High School is sitting in some risers with a hundred other freshmen, being trained to follow the school cheers for the football team by a male cheerleader. All around me other novice students roared with faux enthusiasm, on cue, for a school we had all just entered a few days before. Their bodies swayed in unison, their hands clapped on command. The young man in front of us howled and spelled out words and strode back and forth, orchestrating our responses with total self confidence. I sat stunned. Every fiber of me was discomfited by this elaborate charade of emotion, fake passion for a team I had never seen, a belonging I did not feel. I seemed to be alone in my alienation. Young people swayed and followed the choreographed hand gestures and chatted all around me.  When we were released,  I went to the ladies room and took two aspirin for a headache.
In the halls, as bells rang and students surged between classes, I felt buffeted in the current. I remember lockers banging shut all along the walls as I stopped to retrieve the books for the next class, struggling with my first  combination lock. In “home room,” speakers blared with announcements and more false camaraderie. Listening to the hectoring urgent voices, I came to understand I was now a tribal member of Santa Monica High School. Samohi. Meant to be dedicated to screeching encouragement as our “warriors” overcame our enemies on the field of play, triumphing in debate clubs and spelling bees, obeying my roster of teachers, following the dress code like a supplicant.
            My headaches became daily occurrences and in the third week something broke. If found myself walking outside of class, when all around me were rushing the other way. I came to the school’s edge - there were not yet walls around Santa Monica High School - and I kept walking. An odd hazy state had invaded my mind. I did not know why I was walking and did not want to think about it. I went a mile and then another, and found myself at last in Palisades Park, the  mile long strip of green lawn and palm trees that runs along the top of the cliffs above the sea in Santa Monica. I found a phone and fished a dime out of my pocket. I came to understand how desperate I was only when I burst into tears and found I could barely get the words out. “Hamp, come and get me, please.”
What my father did next, I will always be grateful for, and even more for what he did not do. He did not take me right back to school. He did not read any riot acts. He did not even frown at my truancy. Instead he arrived to rescue me in his latest dilapidated Cadillac, leaving his much needed  job to take care of his daughter who needed him even more that day. He gave me a giant hug, and then took me to a most remarkable place. The Fellowship Temple on Sunset Blvd is a vast parkland with a quiet lake in the middle. Speakers hung from the trees and played soft classical music. A charmingly overwrought Hindu temple graced the far end. The discrete boxes placed here and there on the trail contained little cards with helpful quotations.  It was in fact my first exposure to eastern thought in any form and it soothed me back to sanity that day.
I dutifully let myself be bused back to Samohi the next day and found I could bear it a little better. My English class in particular offered a place that came to seem like refuge.  This teacher did not dither over grammer, but rather enthused over Thoreau and Emerson. I was asked to ponder the Oversoul. And marvel at the simple crystalline life of Thoreau on Walden Pond. He planted beans. He fished. He sat in the sun for hours, simply present to the world. His life was a Buddhist meditation, though neither he, nor I, nor even perhaps my teacher knew it at the time. Still, it healed me to hear about him.
I had other good English teachers as the years progressed. One in particular introduced me to William Faulkner. I was assigned The Sound and the Fury and went on to read almost all his other works on my own. I moved in a Faulknerian trance for months as I did so, transported by his fierce clarion stories of indomitable southerners, the diamond hard core of courage and dedication to memory found in the shabbiest of his human characters. And the language! The words just so, resplendent or plain, as the stories needed. I tried to emulate him in torrents of purple prose and even gained an honorable mention for a story of a southern boy in a shack - a world as far from my own experience as it would be possible to imagine. I do wish now my teachers had been a bit more exacting of those novice errors, but it was a beginning.
When the second  year of school rolled around I hadn’t yet made the lifelong friends I would soon find, but I had begun to take an interest in school activities. We had frequent schoolwide “assemblies” in which we all waited, pleased to be out of class, for whatever our earnest young principal had planned for us. The first one was an account of his own adventures as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. I have not forgotten the highlight of his talk even today, five decades later, for he told us about his tapeworm. When it was last removed, departing from his corpus inch by inch, it was over a yard long, an image that brought shrieks of horrified delight from even the most stoically cool teen among us. 
 But the following assembly, in November of 1963, was even harder to forget. It began as simply odd. An over-weight middle-aged man had been invited to demonstrate his skills as a typist, typing away on an old Underwood in front of a thousand restless sophomores, a microphone set next to the keys as he kept time to a Beethoven symphony. Whether he had more than that to dazzle us with I do not know for he had barely gotten through a few bars when the principals’s assistant came to the mic and stopped him. “Our President, John F. Kennedy,” she announced in a shaky voice, “has been shot in Dallas. We are waiting for news but….” I am sure she had not intended us to leave. But we knew who Kennedy was. We were teenagers, but we had experienced his dramatic election. We had shuddered through the Cuban missle crisis with him, understanding, for the first time in our sheltered lives, that the danger of a nuclear war was real and not just a mockery-worthy exercise in squeezing under our desks once a month. Defying his own advisors, John Kennedy had steered us through this darkest passage. He had spoken in Germany and challenged us to ask ourselves what we, the young people,  could do for our country.  Most of us idolized him. Against the protests of teachers who tried to stop us, we simply rose as one body and began to exit, most weeping in shock, blindly headed out, away from this bearer of terrible news. Many of the boys in that class were soon to become the first casualities of the Vietnam war, then just starting, but on that day almost none of us knew anything of death. It was our first bereavement. And like everything else emotional at 16, it hit us like a grenade to the heart.
 Like the others, I walked out of the auditorium and kept going, and wept, and stayed at home in the days that followed as the whole nation joined in an immense  spasm of sorrow. I think there were none who did not stop what they were doing to watch the slow procession of horse soldiers escort his casket up Pennsylvania Avenue to his funeral. Something more than a great president was passing. We could all feel it.

