Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Quick Unedited Thought on New Years Eve

I passed a cemetery on the way home tonight. It’s where Jimmy Hendrix is buried and only a few blocks from my house. It was twilight, and in the fading light, the trees that lined the perimeter of Greenwood Memorial Cemetery mesmerized me. They were firs, those tall and stately trees that give Seattle the nickname, The Emerald City. But just before dark, they looked black, like shadowy sentinels, guarding the graves whose headstones were barely visible in the lawn behind.

 Jimmy was somewhere over there, resting under a marble dome supported by columns. I bet he would be appalled by the pomp. There is a rectangular slab of marble under that dome that bears his name, a place where those who remember him and make the trek to Renton, Washington, leave guitar picks, and carnations, and sometimes an empty beer bottle.

And I thought of Jimmy, and the fact that he was dead, and that today was the last day of the year. And I looked at the trees and thought of all of the dead in Greenwood Cemetery, and then of my friend whose father lay dying at this very moment, somewhere on the east coast. I remembered my own mother’s death, being with her as she died, and begging her to let go and stop breathing. It was difficult for her to give up and say goodbye.

I watched the trees as they passed by my car window. It was at that moment that I wondered if they were the living spirits of the dead. Perhaps when the soul is tired of living underground, it travels through the soil to the roots of the trees, where it rises up the trunk and up further to the branches and out to the leaves where it lives again. It’s a nice thought.

We spend too much money encasing the dead in coffins like mini Egyptian mausoleums, to preserve our bones and decaying flesh from the dirt and the worms, when all our souls crave is to be set free, maybe to find some tree roots and to live again. No one knows. But there is one thing for certain, all of us will find out on day.

I will go with the theory that one day, when the space creatures come to earth, and I am speaking of that imaginary day light years from now, and they open our coffins to peer inside in hopes to evaluate what our culture on earth was like, similar to the archeologists opening those Mayan, or Mycenaean tombs, they will ponder the silliest things. Were the remnants of fabric clinging to the bones, silk or wool? What was the significance of the plastic remains of breast implants, or why would a human have a titanium knee joint? And what about the jewelry? Why was a diamond or ruby rock prized and buried with the dead? They will put the jewelry, and anything else they can salvage, into space creature museums for alien lovers of interstellar history to stare at and wonder about the people of earth.

And for those who believe that there is no more to life than what they accumulated and horded and saved, then this is my guess of where all that stuff will go- to some special galactic exhibition of the Treasures of Earth.

And for those who believe that their soul will not die, that if released from the confines of their coffin, it will travel to the trees and stand guard in the night as a reminder of what will come to everyone, they will understand what I feel, that it is not at all an ending, but a beginning of something new. Life in another form- maybe not a tree, maybe not on this earth, but life renewed like the dawn of a new year, the transition of tonight, into tomorrow. Tomorrow is nearly here. Isn’t that why we celebrate?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Knowledge is Good"

The late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was a glorious time to be in college, and most students had no plans of ever leaving the safety of the university nest. In 1969, the Viet Nam War raged on nightly during the TV news hour. My older brother, who had been drafted after graduating from college, was somewhere near Dnang, just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was the turning point of the War.  He returned home to North Carolina the next year, the same year I entered Duke University. That was the year that the Selective Service System for the United States conducted the first draft lottery. Drinking and drugs were rampant across university campus’, and no one was sober when those first birthday numbers were pulled on December 1, 1969. The lottery winner earned immediate entrance into the war upon graduation. Everyone fled to the safety of the university and tried to stay there as long as possible.
As a woman, I was not part of the draft. I entered college with the intention of being a math major. In 1969, in an effort to produce critical thinkers, Duke University instituted a new core curriculum to insure that their graduates had a depth to their education that included a wide range of subjects- the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. This trend was the educational rage of the seventies, a continuum from “the second half of the twentieth century (when) it (the university) added the function of providing a haven for the arts.”
Since the 19th century, Harvard, the Duke University of the North, had forged the way in higher education, setting the precedent of what would be taught in all universities across America. The year that I entered as a freshman, Duke followed Harvard like an eager disciple, reinstituting into their curriculum requirements, foreign language, English composition classes, as well as those core curriculum courses.
Fortunately for me, during that first fall semester, after tracking a solid F+ in freshman Calculus (still one of the highest grades in the class), I had the good fortune of ending up in the hospital with mononucleosis, probably acquired at one of those lottery parties. I was allowed to drop calculus with no penalty. I immediately changed my major to religion and art and settled into a liberal arts dream education. I had no idea what I would do upon graduation. I wasn’t alone. During those war years, we just wanted to stay in college. I immersed myself into the philosophy, music, religion, and art of the middle ages, and floated through four years of educational bliss.
One advisor tore up my registration card. I should take a computer course, he advised. He demanded to know what I expected to do upon graduation. Do upon graduation? I was being educated. That was enough. But this professor, my advisor, was ahead of his time. There was a change coming in education.
In 1969, Duke eschewed any subject taught for the express purpose of attaining a job. That was the role of technical schools. Course work such as journalism, for example, was for the state university (read this with an effected northeastern blue blood accent).  Remember, at that time, computers were the size of buildings, and taking courses in this new area of study meant spending countless hours working on punch cards. No, that was not for me. I was philosophizing with Erasmus, walking in Maria de Medici’s shoes while Renaissance madrigals swirled through my brain. What would my work be? School, of course. I continued on to graduate school, knowing that, if I was not able to find a job as a museum director, I would teach. These were the Animal House years:
Jennings: Teaching is just a way to pay the bills until I finish my novel.
Boon: How long you been workin' on it?
Jennings: Four and a half years.
Pinto: It must be very good.
Jennings: It's a piece of shit. Would anyone like to smoke some pot? 

