The title of this post is a variation on Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” which my mother gave me to read as an adolescent. It was a touchstone of my youth, and I recently re-read it and reflected on the similarities and contrasts between his quest for a synthesis of art, life and history and my own.
Like Jung, I’ve been both inspired by and obsessed with dreams and memories, which since the late 19th century in our culture have been largely the subject matter of psychology and psychoanalysis. And, whereas I’ve always treasured my memories and dreams, both good and bad, as raw material for my art, I’ve also become aware that they’re much more problematic for some of my friends.
Art and artists come in many forms. Many people hold fast to the idea of pretty pictures for the wall, like you see in cafes and bistros. My mother, channeling my grandma, sometimes wonders why I don’t paint horses running on flowering hillsides. Some artists are overtly political; others think of themselves as “shamans” and make visionary work. In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies, the shaman or medicine man or woman was a misfit outsider living on the fringes of the community, a troubled soul the community turned to when beset by traumatic mysteries, someone who had little to do with routine sustenance – definitely not someone who made pretty pictures.
My own large, evolving community of artist friends has proved to be seriously dysfunctional. Many of them have been lost to me, some from suicide, some from a breakdown in health or fitness that they never learned to value and maintain, many from alcoholism or drug addiction as they struggled to self-medicate the conditions of their emotional or social dysfunctions, the inner flame that was also an inner demon. How I loved them and how I miss them!
Others have been lost to me when, rather than facing their demons in their work, they tried to tame them by joining cults or “recovery” programs which taught them to “photoshop” their memories and abandon everything which might remind them of their past, including old friends. Years ago, when “recovered memory” was a trendy topic in the new-age self-help community, I had a couple of artist friends who claimed to uncover lost memories of childhood abuse, which then became a defining element of their new personas.
Some friends became exquisitely brittle, so hyper-sensitive that a single conversation, or a single taboo word, could cut them off from me forever as they struggled to defend their precarious emotional balance. And I’ll admit that my own sensitivity, which, as an expressive artist, I treasure, can be a liability as I over-react to perceived threats and criticism.
Another troubled artist friend tried on and cast off new solutions and relationships like suits of clothes, rejecting and abandoning whole episodes of his past, including most of his identity as an artist.
When I speak of my dreams with peers in my own age group, I often encounter sarcasm, cynicism, or resignation. So many of us have been beaten down by stress, life’s constraints and setbacks, declining health and fitness – I know because it happened to me! I was beaten down by living in California, a place where I could never escape the affluence of others, my own relative poverty, the peer pressure to consume, the feeling that I was continually falling behind in the race of life, and the real, absolute limitations on what I could do in a place where health and sustenance – not to mention the arts – had become luxuries of the rich.
On several occasions, and at the prompting of artist friends, I had tried professional therapy or counseling, but I could never find – or perhaps afford – a professional who even remotely understood my issues and feelings. The last couple of counselors I tried concluded that my issues – situational depression, anxiety, loneliness – were minor and didn’t really justify treatment. Lucky me!
It was only when I moved to a sparsely populated place with a depressed economy that I was able to recover my memories, my dreams, and my art – and to gradually recover my health and fitness, after all those years of abuse in the rat race.
The loneliness is a different story. I still miss those artist friends who are lost to me, and I struggle to find kindred spirits, artists in good health despite their outsider status, who embrace the darkness as well as the light, who honor and learn from their memories while chasing their dreams.
Our hosts, the representatives of this biotech firm, were about to demonstrate the results of their breakthrough program in human cloning. Though most of the audience were young technology workers, strangers to me, three people I knew were present: a web engineer colleague and two old friends from the arts. The company had cloned the engineer and one of the artists, whose specialty was performance art.
The crowd hushed as the company brought out the engineer clone. He gave a confident, flawless exhibition of engineering expertise, to unanimous applause.