My life grew larger when I found my first real friend in high school, Kathy Epling. She was new to everything at first, even more than I had been, for her first years of puberty had been lived in Japan with her military family. She was a pretty girl with a slight build and flipped blonde hair, courtesy of her adamantly conformist parents, still wedded to the fifties. But she was enthusiastically friendly, so very glad to find someone to talk to, someone who loved nature and books as she did. She invited me to her home and showed me all her pictures and told her stories. She read aloud to me her outstanding poetry. And she shared her enhusiasm for the books she read, constantly and widely, more than me. It was later revealed (by a counselor driving outside the lines) that Kathy Epling had the highest IQ in our high school of 3000 students. Our friendship, though we did not know it yet, was to become one of those rare sisterhoods of spirit that last a lifetime. We did not always live so close by as we did in those days, but she became the sister I did not have and stayed that way until her death in 2016.
Together we began to change, as the world around us entered a time now known as “the Sixties” though it was already near the middle of that decade. It began, for me, with a song that came one afternoon on the radio, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. Aside from learning how to do the “Twist,” I had barely noticed the dawning of rock and roll before that song. I knew nothing of the rise of this still obscure English rock group. But their song seized my mind like a visitation. Today I listen to the same song and wonder at the karma of its effect on my generation because little of its power is left for me now. But in 1964 I found it simply riveting. I wanted to listen to nothing else for days, playing it over and over. There was another herald of change in those weeks. A boy appeared in the central plaza of the high school with his hair to his shoulders - a style that for us simply meant “hair like a girl’s.” It was such a startling thing to see, we gathered around him a hundred strong, wanting to know what on earth he was thinking. I cannot remember his answers, but soon others were following.
Girls, including myself, began to role up our skirts at the waist, and to ask why we were never allowed to come to school in pants. I remember the school’s first reactions. A  group of girls known as the “girls’ council” was delegated to examine miscreants like myself and decide on punishment. I remember kneeling on the floor in front of their line of chairs, as they checked to see whether or not my skirt touched the floor. It failed the test and I frowned at their authority over me, though the punishment was only an hour of after school “detention.”  But the dam did not hold long. Soon there were special days in which girls were allowed to come in pants. Hair was growing over shoulders everywhere and was back combed into buffants above. Make up was reaching levels of application that Cleopatra would have envied, and even I explored the magical powers of false eyelashes.
The main event in high school is, of course, falling in love. Solitary child of nature that I was in those days, I was still no stranger to this emotion. I had fallen in love with someone every year since the second grade, where my heart was first broken by seven-year-old Steven, who invited me to be his partner in the circle dance, “Pickin up Paw-paws, Put em in the Basket.” The very next week, however, Steven fell under the Jezebel spell of my best friend Debbie. I was left to take my chances as he heroically shielded Debbie with his own body in our daily dodgeball games. Though I did develop a certain agility she lacked.
In the spring of my second year of high school, I was taken aback when a handsome senior named Bob Hensley began to flirt in the biology class we shared. He was blonde and tall and athletic, naturally graceful. I ran around the track in PE, my head pivoting to keep Bob in view as he worked on pole vaulting. Though I was still a sophomore, he invited me to his prom and held my hand as we, and several thousand seniors from throughout the LA basin, were given the keys to Disneyland for “senior night”. It was thrilling to walk by his side in that shining place, something new to me to stay up all night and be “a girl on a date with a senior.”  But somehow, I was simply too immature to go even the smallest step further. I found myself unable to kiss Bob good-night, or let myself be kissed. I was nervous about it to such a degree that, after a few more puzzled efforts, he gave up at last. Oddly, the next boy that asked me out got that first kiss without a fuss. Strange karma. The last I saw of Bob was after his graduation that June. He declared he was going to go by a new name, Chad. He was going into military service, excited to be flying the next week to an exotic place called Vietnam. I never learned if he survived it.
The next year a remarkable young man named Eric Thiermann sat next to me in Mr. Freed’s Spanish class, and returned my smiles. The sangfroid of the current generation was not much part of ours, or at least it was not a remotest quality of mine.  When the Spanish teacher gently teased me about my apparently obvious infatuation one day, I was so mortified, I buried my head in my arms and would not look up until the bell rang to release us from the class. Eric was made of sterner stuff though. After class, he invited me to that year’s prom. I accepted before I even noticed the words coming out of my mouth.