Unfortunately for me, I allowed myself to be rescued by marriage before landing that teaching job, or running that museum. During my married years, education changed. The Animal House/Faber College ideal for a Liberal Arts Education, as expressed in the film with the words chiseled on the base of Emil Faber’s statue: “Knowledge is Good,” had given way to studies that prepared students for high paying jobs. Business courses were where it was at, while the number of university students majoring in English and the Liberal Arts dwindled.
When my first son, the computer genius, told me that he had switched his major at Duke University from Computer Science to philosophy, I was concerned. “How will you earn a living?” I asked. (I could hear the flash back conversation with my advisor from twenty years before.) “ I will be a philosopher,” he said, “ All I will need is a pair of sandals and a robe.” He ended up on Wall Street and can purchase Gucci sandals whenever he pleases. He discusses philosophy at cocktail parties.
The highest paid graduate from Duke, the year I graduated in 1973, was the lone female engineer. She was ahead of her time. My next-door neighbor in Seattle, also ahead of her time, is one of the top female employees of Microsoft. She was a math major in college. And we all know the story of Melinda Ann French, the Duke graduate who moved to Seattle, worked at Microsoft, and became, Melinda Gates.
And here I am, not ahead of my time, but back at it, in graduate school, studying for an MFA, painting and writing, with desires to write and teach writing as part of the “elephant machine,” so that my students can write and teach writing themselves. And hopefully, my novel, unlike professor Dave Jennings from Faber University, won’t be “a piece of shit.” And, when all the cocktail parties are over, where I shine with the vast compendium of liberal arts facts that are crammed in my brain, I smile and know, after all, “Knowledge is good.” Wasn’t that the point?
Jennings: Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He's a little bit long-winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.
[Bell rings, students rise to leave]
Jennings: But that doesn't relieve you of your responsibility for this material. Now I'm waiting for reports from some of you... Listen, I'm not joking. This is my job!

 (Quotes are from the book: Elephant's Teach by David Myers, or from the film: "Animal House".

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Personal Mission to Burundi- Tula Holmes- January, 2012

Burundi is the heart-shaped nation, located in the heart of Africa. Torn by civil war since 1993, the world knows little of the genocide in Burundi where up to 210,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled the country. Now with HIV, AIDS and Malaria, it is ranked as one of the world's poorest countries, and in some reports, the poorest. The Batwa Pygmies have the shortest life expectancy on earth, just 27 years old. Amazingly, the youth are filled with hope- hope for a better life.
There are many orphans in Burundi. I describe it as a Country of Children. I will be traveling back to an orphanage in the mountains of Burundi, to a town called Gitega, where at the Homes of Hope Orphanage, 34 beautiful children live. Each home shelters 8 to10 children. They live as a family with a housemother, boys and girls together, from all three tribes- the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Batwa. These children are cared for, educated, and taught that they are the future of their country.
Each child’s story is heartbreaking, but they smile, and play, and love like all children. Last year, I visited the orphanage with a church from Charleston, S.C. We built a playground for the children. It was difficult for us to understand that this was the only playground in the entire country. We painted a mural of hope on the wall of their school, The Future Hope School. With the exception of advertising and political signs, it was the only example of monumental art that I saw.
In January, I return to gather the stories from Burundi. I am finishing my MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton in New York. I feel that it is my mission, through my words and my art, to spread the word about my beautiful friends who live in the heart of Africa.
I would never expect to visit my friends without bearing gifts. I will bring laptops, software, art supplies, but the thing they need the most is money. Any support that you can give will go directly for the benefit of the children.
The Homes of Hope Orphanage, The Future Hope School, and the neighboring clinic are supported and run by Burundi Youth For Christ, under the leadership of Freddy Tuyizere, as part of Youth for Christ International. (Youth for Christ International, begun in the 1940’s, had as it’s first chaplain, Billy Graham.)
The message I take to Burundi was told to me by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a Compass Rose Society dinner two years ago. “We don’t have to save the world. Our only mission in life is to take one step at a time, and with apologies to the Beetles, with a little help from our friends.” As these lovely children from the Homes of Hope Orphanage grow, we are their friends and here to help as we can, so that they will be able to take the steps to rebuild their beautiful country.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dining on Gold

That Christmas eve, I was prepared to stuff myself into transcendence with foie gras and chocolate. I had not expected to gorge on gold. Every course at Le Cinq, and there were too many to recall, was served with edible gold. In the Middle Ages, gold was thought to cure syphilis. By the end of the meal, I was syphilis free, as was my friend, who had flown to France to be with me.
We began with five fat oysters, each with a special topping, such as caviar or froth. But the most elegant oyster of all was blanketed in a leaf of gold. Then came a bowl filled with more fluffy froth, concealing scallops and God knows what else. On the surface of the soup, floated three golden pedals that mirrored the roses on the table.  And so it went, late into the night.
The price for this meal- just under $500 per person. It was my present to myself on the first Christmas that I was divorced and on my own.
After dinner, my friend and I decided to take the subway back to our apartment. We walked down the cement steps to the tunnels that run below Paris. A man in an orange vest yelled at us as we tried to explain that we had no spare change. He threw up his hands in disgust, walked out of the subway, and locked the entrance gate behind him. If we had been fluent in French, we would have realized that he was no beggar, and the subway was closed.
           We followed the urine smell down to the tracks where, late at night, churches bring soup to feed the hungry. The tunnels transform into dormitories for the homeless. My friend and I passed rows of sleeping people, until we came to an exit. As we walked back to our apartment, we could hear the bells of the great cathedrals ring out across the Seine. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