Then they brought out the clone of the performance artist. Although he looked exactly like my old friend, he shuffled out shyly, fumbling with sheets of note paper, looking down at the floor and mumbling incoherently.
A company rep came over, put his arm around the clone, and gently ushered him out of the spotlight, all the while smiling and explaining that the process had not been perfected, but they were committed to transparency and would continue to share their failures as well as their successes. Again, unanimous applause, even from my friend the performance artist, who seemed untroubled by his failed clone.
What followed was a social mixer in the company’s spotless lobby, absent the clones. The young technology workers sank into long white leather sofas, my older friends in the midst of them, gravitating toward their youthful energy and enthusiasm, seeming to share their uncritical embrace of the new technology as they raved about the potential of what they had seen today. Repelled and alienated, I walked outside, into the sterile lanes of the corporate office park, where perfectly flat, perfectly trimmed lawns of genetically modified grass separated the minimalist white towers of the cloning company – white, a symbol of purity.
I wondered, what was to become of the failed clones?
After a few weeks of intensive studio work, finishing a new album, I badly needed a change of scenery, and for me, since I moved to New Mexico, that means a trip to the canyons and mountains of southeast Utah. It’s a long day’s drive from here, so to make it worth the drive I need to set aside the better part of a week.
In between me and my destination lies the humongous Navajo Reservation. It takes four hours to drive across it from south to north, and I don’t like to make stops there, because lodging is overpriced and dining is not healthy. In fact, there is no reasonable lodging or healthy dining anywhere on the southeast Utah itinerary. In most towns there’s not even an actual grocery, just a convenience store. Thus, you need to shop comprehensively in advance, and this time I didn’t. So I ended up eating lunchmeat sandwiches for five days.
I left late on Thanksgiving Day and stayed at the motel in Chambers, AZ that night, a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere with foul petrochemical-smelling wellwater, but a decent room and a good night’s sleep. I was stoked to be on my way. I woke up to clear skies and freezing temperatures and headed north across the Rez. It’s a beautiful drive over an open landscape more than a mile high, with long views, gradually changing from rolling juniper-dotted grasslands to the red sandstone basins and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, passing big fancy Navajo schools and chapter houses along the way.
I had no specific destination in mind, but was hoping to find a campsite which could serve as a base for hiking the next day. I had a vague idea of exploring ruins or “cliff dwellings,” but had earlier ruled out the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, because it was too close to the town Cortez and was likely to have more visitors on a holiday weekend. I reached Bluff, the tiny settlement on the San Juan River, in early afternoon and took a closer look at my map. I noticed for the first time that the old Mormon Trail, a county-maintained dirt road otherwise known as the Snow Flat Road, traverses Cedar Canyon from central route 261 all the way to 191 just west of Bluff. And according to the map, the Mormon Trail passes near several canyons which were not named on the map, but which might well harbor ruins. I had read online accounts of the spectacular Moon House ruin in McCloyd Canyon, which was supposed to be accessible from this road, but McCloyd was not shown on any map, so I figured I would just make a guess and try one. But first, I had to have a disgusting, completely nutrition-free Navajo taco at the only open cafe in Bluff.
The southeast end of the Trail turned out to be red powder sand, deep in places so that I was concerned about getting stuck, and deflated my tires to 16 psi – an old trick I learned from fellow desert rats decades ago. I passed a couple of late-model SUVs coming out and the drivers looked like their nerves were shot, but I kept going up the gradual slope until I reached a large campsite just below the mesa top, on the edge of a bluff looking north to the Abajo Mountains and the mouths of the major eastern canyons draining Cedar Mesa. The uplands were shimmering with the gold of Indian ricegrass in vast rolling fields. The sun was going down, lighting the crest of Comb Ridge a brilliant orange, but as I set up camp, a couple more vehicles passed me heading down – a jeep and an old pickup truck, which crawled past in full dark more than an hour after sunset. I wouldn’t have thought this was such a popular road to drive at night.