Eric came from a large and uniquely active and creative family. His father was a leader in the Quaker movement, his mother an artist. They lived in a large rambling house with at least an acre of trees and brush in Topanga Canyon. Here Eric had perfected his skills as a magician, with the cooperation of a long suffering dove. Indeed demonstrating those skills made up the bulk of his speech when he ran later that year for Student Vice President and the dove lifted from a top hat to fly about the auditorium.  His opponent’s campaign promise to push for a pickle in our cafeteria hamburgers did not hold a candle. Everyone began to adore Eric, both that year and even more the next when he became class president. 
That first step into stardom had not yet come for him when he invited me out, however. Though he didn’t show it, I think he was as nervous as I was, for he revealed the fact that he and his father had rehearsed the procedure of the whole evening to come, even making reservations at an elegant Mexican restaurant in downtown LA where I was to be treated to a post prom dinner. As for me, in the days before, my mother took me off to a salon for evening gowns. I don’t remember ever truly dressing up before that, and I had no opinions on style yet.  My mother purchased an alarming gold extravaganza, so stiff and voluminous it pretty much stood up by itself if you set it on the floor. Living in Malibu, we had several near neighbors who were well-known actors and even more who were Hollywood support professionals. A make-up artist who had given Joan Crawford her thick eyebrows was invited in to do my make up. My long red brown hair was coiffed and sprayed for the first time in my life. My eyebrows soon rivalled Joan’s. Red lipstick  was liberally applied . My beach adapted feet were coffined in shiny black three inch high heels. I was still staring at myself in shock in the bedroom mirror when Erik rang the doorbell, orchid corsage held up in mute offering.  As I came to stand before him, he looked in dismay at my gold satin bosom, where he was meant to pin it, but my mother and a cousin stepped in to help. Then it was a great relief to leave all the fluttering adults behind and get into his old car. We drove south on Highway 1 in stunned silence for a time and then, as I myself had rehearsed, not wanting to appear shallow, I opened the conversation by asking him his thoughts on death.
The evening did improve however. When we got to the venue, I made a beeline for the ladies room. I pulled my hair down and let it hang down my back to my waist. I washed my face free of most of the congealing make-up. I put my high heels in a corner and went out to dance. My dress still quivered like a giant bowl of golden jello, but we did have fun. Then it was time to go to the restaurant.  Here the manager informed us, to Eric’s mortification, that in the evening the restaurant was also a bar and underage persons could not be admitted. But it didn’t matter. Neither of us was hungry. We drove instead to the grass hills of UCLA and ran under the moonlight in our finery, laughing. A night to remember. Unfortunately when the next school dance came around, a “girl ask boy” dance,  my chronic shyness again hobbled me. I struggled for two weeks to gather my courage to ask him to go with me but could not. Another girl asked him, and he accepted. Linda Deutsch, who played the violin beautifully and had soulful dark eyes and bobbed black hair, became his girlfriend for the rest of our time in high school.
My mind shifts through the long forgotten photo cards of memory for more of those days and finds only flashes.  Pairs volleyball on the beach, and my ace serve that knocked men back on their heels, if they stopped it at all, silent punishment for the condescension they so often showed women athletes in those days.  “Good girl, you got it!”  For a time, in Malibu, and later in college, I was indeed an athlete, playing serious volleyball 20+ hours a week. Outplaying the casual male players who showed up, certain that no woman at any level of skill could out-do them at anything, was my recompense.  I remember trying out for the lead in the school play, Sound of Music. For days I had practiced alone the soaring lyrics of “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music.” I was ever more confident my mezzo soprano voice would impress them. I had, after all, sung musicals alone, playing all parts, for years, when no adults were home. When I stood up to sing before others in an auditorium, however, things went awry. The directors indeed seemed impressed with my first lines. But they noticed what I had not, that in learning the song directly from a record, I had learned it with Julie Andrew’s British accent. When they asked me to sing with an American accent, I was so undone, only a squawk came out, and no amount of sympathetic urging could unfreeze my vocal cords.
Odd how these roads not taken come back to me now, as I enter the last chapters of my life.  At 17 almost every day is a crossroads, though you do not recognize it until later. So much that happened then shaped my life. But so much more that was to form me was still to come. College and the full sea change of “The Sixties”  lay straight ahead. And life offers no re-dos.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Facing Samsara