This time of year reminds me of wallpapering.  When my children were young, I nearly sliced off my knuckle with a box cutter in an attempt to spruce up my powder room, the night before Thanksgiving.  The paper was beautiful- a pastiche of birds in flight. At 2 AM, I hemorrhaged all over the walls and my lovely new birds. I clamped the bleeding with my good hand, splinted my finger with plastic spoons, wiped the blood from the rumpled panels, and pushed on. By 5 AM, the bathroom was perfect. My finger, of course, took six months to heal, and the scars still remain today.
            What does this have to do with publishing? Tenacity, I guess. The writer, like the injured wallpaper hanger, has to press on, against all odds. The published authors, who graciously write articles to reveal their secrets, and give us the skinny on getting our works published, say the same thing. The process of publishing an essay, a book, a poem, or a short story, no matter how beautifully written, is no slam dunk. And don’t expect to earn a living as a writer.
But I crave to see my words in print, so I pour over each of the articles, hoping to gleen any tidbit that will assist in breaking past the magazine or publishing house editor, and score with my manuscript. I read their advice carefully and highlight each important thought. When I look down at their articles, the black and white pages glow in florescent, highlighter yellow. These words must be pure gold, so I reread my notes and notice that what I have is a rather repetitious montage of minutia. Make sure your spelling errors are corrected. Don’t try to sound too cute in your cover letter. Make sure the pages of your manuscript are not coffee stained. Really? Don’t send in a manuscript with coffee stains sloshed across the top? This is the best you can do? Oh yes, learn to love the rejection slip. You will be receiving a lot of those.
I am a writer. I pride myself in rejection. The first piece I submitted was to The New Yorker magazine. I decided that if rejections were my destiny, I would start at the top. My reject from The New Yorker sits in the mouth of my Einstein memo holder, proudly displayed beside my golf trophy, my garden club blue ribbons, and the large painting of Wall Street that my attorneys forced my husband to return to me in our divorce settlement. These are the things for which I am most proud.
As difficult as it is to have a piece chosen for publication, the fact remains that most writers needs readers, and I am no different. I pine for readers like Edna St. Vincent Millay cried for lost lovers in her sonnets. So I created my own publishing company- The Smiley Face Publishing Company. Well not exactly, that name was taken, so I am officially- A bit wordy, but it’s cute, and it makes me, in the virtual world of the Internet, a publisher. I publish my own works.
My first published post was about Internet dating. I blogged about, a hip On Line dating site. I had forgotten to wear my magnifiers when completing my Nerve profile, and accidentally clicked the box, woman looking for woman. I didn’t get a date, but I did produce a funny piece that garnered me 26 followers. They became my new beloved readers. I also lured in a stranger from whom I will be supplied with abundant source material for years to come. Hurrah, for the Internet.
Another early post discussed my need for a personal assistant. I devised a job description in the form of an application and posted it. I am, after all, a publisher, and I needed a staff. I proceeded to apply for the job myself, and promptly got rejected. My publishing company has high standards. Who would know that years later, when offered a job as a personal assistant to Jules Feiffer, I would be fired before I began, just because of my Blog? With some fast talking, I explained to Mr. Feiffer that this was, after all, comedy writing. Didn’t he get it? He cautiously rehired me. I pause here to issue a word of warning from the publisher of the Publishing Company: Be careful what you publish on line. Your next job might not be in the employ of a comedy writer.
My Blog still boasts the huge following of 26 people. I am on line for anyone to see, and potentially, if Internet readers are bored, and haven’t been barraged by thousands of hours of daily On Line reading, they will pause for a poem, or an essay, or a short story that I have posted. Just knowing this possibility exists is enough for me.
I do not post On Line my best material; the plays, stories, or the novel starts, which I hope will one day find acceptance in good old-fashioned print. No, those little metaphorical birds fly from my study like Noah’s doves, and while I wait for their return with rejections in their beaks, I write, I hope, I send, and I paste reject slips on the wall like wallpaper. Then I repeat the pattern, over and over again. Why? Because I have to. I am a writer. It’s just what I do. And as I wait for that one bird to fly away and not return, I double check my spelling, reprint my manuscripts to remove the coffee stains, and keep on wallpapering.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Crinoid

In the light that filters down
below the surface,
I refuse to move
even one feathery arm.

I peer at you on the opposite ledge,
resting until dark-
you disguised as flames of orange,
and I, as a brilliant bush of gold.

Do I crave your flamboyant feathers?
Or, the fact that you,
like me, hide from those
who do not understand?

Clinging to other coral,
you wait for the night.
Then moving together on sticky legs,
we feed, like grazing animals,
side by side.

With my fern-like arms
I bring you close
until, in our passion,
we release our essence on the tide.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Simple Gift

As I step over the metal guardrail that protects the crawling cars that cross the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The hint of a path pulls me down toward a boulder that overlooks a ribbon of water. Although it is summer, the air is cold. Glaciers glaze the distant mountains. But here near this boulder, the hillside is thick with bright blue Cornflower, deep yellow Yarrow, and red Indian Paint Brush.  
I arrange my pallet with the colorful spectrum of the wilderness. Then I close my eyes, splay my fingers, and stretch my arms out as far as they will reach. I do this every time I paint. When I suck in the smell of the river, and hemlocks fill my lungs.
Upon my panel, I sketch the geometry of the landscape. Like a midwife, I pull my river across the scene, until; at last, it begins to flow on its own. Tree shapes emerge at the water’s edge. An island of grass appears where the river bends right. I know now that I am ready.
My brush licks my favorite color, spreading a Cerulean sky as easily as my knife smoothed butter across this morning’s bread. Then Cobalt collides into a canopy of Ultramarine.  Ultramarine, born from lapis lazuli, embraces the top of my painting.
 Oh, let the river flow across the middle ground. Let the mountains anchor the horizon. Let the flowers bloom where I stand in the foreground, and let the sky frame it all. There is no separation. There is only sky, and river, and mountain, and I, I am the creator of it all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Daughter’s Story