At that point, the waxing half moon was high in the east and the temperature was dropping toward freezing. There was some juniper firewood lying around that needed breaking up, but I wasn’t hungry after that taco, and I decided to just jump in the sack. Snug in my old custom-made down bag, I watched falling stars for hours and listened to the truck popping and creaking as it adjusted to the cold.
In the morning I scanned the terrain between me and the mouth of the nearest canyon to the north. A lot of slickrock ridges but also a lot of sediment, all covered with cryptobiotic formations that I didn’t want to walk on. I loaded my pack, including my heavy laptop which I didn’t want to risk leaving in the truck, and started to follow one of the sandstone ledges that curved toward the canyon mouth. As the ledge came around to the east, I dropped into a gully and found old footprints from a previous hiker with the same idea. I followed that gully until it also veered east and I thought I should cut north toward the canyon. I picked my way over a low ridge, threading my way between large areas of knobby black cryptogam by walking in narrow drainage paths and game trails, lowering myself down white sandstone ledges, and finally into the canyon.
Locals might ask why I go to Utah when we have canyons and cliff dwellings nearby in southwest New Mexico. In fact most people I’ve talked to think I’m crazy, they like our local landscape better. But for me it’s a rock thing. I didn’t move to Grant County for the landscape – I actually prefer bare rock, sandstone and granite, cliffs and pinnacles, over the forested hills and crumbly volcanic rock of my home.
This turned out to be a good hiking canyon, narrow with a mostly hard mud, slickrock or gravel streambed for easy walking, with several seeps and pools and a short stream at the upper end. All the water was surrounded by thick white mineral deposits, so I didn’t sample it. Before walking very far, I spotted a small complex of ruins very high on the southern cliff, and figured I would explore the rest of the canyon before returning to climb up. The climb involved scrambling up some big ledges to a point where people had built a rock ladder braced with a small tree trunk to surmount the third ledge below the ruins. I carefully tried it out and found good hand holds above, so I went on up. But the next ledge turned out to be a problem. Previous visitors had built a cairn about knee high below the upper ledge to stand on. It was wobbly, so I rebuilt it with larger stones, of which there weren’t many on the narrow ledge I was currently on, a ledge with a rounded shoulder and a 30 foot dropoff if you should happen to lose your footing. But when I stepped up on the rock pile and felt the ledge above, there were no good hand holds. There was a low, flat hold so I could have climbed up using a manteling move, bringing a foot up level with my hand, and smearing up the rest of the ledge from there, but to reverse the move on the way down would’ve been way too scary with no backup. And with my bad hip, I had only one leg that would even bend that way. So I stood around being frustrated for a while, but enjoying the view, and finally made my way back down and back across the rugged, broken landscape toward camp, where I made a hot meal of canned beans and lunchmeat and spent another freezing night watching falling stars from my snug bag.
The next day, I continued up the Mormon Trail, and immediately encountered the really bad part of the road. I’d spent many hours on bad roads over broken slickrock in other parts of southeast Utah, but nothing like this. Fortunately I’d had to do a lot of impromptu road building on my own land in the Mojave Desert, so instead of just going “shit, I can’t drive this in my little low-clearance 2WD truck” my attitude was here’s a problem, let’s fix it. Every time the road started looking like the Grand Canyon, I got out, began piling up rocks and scouted a line.
The adrenaline was good for me, and the miles passed and I reached 261, where my map showed access to another canyon with ruins. But here, when I left the paved road everything changed. I encountered a maze of seemingly new dirt roads that weren’t on the map, and Cedar Mesa is called that because it’s covered with junipers which block your line of sight in every direction. I lost an hour or so following roads that went nowhere, and finally stopped for another cold lunch at a low place that seemed to match the drainage leading to the head of the canyon I wanted to reach.