When I feel overwhelmed by the horror of the fate that has overtaken certain people in the news today, certain groups, or certain animals and even ecosystems, it helps me sometimes to walk my mind toward it rather than away. We have been born into a reality in which everything and everyone is impermanent. There is no person or animal that will not die after enough days have passed, most often in discomfort and fear. Samsara is a rough neighborhood. Looking around me, I remind myself that every single person i see will experience death within a hundred years. Most in far less. Every single cute toddler, wagging puppy, noble elephant, whispering pine. Every friend will be lost, or will lose me. Every bit of my youthful beauty, my possessions, my wealth will be lost. Even the memory of me in the mind of others will fade and disappear. It is the way this place works, the reason the Buddha left his palace, the first Noble Truth. He went out to seek an answer to the terrible realization of the suffering all around him. He finally grasped that holding tightly to whatever has come to feel precious and safe cannot help anyone in the end. What does? Loving others. Helping wherever we can. Seeking wisdom that is bigger than one lifetime. Gaining the rare and difficult power of focused attention. What else is there to do after all, with this time here we have been given?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Monsters are Real

It seems I almost died four weeks ago now. Though that realization has grown on me only slowly. A stomach ache came and went over a weekend in late September and then started to grow in earnest. An ambulance came to collect me on Monday night. I left behind my 95 year old mother with my cousin Patricia and went off to place my life in the hands of strangers. The monster I had dreaded since reading in my teens a vivid description of a medieval man's miseries with gall stones was now upon me. My doctor had actually warned me I had stones in there, but I had had them for years with no consequence. It seems 30% of Americans carry them. Not all, fortunately, will have to meet the monster. 

Oddly, there is a certain peace that comes with acute crises. One lives utterly in the moment, intent on the drip by drip revelation of new experiences.  "Beginner's mind,"  Zen priest David Suzuki called it. Curtains were drawn around me in the ER. I watched the staff appear and disappear as I listened deep inside to the ruin afoot. The nurses in the ER were brusque,  ever busy and matter of fact,  but also kind. The pain was growing. And nausea began. By the time i received a room, I had entered the full anguish of pain and vomiting brought about by an unknown foe. But even then, some part of me was able to simply watch, dispassionate and intrigued. Was it Buddhist training? Or what all people experience? I listened in the night to the mysterious sounds of my acute care unit, of others, unknown but nearby, suffering as I was. On the other side of a rigid plastic wall divider,  a woman next door moaned and then made phone calls to a lover and then a friend. I could feel the thick fabric at my shoulder shift as she moved against it. I vomited again. In the end, though we had listened for hours to each other's misery,  I never saw her. 

The drugs began Monday night after nurses had struggled to gain entrance to my apparently vein free arms for an IV connection. Bruises and blood.   Anti-nausea medication eased the worst then, and Dilaudid for pain. When they were administered in sequence, I floated and slept. But it was when I woke and lay with my eyes shut that the strangest part of my experiences there unfolded.  There were images behind my closed eyes, almost but not quite as visible as they would have been if my eyes were open. Several times I did open them to check if some shadow or change in light was affecting me but the answer was always no.   When I kept them closed, and focused my eyes on the imagery that came, I had a frontline seat to Dante's inferno.  Or perhaps, one friend suggested, the universal unconscious, or was it the bowels of creation?  I would very much like to know, because I was not causing these images. I had never seen or imagined them and indeed i could not change them even when I tried. The strongest element was  texture, darkly sparkling earth, or kelp or shag carpet or cliffs of moving dark tendrils. Water poured out everywhere, foul or muddied, torrents of excrement, mud with small rocks, or simply water. And everywhere there was heaving movement, fecundity, primal creation or decay. Half made faces emerged from the moving earth, pink flesh lumped and unformed with only an eye or a nostril fully made. Skulls, fantastically lined elderly faces with eyes closed, copulating couples, infants, demons, animals and innocents. The moving earth or waving tendrils of grass or fabric folded them ever deeper into crevices, or writhed slowly open, revealing them. The images were of intricate dark beauty, detail beyond detail. A goat appeared purple and blue, and then a fox with a fantastic fringe of carved ivory rising from his ruff. Faces dead or those being born, I could not tell. Eerie in  the luminous dark, like  the  cocaine dreams of a great artist.  What on earth was I looking at? Once the dark purples and blues and reds and blacks,  the muted greens, were replaced with imagery entirely of bronzed gold. A hill of sand lit by a hidden sun. Figures rose from the sand, made of sand, and the wind rose and blew them once again into non-existence, back into the hill.  These images occupied my mind for much of the time I was alone and awake in the  room. I could not make them stop and wondered if I was seeing the bardo. If I concentrated on changing them or even just lightening them, faint sparks flickered deep in the distance, that was all.

All was not grim, however. My nurses were kind. One in particular, Bob, is an old friend, a fellow Buddhist who is a nurse and has cared for my father on previous visits. His gentle humor and help with the temperamental IV made the suffering much less.