Shadows, like the ones that splatter a sidewalk in the late afternoon, trigger memories for me. I study them as I walk alone to the beach each day down Main Street in Southampton. Beneath the tall privet hedges that protect the estates from walkers, the shadows are warm. They pull you into their darkness. They make you feel younger. When I walk into the shadows, I am six or seven years old. Perhaps it is the height of the hedge that makes me feel dwarfed like a child. Perhaps it is because I have seen these shadows before.
I spent my summers with my grandparents in Lake City, Florida. I loved being there as a child. Like Southampton, the sidewalks were washed with sand and dappled with light. I would walk by myself to my summer friend’s house and play on her screened porch for hours. Walking alone as a child is exciting- an adult-like activity that makes you large. I would walk alone to the movie theater on Saturday mornings, purchase a ticket for myself, and settle in for a Buck Rogers film. I could pick up the only telephone in my grandparent’s home and call my grandfather at work without any assistance. The lone phone sat on the corner table in the front entrance hall. It had no buttons, no numbers, or even a dial. By picking up the receiver, the town operator would greet me with a bright, “Hello.” I would state, in my most adult voice, “I want to speak to Poppa Andy, please.”  And with no fuss, his voice would laugh from the other end of the line. Life was easy and fun, and I could not wait to step off the train in Jacksonville each summer, into the hefty hugs of Poppa Andy, and into a shower of kisses from my grandmother, Tutu, for whom I was named.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel, she longed for me to go back to Lake City and photograph the graves of her mother and father. I did. I went back to northern Florida to take pictures of my mother’s past, the last gift she had requested. I rented a car in Jacksonville and drove to Stetson University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, before fleeing Florida to marry my father. I snapped photos of the campus for her to see. It was late in the day when I drove into Lake City. The shadows stretched across the flat highway. When I asked for directions to the old town cemetery, my faded southern drawl felt as awkward as a Yankee accent.  I had forgotten that there is not much difference between being in northern Florida and being in southern Georgia. I had forgotten that I was in the Deep South.
I drove down the sandy road that was the entrance to the cemetery, where the gravestones listed and ancient live oaks pointed their arthritic fingers to the ground. Mossy sea hag hair dripped from the fingertips of the branches and cast long shadows over the graves. I remember that the air that day was still, so still. There was no breeze to relieve the humidity of a Florida summer’s afternoon. I tried to ignore the hot air that stalled in my throat.
A low fence bordered the family plot. I snapped a photograph. “Williamson.” To the left was Andrew. To the right was Tula. Tutu and Poppa Andy. I snapped another picture. I was sweating from the heat and the oppressive stillness. There, behind my grandparents, was Mable, my mother’s estranged sister. Another photograph. I had no idea that she had died, nor her daughter, my cousin Julie, who lay there as well in the sandy soil. Spanish moss hung from their marble markers. Family secrets lying in the open. Another photograph.
I stood in the black shadow of that oak and remembered a story my mother had told many years before. As far as she could recall, there had been only one lynching in that town. When she was a child, an Armenian man had hung like drying laundry in the square across from my grandfather’s restaurant. It had happened just after Tutu and Poppa Andy had arrived from Greece, just after they had opened their restaurant in Lake City. Perhaps that is why they never spoke Greek. Perhaps that is why they served pot roast and steaks to diners, instead of Souvlaki or Baklava. Perhaps this is why I know so little of my family’s past.
Amid the cemetery shadows, moss dripping like rain on the sand beneath the oak, I snapped one last photograph, a photograph of the tree, my gift to my mother. I drove my rental car back to Jacksonville and never returned to Lake City. I never will.
And as I walked through Southampton, I quickened my pace to reach the end of Main Street, where I turned to the right and followed the beach road to the ocean. A cool breeze blew the shadows away.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Triggering Town and Richard Hugo