But after more than a mile of gradually descending the gully, I realized it couldn’t be right, and turned back. I was filthy and didn’t want to spend another night camping in freezing weather, so after reviewing my options, I headed for Blanding, my least favorite town in Utah, but one with cheap motels and a supermarket. On the way across the upper end of the mesa, I spotted some neat-looking canyons just south of route 95 and decided to check them out on the map for the next day of hiking.
Blanding received its name from a bribe. A rich guy back east offered to stock a library in the town if it would rename itself in honor of his wife’s family. The older residential sector resembles that of a midwestern small town, but without a historic town center it feels more like a wide spot in the road, and there seems to be no culture whatsoever – no cafe, no bookstore, no art gallery – just a few motels and fast food chains, a supermarket and hardware chain. My motel seemed to be built of cardboard; the people in the room above me seemed to be elephants doing a rain dance, and when they took a shower it sounded like Niagara Falls.
In the morning I re-stocked at the market and headed back out 95 to Comb Wash, where I drove down the wash and found the trailhead for lower Mule Canyon. From 95, the head of the canyon had looked deep, narrow, and filled with tall Ponderosa pine. I expected good hiking up slickrock, but the reality was a slog through deep powder sand liberally colonized by spiny tumbleweeds. I did take the initial side trip to some modest ruins which featured some very nice shards of Anasazi – sorry, Ancestral Pueblo – pottery, and a sweet little rock art panel. I was impressed that although most people seemed to have used ATVs to get here, they seemed to have honored the relics.
But my subsequent hike up the canyon was pretty much a death march: 50% more effort than walking on a hard surface, and it took 50% longer to go a given distance. Carrying over 20 pounds in my day pack and wearing lightweight boots with little support, my bad foot was hurting the whole time. About three miles in, I finally came to a single giant Ponderosa pine, and shortly after that, I began sneezing, my eyes started burning, and I could feel my tear glands swelling up in the corners of my eyes. It seemed ridiculous to be having such a sudden, severe allergy attack on a calm day in the wilderness, and I kept telling myself that the canyon would get narrow and walking would get better around the next corner, but eventually, a couple miles below the head of the lower canyon, I was weeping so badly that I could hardly see, and I turned back. Once past the big Ponderosa, my allergy symptoms cleared up. Now I knew why they called it Mule Canyon – only a mule would be stubborn enough to come here!
I was due back home by the night of the next day, and I didn’t want any of the final drive to be in the dark because of abundant deer and elk, so I decided to drive back across the Rez that night and stay in Chambers again, cutting my final drive in half. Little did I know that the entire Navajo Nation would be on the move.
The traffic on the Rez was unbelievable, especially after dark. I’ve driven that road several times during the day and never encountered anything like it. Normally you go 15 minutes without seeing another vehicle, but that night it was a constant chain of headlights, and they were all passing me going north, from Mexican Water at the north end to Klagetoh at the south. I wonder if many free-roaming horses or cattle were hit that night; imagine my relief when I reached I-40 unscathed.
All in all, this trip felt like an accomplishment. While I hadn’t seen as much beautiful country and prehistoric culture as I had on previous trips, I’d conquered the worst road ever with my little truck, and I’d actually covered a lot more miles hiking than I had in past trips, especially in proportion to miles driven. May it ever be so.
Last night I watched Never Let Me Go for the second time. Again, I cried at the ending. I cried gloriously for fifteen minutes, in waves of convulsive sobbing that propelled me staggering through the house, blindly clutching doorways and furniture.
I never know how much pain of loss I’m bottling up inside until something like this opens the gates of grieving, and, unfortunately, my hands have more fingers than my life has moments of true release. I suppose it’s how I was raised, my midwestern reserve.