There were tests on Tuesday. A surgeon came, one, Bob assured me,  known for great competence. I later learned I was to be taken into surgery on an emergency basis on Wednesday morning. Blood tests showed the battle against infection was rising to critical levels in my body, though I had no fever yet. It was still contained, but now felt like something about to break open.   The surgery on Wednesday morning showed why. I was put completely under, unlike my joint replacements. As I came back to consciousness, there was no sense of time having passed. I only remember the staff muttering about how bad it - my misbehaving gall bladder - had been as they repositioned my limp body in the recovery room.  Indeed though no stones were blocking any ducts, the whole organ had had been black and gangrenous. A word to strike fear. The surgeon, Dr Brian Waddle, checked on me briefly, and assured me we do not particularly need gall bladders, and that mine was now gone, incipient stones and all. Amoxicillin would deal with the left over infection and so it has.

They sent me home Thursday, so weak I could barely walk, the new early release hospital policy in the age of Mrsa infections and merciless insurance companies. I was frightened to leave so early, but, indeed, it lifted my spirits and dimmed my Hieronymous Bosche eyelid show to sit on my front porch in the sunshine a while. In my absence, Patricia and George had managed, with considerable strain they later shared, to keep my mother going. But it was my brother Chris who arrived like the cavalry and stayed to save the day. After telling me he could not help, he had changed his mind and flown to their rescue all the way from a job assignment in Pennsylvania. For eight days he stayed with us, a perfect kind carer for both, even while maintaining his work schedule as a computer network tech from my kitchen table. He endured with perfect calm and kindness mom's dementia eccentricities (she often thought he was an old boyfriend) and incontinence and my inability to help for several days.  This was a brother, an ally, that I did not know I had. If this illness brought anything good, it was this above all, to regain that severed connection.

So that is my story dear reader. There were more tumultuous days before it all settled down. Wildly oscillating blood pressure, a drainage tube that left a pain in my side for days when it was  removed. More monsters scuttled under the bed for those days and left me sleepless far into restless nights. Would one of them emerge to become real? Twice I reached a level of panic that believed one had. But in the end, after a visit to Land of Medicine Buddha they all receded. Body and health returned. Hieronymous is back in the museum where he belongs. And I am left with my life, and  apparently even my health and a great gratitude to all who helped me recover it.

Friday, July 27, 2018


Child of Zorro


Life in my father’s house was life in a pirate’s lair, or the hideout of Zorro. Everywhere there were riches, the kind that fill a child’s heart and mind. There was a real shrunken head from the Amazon, with three inch black hair and a face like a walnut. From China, there was a wooden carving of an uncharacteristically stern-faced Kwan Yin standing within a tiny wooden house whose doors latched with brass. There were crabs, sealed in amber. There was a large picture of a serene topless woman emerging from a base of jade with a crown topped by a basket of fruit and flowers. Bookcases were everywhere, cobbled of giant grey bricks and golden cedar boards, bursting with books of art and stories and history. Mexican ranchero music or classical symphonies filled the rooms - Swann Lake by Tschiakovsky, rolling waves of basso piano by Rachmaninof and the heart rending violins of Sheherezade.  To go along with them, , were stories of princes and princesses,courtesy of my father’s imagination, Peter and the Wolf, or the classic tale of the Sheik’s new wife who saved her own life by her ability to tell endlessly fascinating stories. One day when i was only seven, he told me all about Noche Triste, when the Spaniards fled the Aztec army by night and died in the canals of Tenochtitlan, for my father was mesmerized by Mexico. At last, at bed time, “Hamp” would sit by my bed and make up another installment of the adventures of Cesca and her friend, Oscar the Octopus and engage in mock battles with me, our hands arranged with four fingers down for horses’ feet and the middle finger raised as a horse head, galloping across the folds of the blankets.

In the back yard were Hamp’s projects. One month it was all the objects he had gathered to try and seal those tiny crabs into wax  made to look like amber. This was a gruesome but, to me at three, fascinating failure, as the tiny crabs died in their bucket and disintegrated.  Months of stone pounding followed, as Hamp conceived the notion to gouge holes in basalt rocks and sell them as bohemian candle holders. One day, with hoots of triumph, he invented the submarine sandwich (though, alas, he never marketed his eureka moment). On Saturdays, he washed down  our car with a hose in the hot sun, and I stomped through the puddles and shrieked with joy when he turned the hose toward the sky and let it rain down on me. When real storms came, he would take my mother and me onto the breakwater, to hunker down as the waves crashed and sprayed us. He taught me to leap confidently between slanted rock faces almost as soon as I could run.