If you turn left out of my housing development and head down the hill in the direction of the Puget Sound, drive under the freeway where the trucks and cars whiz toward Seattle to the north or the commercial airport to the south, in less than two miles, you will come to the famous Boeing Plant. It is so close that you don’t need a car. You could walk. You could stand by the tall chain link fence that guards the runways where strange spy planes land for repairs. You could see the enormous hangers where aircraft from around the globe are repainted, refurbished, and sent flying away. If you were the president, you could land there. If you were Richard Hugo, this is where you would have worked.
This is also where Hugo’s character, the Admiral, lived, in a makeshift home adjacent to the Boeing Plant, in what is now a field littered with plastic bags. For Hugo, the Admiral was a trigger, a muse for his imagination. When the Admiral screamed against the Boeing Corporation, Richard Hugo retold the story as poetry and raged in his poem against the injustices borne by society’s weakest. The poets and writers, who crouch over their computers, tap away on keys in an attempt to bear into life their thoughts. Triggered by something as simple as a derelict that lived within walking distance, the writer preserves the stories that others cannot tell.
Hugo was specific about the tools of his craft. He used a pencil, a sexy number two pencil, and a notebook lined in green to soothe his eyes. As teacher, he dissected poems for us, and demonstrated the need to eliminate words like like, the, and and. As storyteller, he shared his important triggers, such as the field in Italy, where as a young soldier he longed to be done with war.
This is all well and good, but what of the magic, Mr. Hugo? How did you get those words, those specifically chosen, beautiful words with their musical rhythms to appear on that green lined page? How does that birth process happen? Once the trigger begins to push its way out and onto the paper, what guarantees that it lives as a thing of beauty?  Can anyone learn this craft of creation? Is it a matter of DNA? Do you have to be born a mother of imagination; with one side of your brain more dominate than the other?  What makes us the ones who need to write it all down, to be the ones who “scream back at the fates”? You say that “we are all going into the dark” like the Admiral. Why then don’t we go there quietly?
Did you know, Mr. Hugo, that I made a stop on a journey, just to raise a beer to you? Traveling through the west, I detoured onto Montana Highway 200, in order to spend the afternoon at the Dixon Bar. You made that bar famous with your poem. It is the “Only Bar in Dixon,”[1] and I wanted to drink with you there. I became friends with Joanne, the bartender, and gave her my glasses so that something of me would be left behind. I listened to her boyfriend, Bud, the owner, tell the stories of his family, his horse, life in that dying town, and of course, you. This was your trigger, Mr. Hugo. As I drank a cold beer in that dark empty bar by the road, I laughed with your two friends at how you put this place on the map for people like me. We lifted our cans to you before swigging down our toasts. Poets and Hells Angels now seek out this place where magic occurred in your life, where the trigger landed in your brain, and you were pulled to create and give form to thoughts that were missed by others. And I was there with you, Mr. Hugo.
You couldn’t exactly explain to me how it happened. You couldn’t specifically tell me how to take that trigger and let it work its magic. But it did. Somehow, it seized hold of a portion of my brain and cried to be born at the very counter where, long before I arrived, you sat and mused about life in a forgotten town. It crept into my body without my knowing, while I was drinking to you.
I wrote a play about your bar. Mine was a parody, a laugh at a would-be-poet who was looking for inspiration in one of the most famous triggering towns. One day my play will be a musical romp with dancing Hells Angels and singing poets. I will move the Rock Creek Testicle Festival to Dixon, and could you think of a better trigger for a musical comedy? How odd that you, who cared about the fates and how they brutalize the poorest among us, inspired me to write a silly play about Hells Angels, testicles, and poets. But this was how the trigger laid hostage to my brain, took control, and without my ability to say no, formed itself into its own creation.
Thank you, Mr. Hugo. Thank you for drinking in Dixon and taking me along for the ride. Here are my toasts to you- May we all scream against the fates, in whatever form our triggers take, and May we raise our glass to you, and to the Admiral, before we leave to disappear into the dark.

[1] Hugo, Richard. “The Only Bar in Dixon.” 4 September 2011.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Faith and Tolerance