I’ll never forget that night, alone in bed, my first year in San Francisco. I was in my 20s, making good money at an easy job, and I was a creative powerhouse, turning out experimental art, music and writing every day, circulating in the vibrant creative underground, meeting new people every week. But in the near-suicidal aftermath of a 6-year relationship, I’d been single and unloved for three years, I was living alone, and that night I couldn’t get to sleep because I couldn’t find my heart. It was sinking out of sight, shrunken and black, into bottomless depths. My chest felt empty and although my mind was filled with images of loss, no tears would flow. All I felt was a terrifying numbness, and I wondered if I would ever be able to cry again.
That question was answered the following year, just after I’d moved into the Loft. I was sleeping with an art student from Brooklyn who was nearly a decade younger than me. One night after making love, sensitive to our age difference, she tried to pick away at my perceived maturity by probing for old memories of loss, rejection, injustice or cruelty. Very cleverly she trapped me in a downward spiral of memories I’d been avoiding, until I was broken, sobbing and moaning in her arms.
Grieving can assume an epic scale in the desert. Twenty years ago, I was living and working on a remote ecological preserve in the Mojave, staying in touch with my city girlfriend via an old pay phone in a lab trailer, when one night she announced that she’d been sleeping with the bass player in her band for the past couple of months.
The cabin I was sharing with co-workers was at the high end of a valley ringed with low cliffs, and from the cabin an old trail led out of the valley into an empty, isolated basin. Under the full moon I walked that trail away from the company of men, until I got to a circular clearing surrounded by Larrea clones, the stark, moonshadowed shrubs my only company, still and silent, ranks of them standing off into the distance where granite cliffs rose up white as bone.
There, I went down to the ground and howled and pounded the gravel, thrashing like a mad man, wearing myself out in a frenzy of raw pain. Night after night I had fallen asleep watching the moon moving slowly through the sky, imagining that she was my distant girlfriend. And now, like the girl who had attached herself to someone else, the moon seemed cold and pitiless, shining clinically on my suffering.
Do some of us feel things more deeply? Or is it just that we bottle up our feelings until they get out of hand? You’d think that those of us who work in the expressive arts would have plenty of outlets for grief and loss, but that probably works better for some – actors, maybe? – than for others.
All I know is that I owe a debt of gratitude to those artists who give me random moments of release – like the creators of Never Let Me Go.
Sunday, October 7th, 2012: Trips.
Enter your password to view comments.
Saturday, August 18th, 2012: Places.
(photo gallery at bottom)
Good fellowship, delicious grilled food, a keg of our favorite local ale, music improvised among the trees, diving from rocks and swimming in clear water – plus the occasional romance – how could you go wrong?
To get there, you drive through a maze of winding streets and roads up the steep, forested hills above the city, over a sharp ridge then down to where the Lake lies hidden in dense eucalyptus forest filling a long, narrow valley. Fed by creek water from the surrounding slopes, it’s popular for picnicking and swimming. The western shore is a broad meadow with sandy beach and parking lot; above the lake on the eastern side, a small picnic ground lies hidden among the eucalyptus.
My first visit was 30 years ago on a company picnic with a small engineering firm that did earthquake safety studies for nuclear power plants. Our eccentric, domineering boss treated us all like his somewhat wayward children, but he was the real loose cannon. You never knew what off-color insult he was going to sling at you in mixed company. My younger brother was visiting and I invited him to the picnic.
I had a huge enamel stockpot that I used for the group meals we often shared in our loft, and I made chili, with lots of jalapenos – the boss was from Texas. But, distracted with preparations, I allowed the thin metal to overheat, so there was a solid crust of charred chili lining the pot and it ended up tasting scorched. But as I recall, we all had a great time, my young co-workers and their families and dogs playing frisbee on green grass in the summer sun with light glinting off the Lake in the background.
Years passed, the company prospered and declined with the doomed industry, and my life continued to unfold as a never-ending drama of wild romance and ambitious projects in music and art, until at the end of the decade, the loft was destroyed in a massive earthquake. In the aftermath, we survivors were drawn to the hidden picnic ground above the Lake, where we barbecued in the dappled afternoon sunlight and improvised a long, wistful dirge on African percussion and clarinet, returning often to a quarter keg of our favorite local ale sitting in a barrel of ice under a tree.