I did not know it then, but I was living with a man who had created himself in opposition to almost all he had grown up with. The life first handed him as a boy was anything but Bohemian and free, for my father was a child of the original Mormons. His great grandfather, Jonathan Hampton, was a carpenter with Brigham Young when they were both converted, and was among his original circle in their first migrations. He died of exposure guarding Joseph Smith. Hamp’s great-grandmother, Julia Foster, after Jonathan’s death and many travails, became one of Brigham Young’s wives. For a time, she was in charge of the “Lion House” where most of his 50 spouses lived. Her son by Jonathan was named after Brigham Young and served  as the sheriff of Salt Lake City through the years of turmoil when the federal government pushed hard into their polygamous haven. This Brigham Young Hampton himself had three wives and many children by them. He served time in his own jail more than once, courtesy of the feds. His last wife, a 19 year-old English girl who ran away to follow Mormon preachers, eventually served as warden of the city jail, after losing four children in two months to diptheria. In pictures of her in middle age, her mouth is hard as iron. They all seemed to have mouths like that, men and women both. It was not a time for free spirits or easy living.
My father’s first memories were of Salt Lake. He showed me pictures of a house on a hill down which he slid his homemade toboggan in winter and watched in summer as ice was delivered in cut blocks to his mother’s ice box,  wrapped in hay and carried in wagons down from the high lakes. The first black box telephones hung on kitchen walls. His father was a cattleman, a broker, who traveled the western states buying beefstock to send by train to the hungry cities of the west. His mother, a distant descendent of Scottish royalty, was a school teacher. And when the two argued on how best to raise him, it was she who won, giving him his first ecstatic taste of good books and classical music in the weekly radio broadcasts of the Mormon symphonic choir. His father, he told me, withdrew from the field and rarely taught him anything. This left him as an adult bereft of the handy skills most men of his generation regarded as normal. He could barely wield a hammer. I remember one of the earliest pictures of his childhood, a baby looking up round-eyed into the face of his other grandfather, David Crockett Stuart, a rebel calvalryman who had also converted to Mormonism after the Civil War. There is another, years later, of a gangly boy of 10 in overalls with a thatch of black hair and ears that stick out, standing in a field, the one which, in winter, he so proudly used for his toboggan.  

There were no snowy fields where he raised me, only sunny beaches. And both of those stern great-grandfathers were gone, as well as my paternal grandparents. There was no formality in our house, nor church on the weekends. As early as four I was alllowed to roam with great freedom. My friends and I chalked hop scotch grids onto the hot cement of the Manhattan Beach strand, a wide sidewalk with a low wall that marked the line between the beach towns and the wide white sand beach that fronts Los Angeles for miles. We swung on the baby swings on the sand near my house, my friends and I, or hiked off to what seemed then a formidable distance to the “big swings” two blocks away. On these we swung for an hour at a time, pumping upward into the blue sky and sliding back to earth hanging upside down, our blonde hair tickling the sand as we reached the nadir of each arc. To explore In the other direction was to come to the mysterious fogged windows of the Hilton Hotel “plunge,” a large indoor pool. We climbed up into the indented windowsills and tried to make out the misted figures of people unfathomably swimming indoors when the shining Pacific beckoned only yards away.
One day I went a bit further. Another half block to a children’s bookstore. Here I found a giant book called The Grasshopper and the Ants and settled down happily to read. When the owner realized how young I was, and unaccompanied, he called the police. When the officer urged me into his car, I hung onto this book and somehow it came with me, a kindness, I now realize, from the owner. I was only a few blocks from home, and not lost, but the officer drove me back and saw me home safe.
That night, my father and I poured over the giant pages and the vivid drawings, all about the grasshoppers and the ants. We laughed together about how we both would rather be the live-gloriously-for-today grasshopper than one of the dull industrious ants who had to take him in when winter came.  In every way this was how we were living. When Hamp went off each day to university and then to work, in those days selling encyclopedias door to door, or insurance, it was as if the human ants of the real world were determined to try and shape him into someone he wanted with all his heart not to be.
It was on the weekends that my father  recovered himself. Friends from college came over for raucous joyful parties, animatedly sharing talk of Picasso or Chagall or giggling over Sigmund Freud’s pronouncements on sex. They listened to jazz and endlessly flirted. In the summertimes, there was volleyball and beer and red wine on the beach and for me, long culinary experiments with stirring sand soup at the water’s edge, or dripping it into castle battlements. In the winters, as the big swells thundered onto the shore in front of us, Hamp, would take me out to the seawalls to duck as the waves shattered against the breakwater and spray drenched us from above. He began to bring home the first of hundreds of children’s books from the library for me to devour, a half dozen every week. I was four when he and my mother began to bicker over money and his flirtations with other women. Their marriage ended eventually and they began to live a few blocks apart.  But I moved back and forth between them almost weekly and, loved so well, remember no suffering from their parting.