According to the local legend in central Java, if you walk around each level of the massive Buddhist shrine of Borobudur, reading the relief panels that form the walls and depict in stone the Buddha’s own journey, and if you climb the staircases to the top, where 72 bell-shaped stupas crown the last three terraces, and if, after squeezing your arm through the diamond shaped holes in one of the stupas, you are able to touch a Buddha sculpture contained within, and if you have faith, then bingo, enlightenment will descend upon you like a lightning bolt. Enlightenment is quite the payoff for a simple hike in the Indonesian sun, a bit of time spent studying stone carvings, and a final stretch of an arm through a hole to finger a Buddha. I am a liberal gal, but I am not convinced that achieving complete peace and understanding could be that easy, even at the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, otherwise everyone on earth would have attained it.
Borobudur is, in fact, a mountainous mandala that rises like a drippy sandcastle between two volcanoes, composed of nine platforms of ascending size- a kind of nine-step program to transcendence and salvation. Two and a half million pilgrims flock there each year on their spiritual journey. I am not a Buddhist, but what the heck, enlightenment couldn’t hurt my chances for heaven. I thought I would give it a try. Like an impressive resume item, it might look good when trying to pass through those Pearly Gates, something to make Jerry Falwell jealous. Although my arms are short, I could imagine my hands successfully caressing a Buddha at the top of the shrine and the bolt of all knowing grace zapping my head.
I happen to be a person of faith and believe in possibility. I have faith that tomorrow will be a better day. I have faith that the problems in my life will sort themselves out, and like many people, this is what keeps me going with a smile on my face. And, whatever faith, or lack of faith, floats your boat, well, that’s just fine by me. However, like most tolerant liberals, don’t hound me about your individual beliefs. It’s your spiritual business, not mine, and I am happy for you.
Millions of Buddhists have spent countless hours, countless years, and countless life times, struggling to become enlightened beings, to be one with the universe, and to live in a state of nirvana. No more rebirths. No more back to earth after one’s death, trying to figure it all out again, and again, and again. Whew. It’s a complex system of thought, and one that is hard to wrap your mind around. There are 376 million Buddhists attempting to attain enlightenment at this very moment.
I have tried meditating at a Buddhist Zendo. It was not easy. Zen Buddhists spend hours in total silence, folded in a lotus position, as they contemplate a nonsensical Koan, or question that has no rational answer, waiting for the electricity of enlightenment to bound down upon them. If they happen to be caught napping on their cushions, they are enlightened instead with a bash to the head by the Zen master’s stick. I love to talk. It was especially difficult to keep my mouth shut and my mind focused on meditating. Since I was a guest to the Zendo, I felt sure they wouldn’t hit me, but just incase, I tried to concentrate and keep still. As I sat in my lotus position, I felt the needle pricks of sleeping muscles. I had been instructed to not so much as twitch a toe. I tried to transcend the pain with the Lamaze breathing techniques that I had learned in preparation for childbirth, and then I remembered that when my children were born, the muscle contractions had me begging for heavy sedation.  My mind wandered from meditation to singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to myself in order to pass the time. When it was all over, I was limping like a geriatric patient. I longed for a wheel chair to roll me home, and for someone to dump me into a hot tub of Epsom Salts. I have known for a long while that enlightenment for me would be a difficult undertaking.
It started as joke, on that June day, on the island of Java. I was bragging to anyone who would listen that I would be enlightened by noon. I had faith that that kidding around about faith could lead to some type of personal revelation regarding truth. I was wrapped in a sarong that was identical to the black and white print bedspread from India that I used in my college dorm room. It was a gift from the hotel and a requirement for entering a Buddhist temple, monastery, or shrine. Even though I looked like a fat sausage with elephants parading across my thighs, I was ready to tackle the stairs of Borobudur.
I began my climb. It was ninety degrees. On Level 3, I was hot and sweating. Perhaps an enlightened being radiates heat. The steep irregular stone stairways with crowds of tourists clamoring upward were exhausting. On Level 5, I was tired. Perhaps an enlightened state is one of exhaustion. Finally I reached Level 6. What? Barricades blocked the last stairway? The last levels were off limits because of an earthquake? No touching a Buddha? No lightening bolt? Enlightenment was closed for renovation? I was trapped in a Swedish film where truth is elusive, and a state of grace is never attained. I headed straight down the stone stairs and back to the hotel to sulk over an unenlightened lunch.
That is when I spotted him, sitting there at the large round table in his flowing orange robe, with his entourage doting on him like golden retrievers. I was impressed with his outfit. The heavy silk hung in waves that lapped around his legs and chest. I smiled and apologized for the interruption, and asked for his photograph. He was as close to holy as I would get to that day.  I was told that he was a monk from Thailand. He had come to Borobudur on a pilgrimage. He sat Buddha-like on the dining room chair and forced a smile for me. I explained to him my frustration at being barred from touching one of the illusive Buddhas at the top of the shrine, and therefore barred from enlightenment.  He nodded once, like someone who had no idea what I was talking about. I then posed the question: If you touch a monk, is it the same thing as touching a Buddha? I wanted clarification about his faith.
That’s when I did the unthinkable. I touched him. With the impeccable timing of a batta bing, when my question was finished and the word Buddha had leapt from my lips, I grabbed his leg just above the kneecap. He reacted like I had crammed a live electrical cord in his mouth, or like a python had just crawled up his legs beneath that orange robe. He recoiled as shock waves radiated across the miles of silk that enveloped his body. His companions gasped audibly. What? What? I asked. You can’t do that, they cried! Why? What have I done? I noticed that the poor man had practically climbed up upon his seat, knees to his chest with a look of fright plastered on his previously stoic face. You can’t touch a monk, they chimed in unison like a Greek chorus. Why not? I asked. He’s chaste. He’s never touched a woman! Oh shit, I said. I didn’t know. There isn’t a sign that says you can’t touch a monk! Everyone stared as if Satan was speaking. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you are going to have to get sterilized, or start at level one again? I was desperately trying to break the tension, but no one laughed.
What kind of faith would allow you to get bent out of shape if someone touched your robe? I hadn’t touched his skin. There was no intimacy in our brief contact.  I could have grabbed his wrist, or hand, or interlaced my fingers with his, a much more intimate act. Instead, I grabbed his robe and the thigh beneath with the impersonal confidence of a corporate handshake. Later, my Thai girlfriend explained to me that women in Thailand move to the opposite side of the street when a monk walks by, in order to prevent an accidental touching.  Apparently, everyone but me knows that you don’t touch a monk. What did he expect, traveling to a foreign country, going out in public where, god forbid, women might be found? He should have stayed in his monastery, and I know he was thinking the same thing. Later, when I saw him in the hallway of the hotel, he pressed himself against the walls to give me the widest birth, terror tight across his face. In his mind, I was Satan, hounding him again. His hands spayed out like the crucified Christ, rather, a crucified Buddha, as he held his breath, and I passed. This was ridiculous. When it comes to tolerance and faith, this is where the line must be drawn. Absurdity must not be tolerated. So I touched his orange robe. I didn’t blow up his Zendo. I didn’t defile his monastery. For him think of me as Satan was completely absurd.
I am not arguing that Faith in itself is dangerous. I have seen the benefits of faith, and the mountains it can move. In the developing countries, schools are built, water systems are installed, and health care systems established by people with faith. In Africa, I have watched the faithful in Burundi, one of the poorest countries of the world, work miracles, feeding, educating, and loving the people who struggle through daily life. Yes, faith can move mountains.  However, when the details of faith become absurd, and such absurdity is tolerated, it becomes as dangerous as fondling a lit stick of dynamite, or possibly as dangerous as sticking something explosive in your underpants when boarding an airliner.
Six months before my trip to Borobudur, I had experienced another intolerably absurd religious situation, again in Indonesia. I was living there for a short while to determine if I could move to the Island of Bali, to be one of the expats that reside in harmony with nature and the local Hindu culture. I had rented a Balinese-styled villa for quite a lot of money in hopes that friends would join me on my exotic adventure. No one came. I was alone, except for the rats.
A Balinese home means that there are no walls, and therefore no barriers to the outdoors. Man, or in this case, woman, lives in happy balance with any island animal that chooses to wander in from garden, including the deadly green viper that hung from my mirror, the rubbery toads that sat laughing at night on my toilet seat, and the bats that swooped down from the lamppost outside my door. Nestled beside a huge lotus pond, the living room of my villa was a freeway for super-sized vermin, and I do not exaggerate.
The rats were as large as house cats. They were dark furry brown and had little interest in me, spending their days scurrying from garden to pond via my living room. But they knew I hated them. Occasionally, they would pause, tilt their heads toward me and sneer, which hinted that yes, they would be back in the darkness of night, yes, to torture me. Despite this, I put on a brave front. I would sit on my sofa during the day and say in a clam voice, Shoo Rat. But the night was different. In the night, I was afraid. My faith that tomorrow would be a better day had dissolved into fear. I wasn’t sure that I would live to see a tomorrow. Rats might eat me before the morning ever arrived. At night, as a sign of my desperation, I resorted to prayer. I prayed fervently for salvation. While I listened to the rats jump, and dance, and cavort, and have sex, in the ceiling above my head, I cowered under the mosquito-netting, calling upon God to make sure they didn’t fall through the dry wall and land in my bed. Upon discovering that I had lived through the darkness, my faith returned in the morning. I had slept through the night, thanks to God’s help, and my sleeping pills.
My tolerance for a culture, whose tolerance of animals would put PETA to shame, ended the day I saw two especially large rats with their fat pink tails sitting on my kitchen countertop. Now I have studied the Middle Ages. I know all about the plague. One third of the population of Europe died because of it. When I saw those enormous disease-transmitting rodents, rubbing their asses across the counter where my breakfast was prepared, I freaked out. My calm, Shoo Rat, morphed into a loud, Jesus. I had called upon the lord again. My faith in logic, told me that I would fall from Bubonic Plague, and it would be soon, if I did not purge my kitchen from those devil creatures. I told Ketut, the Hindu housekeeper, in no uncertain terms, that I would be moving out if something weren’t done immediately.
The Indonesian people on Bali are some of the loveliest, most caring, happy individuals one could meet. It’s all about karma. Their faith in knowing that a good life now will guarantee a better one the next time around, keeps them happy. At that moment, I had made Ketut unhappy, because I was unhappy, thus placing her in an un-Balinese state of mind. She disappeared up the rock path that lead from my villa past the cinnamon tree to the road, and returned a while later with a large flat basket on her head. She placed the basket on the ground and began removing banana leaves that had been folded into palm-sized trays, each of which held colorful flowers and a few tablespoons of fresh, fragrant rice. They were placed on the outside steps to the kitchen, on the counter and table, on the wall around the lotus pond, and on the floor of the living room. These were offerings to appease the evil spirits, offerings to keep the rats away.
Offerings? Hell, they were palm placemats holding rat chow. I wanted to know, where was the rat poison? Where were the glue strips? Where was the dynamite? Ok, dynamite might have been extreme, but I was done with the rats. I decided that I could not live in a place where religious absurdity put me at risk for the plague. Upon reflection, I did change my mind. I realized that I could live in lovely Bali with a pellet gun, screening, and a container ship full of rat poison.
That’s when the lightning bolt struck me. What had happened to my let live philosophy? Where was my tolerant and liberal self? My personal convictions had dissolved into judgmental intolerance. I knew that faith, practiced to rigid and intolerant extremes, was as perilous like bombs in sneakers, or dynamite strapped to a little child’s chest, the stuff that fuels wars. It had never occurred to me that my passing judgment on a Buddhist monk’s reaction to my touch, or a Hindu woman’s world view of rats, was a level or two, or a staircase or two, away from that same explosively dangerous intolerance.
I have thought about the day that Ketut made offerings to the gods on my behalf, to keep me safe, and more importantly, to keep me happy, and in harmony with the world around me, which included the rats. I had forgotten an essential aspect of my being, that I am a tolerant person. I had joked about the faith of others. Ketut had her methods to live out her faith. I had mine. There was no reason that we could not both coexist with each other, as well as rodents.
Now when I visit a Hindu culture, I step over the scented offerings of incense, rice, and flowers that sprinkle the sidewalks like New Years confetti, showing my respect for the local religious practices.  When I encounter a Buddhist monk, who walks in prayer down a street or through an airport, I show respect for a holy man who has spent his life in meditation, by stepping aside to let him pass. And recently, when I visited the third largest mosque in the world in Jakarta, I placed a silk Kimono over my clothing in order to cover my legs and arms, and I watched with respect as women, covered from head to toe in silk berkas, worshiped on the enormous prayer floor.
Man has searched for meaning in life from the time his brain evolved to allow for self-awareness. He has looked for the other more, through his religion, poetry, and fiction, pondering what lies beyond his death, if anything. If intolerance to each other’s faith is as scary as holding a stick of lit dynamite in our hands, then I will not hold on to dynamite.
One Fourth of July on an unregulated beach in Washington State, my son was handed a M80 that I knew had the power to blow up Mount Rushmore. Prior to this particular national celebration, my children had handled only sparklers. I was afraid that anything more powerful, for fear that it would blast off their fingers. That day on the beach resembled a scene from the movie, Apocalypse Now, as mortars of illegal fireworks rained down upon our heads. When my son held out that quarter stick of explosives in his palm, I said, Get rid of it. His father said, I’ll light it. He lit the green fuse. Throw it in the ocean, I yelled. My son tossed the mini dynamite into the waves from which, after a few moments, a large mushroom cloud of water rose like a reminder of Nagasaki. Holy shit, we all said in unison.
While I watched the water, horrific memories flooded over me from the 1950’s, where bomb shelters and mushroom clouds were the stuff of an elementary school child’s consciousness. I could hear the Saturday sirens scream over the morning cartoon programs, an exercise for when those warning sounds would be needed. Schwinn bicycles with playing cards clipped to the spokes with clothes pins, Ginny Dolls, The Howdy Doody Show, mouse ears, and ducking for cover under school desks when the sirens blasted, these were all part of my memories, wrapped together with that mushroom cloud like imaginary palm leaf offerings to the past.
A mushroom cloud is a terrible, terrible image. If faith, and intolerance, and mushroom clouds can be thought of together, then we need to remind ourselves to be cautious, and to never, ever, light the fuse.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Coach K Receives his Open Water Certification