In the following year I gradually got back on my feet, conceiving a big new project, and a new beauty appeared in my life. Luckily for me, our first date was on her birthday; we shared an intimate dinner then drove to the Lake in the dark and parked near the picnic area at the head of a trail. At the bottom of the trail we crossed the creek on a wooden bridge under a low canopy of boughs.
We left the trail and found a smooth bank where we could sit under a tree and watch starlight reflecting on the still surface of the Lake. I pulled her close, smelling her clean hair, and we began to kiss. It felt like a dream, like the renewal of my world. Later we found an expensive parking ticket on the car – the Lake had a curfew – but it was a small price to pay for a new life.
We returned in a year or so, after the dream had faded and my life was again losing all its moorings, to join her large contingent of urban-hippie friends in a sloppy gathering in a larger, hotter clearing higher up the slope. Scattered tents emitted clouds of pot smoke and boom boxes pumped out a mix of the Beastie Boys and Bob Marley. There I was singled out by a swarm of mutant mosquitos, the biggest I’d ever seen, but no one else seemed to be bothered by them. More and more often I found myself the outsider at gatherings of her friends, begging to leave early.
Ultimately she dumped me, unsurprisingly when I was at my lowest ebb of self-doubt and insecurity. My friends tried to console me with another Lake picnic, this time in the cool of autumn. One friend carried a new baby, and there was even a cute single girl, a stranger who turned out on further research not to be a prospect.
The next summer saw the beginning of an epic new romantic saga, but my life was still no more stable or grounded – I was unemployed and in debt and I had broken up my last band. Within months I sabotaged the new romance by moving away to another city where I hoped to find work. Trying to sustain the relationship somehow, I returned sporadically, and we held an even bigger picnic in our favorite Lakeside grove, pulling together old roommates from the loft, co-workers from several old jobs, and the usual crew of jamming musicians. There was a group of children for the first time, and I remember one friend carried a little battery-powered fan to keep her cool – it was the envy of all of us!
From the picnic ground you could take a narrow, winding trail down to the Lake, where a rock twice as tall as any of us stood out from the shore. Swimming on this side of the Lake was not permitted, so we would wait until late in the afternoon when the opposite beach emptied and the lifeguards retired from their towers. We could dive off the rock into deep, cool and clear creek water – but sometimes we were spotted anyway and chastised by distant bullhorns. And returning, we could pick and eat wild oats among the tall trailside grasses.
After a couple of years I moved back to the area, but settled far from my old friends in a village by the sea. Meanwhile, the drummer from my old band and his neighbors had formed a mini-community around “The Grotto” in their inland backyard. We learned that the last of my former loftmates was moving to Ireland with his family, so we organized another picnic at the Lake, based largely on the Grotto crowd. The drummer had become obsessed with golf and tried unsuccessfully to interest us in drunken lessons. Saying goodbye to old friends made it a melancholy gathering, especially since they left the picnic before the rest of us and we felt abandoned.
In the summer of the last year before I moved away to my current home, a local bandleader organized a big picnic and jam session on the main meadow across the Lake. The organizer and I had never been close – I had “borrowed” a guitar player and a singer from his band so were competing bandleaders in a sense – but late in the day I was walking on a trail far from the picnic with my guitar, starting to play “Rivers of Babylon,” and he appeared out of nowhere to join me, and it turned out to be one of the sweetest sessions I’ve ever had, there by the Lake that had seen so many unforgettable moments of our lives in the city.
Saturday, July 14th, 2012: Places.
First of a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.
The Bell was first discovered by James and me on an exploratory outing with a bottle of cheap wine, long ago in the mists of memory before my adult circle of friends had begun to crystallize. The ferry plowed the rough swells of the bay, carrying us out to the tall, green island, past rugged headlands and lush valleys in which stately antique buildings stood vacant but well-tended among groves of palm trees. We stood on the open upper deck, where a salt wind tugged at our hair and gulls swooped hungrily at the rails.