It was when he was 11 years old, that my father’s Salt Lake City childhood had begun to darken. His beloved mother, Stella, developed a headache that would not abate, and took to her bed. She was never to rise from it healthy again, though her invalidism lasted two years before she died. It was determined at her autopsy that her tumor could indeed have been excised safely if they had taken the chance, but they did not. The loss of his safe world and the loving, educated  woman at the heart of it affected my father profoundly. He became withdrawn, and barely spoke. He also suffered horribly from migraines caused by allergies to both chocolate and safflower oil, though it was years til he realized the connection. These migraines left him sick and stunned many days each month, and cut him off from other boys his age. The medicines doctors gave him put him into a mental fog, unable to perform at school. His classmates, ironic in their cruelty, nicknamed him “Speed.” His widowed father at last left Salt Lake City behind, taking Hamp and his younger sister Bernice to Long Beach California to start a new life. With cattle train cars to monitor, he took his children to live with his sisters on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles as he himself found an apartment on the mainland.
In spite of all these traumatic changes, Catalina was the making of my father. The island was wild then, a windswept landscape of scrub-covered hills and ravines, eucapyptus and vivid blue bays below tall cliffs. Giant wild goats roamed  the hills, and in the south, there were the surviving remnants of the buffalo, brought there to recover their numbers. The Wrigley family owned the island then. They and everyone else who lived on Catalina were all in Avalon. True wilderness waited beyond the ridges which circled the town.
Hamp’s  aunts doted on him and his sister Bernice. He found friends and began to roam the hills, growing stronger by the month, and wilder. The migraines receded and as a teen, he found himself tall and wryly good-looking, with a sharp intelligence and a physical prowess that startled the boys who had once called him “Speed.” He kept the nickname, but now they meant it. With these friends, he would earn money when the tourists on the big ferry threw sparkling coins into the crystalline waters of Avalon Harbor and clapped their hands in delight as the lithe island boys dived for them. With his best friend Paul Shonafelt, Hamp took his love of the sea further and began to dive for abalone. They rented a large open boat that came with a primitive dive suit topped by a metal head piece that filled with air pumped from above. (So risky that its owner later died while using it). When that palled, they hunted goats with rifles and cooked them over open fires. When they were home, these handsome beach boys of wild Catalina also drew the attention of young women coming over on the yachts. Sixteen now, with the worldwide tumult the 1930’s seeming far away, my someday father regularly took girls from the yachts to the weekend dances in the great round of the Avalon ballroom that still overlooks the point. By the end of those last two years on the island, he told me,  he had made out with a girl in every alcove of the upper balcony.

This self-reliance and love of nature  gained on Catalina became part of the heritage my father passed on to me. As I grew towards adolescence,  I remember no rules about where I could go when I left my front door. The untamable Pacific held my riveted attention from the very beginning, a refuge from all the tangles of human life at my back. When I was about ten, my mother fell in love with a man named Charlie Farrell and became pregnant by him.  He was a Catholic and neither his family nor the church would approve their union without a formal papal dispensation. Amidst the years of painful dramas that followed, I moved in with my father full time in Manhattan Beach.
We lived at first in a sandy lot in a round-roofed quonset hut, a left over from WWII.  I remember at age ten washing the dishes, looking out of its windows at the beach far below, marveling to consider I was now the “lady of the house.” I had never willingly washed a dish before. Now the act seemed cloaked in new dignity.  I went mad and even made my bed and then his. Each afternoon after school, while my father was still at work, I turned on our record player to play musicals like The King and I and Kismet and learned every role and every song. These I sang at the top of my lungs doing the dishes.  Sometimes I enacted whole plays by myself. I felt myself a free woman, not a child. I was mistress of our house.
As I grew older still, I roamed for miles along the enormous sweep of beach below, riding my bike with my best friend Susan West and her brother Peter. Some days, I ran with a pack of dogs who came together to explore the shore in the mornings. In the summers, I swam with my friends at least five hours a day with no parent in attendance for any of us.   My father made a stab at getting me sitters sometimes, as he very often went out to parties in the evenings, but to me their presence was only puzzling. I remember one night, bored with lying in my bed, I peeked out of my room about 10pm to find my unwanted sitter asleep. I stole out of the house and went happily down to the long abandoned beach, gleaming in moonlight. I walked along its shore a mile north to where an oil tanker pier reached out from the city of El Segundo. It was not made for pedestrians, and certainly not for the public. To walk on it meant holding onto water pipes as I ducked under a roof that held rail cars and placed my feet carefully along the top of the great rounded pipe that held the oil. I made my way out to where the waves broke just below the oil pipe, spraying my feet in their charge through the pier’s stanchions, exploding in foam at one set of pillars after another. When I had had enough, I climbed back under the pier and then back along the empty mile of shoreline. By midnight I had slipped back into my bed, the sitter still unaware. I was eleven years old.