Coach K received his Open Water Dive Certification from Dive Master Samuel Samiaji in a ceremony held in Jakarta, Indonesia. Because Coach K was packing for the long journey home, the award was accepted in his honor by Blogger, Tula Holmes.
Wow! 32 meters below the surface! Despite the fact that you lost your head, that's a record to be proud of! Did you lose your head due to nitrogen narcosis? As for touching too much coral- that's a no-no coach, even if you were narced! But as the certificate read, it was a brave journey for a guy who scuba dives in a suit and tie, with no regulator or air!
Coach K was humbled by his award. He bobbled that it was as exciting for him to earn his Open Water Certification as it was to win a National Championship. The Coach is happily on his way to Advanced Certification and many more dives in Indonesia.Thank you to the dive team for braving the HIDEOUS Jakarta traffic to attend Coach K's award ceremony. And thank you to Coach K; for accompanying me to Indonesia, for being my companion to the bustling city of Jakarta, to the incredible Bunaken Marine Park, to the Island Paradise of Bali, and to the magnificent shrine of Borobudur. It was a wonderful trip. You brought many laughs and much pleasure to the people you met along the way. You have left behind many new Blue Devil fans who are waiting for your return. And as for me, I will travel the world with you anytime! Just bobble your head when you are ready to fly! Tula - Blue Devil Class of 1973