My father left Catalina when he was 18, but  the seeds planted there had already defined his life to come. One was a fierce yearning to be more than the cattlemen and ranchers and country sheriffs he came from. He wanted no part of the missionaries sent time and again by the church in Salt Lake to woo him back. He studied the lives of the islands’ visitors, and what moved him most was their education, the sense of a wider world they brought to the island. He yearned to go to college, to study history and art and know more of what they knew. And from them he learned about beauty and about love. Indeed, he fell in love over and over as the young women came and left. In the great symphonies of the time, the music of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov and Glazunov, he heard his own secret heart. Finally, with talk of a possible war in Europe finally reaching even the island, he learned to admire military strength. One afternoon in 1936 he was riveted by a submarine that rose for a day of R and R in Avalon harbor, and  only months later he left the island as the navy’s newest recruit.
For three years he sailed with them, feeling the thrill of loading the big guns of the destroyer West Virginia and learning morse code so well in the radio room he could decode incoming messages as easily as words being spoken. He also learned the sting of humiliation as, in port after port, middle class girls scorned his status as a lowly navy private in favor of officers with college educations. It only reinforced his determination to pull himself up by his bootstraps.   When his tour was over, he was demobilized from the West Virginia in New York and made his way back to Long Beach, burning with the need to start college. He worked for his father from time to time, riding rail cars full of lowing cows back to the distribution centers of LA. He learned how to fly a small plane and got his pilot’s license. And at last, he attended Long Beach City college and then got accepted into The University of California at Los Angeles. His first major there was Latin American studies, for he had conceived a dream to own a plantation in Brazil.
Hitler and Tojo, however, had other ideas  of course, ideas that derailed the dreams of half his generation.  My father never made it to Brazil. It was war on two continents that instead dominated his youth.  Their impact on him, however, was not the story you may be expecting. Though he was already a trained veteran and an eager soldier, and was to follow the doings of soldiers all his life, my father was handed a startlingly different fate for the times.  By the end of seven years of military service, he had never served a day overseas, even all through WWII, nor fired a gun in anger. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, his destroyer, the West Virginia, was the first boat sunk (with very first Japanese bomb actually blowing through the radio room where he had once worked), but Ralph Hampton was not sitting in it. He had already been demobilized.  Attending college, in the weeks following Pearl Harbor, he assumed he would be called up again. Having just got out of the military, however, and so very hungry for learning, he kept on at his classes, intensely following the news, and waited to be called. Months went by and no call up came. Still it was only a matter of time.
At last in 1944, wanting to serve but also to avoid the infantry, he applied to the Air Force, keeping to himself the affliction of his migraines - now down to one every month or two.  When they loaded his system with the shots given to new recruits, however, he fell ill with the worst one of his life and only confessed what it was after three days when his doctor began to speculate that brain surgery might be called for. Thus was the door to a pilot’s life closed.  The infantry it was. And yet the army, for some reason known only to its overworked clerks, overlooked his previous training and started him off from scratch again. He went to several training locations until at last, in 1944, he was sent to Fresno California. And here his life took another unexpected turn.
At 26, my father was already a romantic to the most intense degree. He had already been in love several times, each time rocked to his adolescent socks. Yet still, he once confided to me, even in his mid twenties, he was a gentleman and a technical virgin, yearning, as he was to yearn all his life, after the image of a perfect woman. When he was posted to Fresno, for a time at least, he found her. In the library of Fresno State College, he and his friend, on a day leave from their base, came upon my mother, Lenore Patricia Joint, working on her homework. Here was a red haired blue-eyed beauty, a smart girl going to college, a lively funny charming girl who totally swept him into euphoria, for she returned his instant ardor. Every day he could get away he came to see her, taking her for long bike rides and sodas at the Five and Dime. The fact that she had a beau already serving in the military did not faze him. “All’s fair in love and war,” he wrote her. “I’m going to keep heckling you.” He was in love. On weekends, when he could manage, he also went down to see his father in Long Beach. He would travel back in his father’s most recently disgarded old Lincoln, the poetry of Omar Khayyam perched on the wheel spokes as he drove north, memorizing the verses with the wind in his hair and my future mother in his heart.  “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness - And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
He was driving home from such a trip, pushing his luck by being AWOL a few hours, when the call came for his unit to ship out. Now. The buddy who was supposed to call him to come back in time should this happen wasn’t even able to get to a phone.  When my father arrived back at the base, still starry-eyed from his journey, all the friends he had trained with for months were gone, on their way to the bloody forests of the Ardenne to try and hold the embattled front line at the Battle of the Bulge. Novice soldiers thrown against veterans, most of them died there. Back in Fresno, my father sat stunned in the empty barracks, hoping to be sent after them but, after a reprimand and brief punishment, he learned he had simply become a man without a unit. After weeks of consternation, his final assignment for the duration of the war became a lonely telegraph station in the desert near Tucumcari New Mexico. Here he worked at night under a sky brilliant with stars, passing messages between ships at sea and military units in combat - feeling the terrible hum of war all over the globe and yet utterly apart from it.  It was a frustration that stung him all his life. Had his life NOT gone this way, however, I would never have been born. Had he not had the unique childhood and youth that he had, I would not have had mine.

Child psychologists in America today tell us a stable home life is essential for children’s mental health, a house number that remains ever the same, routine in all things, standardized “consequences” and layers of security. They would wrap children in a comfort blanket of familiarity and boundaries and have parents follow neat algorithms for punishment and rewards and endless planned activities. I cannot imagine a childhood more different from my own and I am deeply grateful these ideas were not even close to what my Hamp or my mother Lenore followed.  They just loved me. They trusted my honesty and my abilities and let me know it every day. They listened. My father’s parenting was simply the passionate wish to share all that had come to hold beauty and meaning for him as soon as I could grasp it. We shared it together. Zorro became my very best friend and stayed that way all his life.