Coach K Visits Amanjiwo in Style!

The staff at the Amanjiwo in central Java welcomed Duke's famous basketball coach to their oh so fancy hotel!
Coach K insisted on beginning our feast with champagne. Oh Coach! how you do turn a girl's head!Wong and the Coach had a bit of a discussion about Wong's traditional Indonesian dinner. The waiter had to pray in the background to prevent a ruckus! Wong, you may have been in the Special Forces, but the Coach has beaten all opponents in the past. Watch out!
After dinner, the Coach was ready to hop into one of Amanjiwo's beautiful outdoor baths!
Coach K loved the Aman hospitality! I had to leave him at Amanjiwo for the night! Nighty night dear coach!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coach K Visits Mount Merapi in Central Java, Indonesia

Mount Merapi in central Java erupted at the end of November in 2010. 273 people died and over 300,000 were displaced. The Coach was concerned for the people of Java and wanted to see the damage. He was willing to hike through the ash to talk with the villagers. Thank you Coach for making everyone aware of what happened seven months ago on the slopes of this volcano.

It was November 30, 2010 when Mount Merapi, the Mountain of Fire, showed its ugly side. Mount Merapi is the the most active volcano in Indonesia and has erupted regularly since 1548.

Wong, the Coach and I visited the location where Mbah Maridjan, the spiritual guardian or gatekeeper of the mountain, died. The Coach posed on the ambulance that had gone to rescue Maridjan. All were incinerated in the volcanic blast. We remembered the spirits of the people who had died on this spot.

It has been seven months since the blast. The rebuilding of the local villages is progressing slowly. The Coach greeted a worker from the only house we saw under construction. Most of the villagers work under tarps which line the ash covered paths that were once the roads to their homes.

The Coach was quiet during his visit to this place of destruction. The people he met along his way were grateful that he had come to see what had happened to them, so that he could, in turn, tell you. We some times need "a little help from our friends." Thank Coach for hiking up to Merapi.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Coach K Learns About a Princess

After hiking to the top of Borobudur, the Coach hired a car to see Cardi Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. The temple complex contained 240 temples which were destroyed by earthquakes. Like solving a massive puzzle, 18 of them have been restored by workers and archaeologists.
Tula climbed around the temples looking for a spot where Coach K could sit and contemplate the universe.
After charming the Macaques in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali, the Coach settled into a nich with the Tree of Life and a couple of monkeys.

The legend goes that the father of a beautiful princess was killed in battle by a bad dude. He then decided that he wanted the princess for his bride. Grabby, huh? She was afraid to refuse his proposal. She told him that she would marry him, only if he could build 1000 temples in one night. He gathered his minion workers to build the temples before the dawn. Fearing that this creep would accomplish her seemingly impossible task, the princess built a large fire. Now this was a huge fire. The evil workers mistook it for the rising sun. Evil workers are not always bright. They quit work, which as it turned out, was tantamount to cutting out of a job early. They only completed 999 temples. The princess was delighted, feeling that she was free. Unfortunately, not all fairy tales have positive conclusions. The bad dude was furious when he discovered that he had been tricked. This guy was a real bully and used to getting his own way. He turned the princess into a statue. She lives in Cardi Prambanan today, at least the statue of her is in one of the temples there. Unfortunately, the Coach couldn't visit her statue, as her temple was closed because of the earthquake damage from the eruption of Mount Merapi last November. Coach, you will just have to come back to visit the princess.
Coach K really wanted to help piece the remaining temples back together. Coach, you are one of the good guys!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Coach K Goes to Borobudur to Seek Enlightenment

Coach K was eager to walk the nine levels of the Buddhist shrine of Borobudur to achieve enlightenment. Borobudur was built in the 8th century and is the number one tourist spot in Indonesia. It is a holy pilgrimage destination for Buddhists. The Coach donned his sarong and began the trek upward.The Coach walked the two miles of corridors and stairways, contemplating the 2,600 relief panels.The Coach captivated the groups of children he met along the way as he led Wong and me up, climbing closer and closer to the top three levels of the Buddhist cosmology.
At the top of Borobudur are 72 Buddha statues that are seated inside of stupa that look like large, stone bells. If your arm is long enough to reach inside and rub the Buddha, you can achieve enlightenment. Unfortunately, the top three levels were closed due to the earthquake damage after the eruption of Mount Merapi last November. That did not stop Coach K. He did not need to rub the Buddha. He found his enlightenment by leading us to the top. He promises to lead me to my enlightenment when we hike Borobudur again. What a day Coach! You made it!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Coach K Leaves Bali

Coach K celebrated his last night in Bali with dinner and drinks at Cafe Havana. Wouldn't you know that after slamming back a frozen martini, the Coach grabbed the mike from Karma and belted out some Johnny Cash tunes! He had them dancing on top of the tables. Hey Coach, they will remember you for quite a while in Ubud. You are leaving behind a slew of Blue Devil fans!