We made our way on the ring road around the darkly forested island to a point high above the water where we could see the great bridge opening westward on the ocean, and from there we scrambled precariously down a faint, crumbling game trail to a small beach of dark pebbles, where we drank our wine, talked, and occasionally waded a short ways into the cold, churning surf. The Bell stood above us, long abandoned and windswept, on its rock that jutted into the bay toward the distant bridge.
Hours later we realized it was high time we headed back to catch the last ferry, but the wine had sorely diminished us. We couldn’t retrace our steps up the precipitous slope, and ventured around The Bell to a long sandy beach with more high crumbling slopes. The tide stopped us at the end of this, and desperate, we began to claw our way up the trackless slope, grasping roots and branches and treetrunks, finally stumbling gratefully out onto the ring road and the way back.
Years later, after my bohemian inner-city loft had evolved from its early turbulence and drama into a hard-working, hard-partying, cohesive community of ambitious young artists, actors and musicians, I led the whole extended family back to the island with a full supply of wine, baguettes, cheese and fruit, in search of the looming Bell. It couldn’t be seen from the ring road above, but again I found an obscure game trail which halfway down the steep slope brought our destination in view, still far below. From there, the narrow dirt track fell off steeper and steeper until it became a landslide. The more confident among us started onto the slide, digging our shoes in for traction, but when we coaxed one of the girls into following, she froze in place, staring at the sharp rocks on the beach below, veering into full panic. None of us had solid footing, but after a tense debate we tottered, slid, and formed a human chain to lower her down. The subsequent debauch found us all laboring successfully to put the incident behind us, as we lay like kings and queens surrounded by our brilliant domain: the sparkling bay, its windblown yachts, its distant bridge and city arrayed for our pleasure as we lounged and played on a broad pedestal of weedy cement, both stage and balcony, high above waves flashing like broken glass in the sun.
Behind us in a small grassy lawn loomed the Bell suspended from its wooden frame, taller than any of us, a stupendous weight of bronze turned grey-green by a century of salt spray, waiting for our primitive driftwood drumsticks to ring it into complex resounding polyrhythms. And below and around our platform, the sheer, black rock hosting a feral garden of agave, yucca and flowering shrubs, anemones crowding in the tide zone, and a fringe of crashing waves out of which the occasional seal hauled itself up to bask.
The pattern was set, and henceforth for more than two decades, through thick and through thin, my friends and I made bohemian expeditions across the bay and carefully down that hidden landslide path to the Bell to celebrate nature near the city but seemingly a world away, to refresh our perspectives, expanding horizons that had been shrinking and confining us in the repetitive toil of our days. Despite millions of people living around the bay, never did we find evidence of other visitors; the slippery slope that was part of our adventure helped keep our secret. On each arrival, time itself seemed to expand as all our senses came alive. Once, we were surprised by historic square-rigged ships emerging from the mist and firing cannons at each other in deafening blasts of black powder. Another time, we saw a horde of giant jellyfish advancing suicidally across the waves, from all directions as far as the eye could see, to be tossed limply on the rocky beach where their soft iridescent bodies flowed over the dark stones like molten glass. And another time, John frightened and amazed us by swimming out into the powerful breakers where none of us had ever dared to go.
We who discovered this place were experimental musicians and performers, and we saw the rock and the Bell from the beginning as both stage and living instrument, seemingly timeless, primitive, and rooted in the wild elements like the temples of the ancient Greeks. There, drumming on the Bell itself was always the central experience, and the holy of holies was to stand inside while your friends kept it ringing around you, and you felt cradled by a great humming, keening, rumbling womb. And always, we hesitated as long as we believed possible before leaving to catch the last ferry back to the city, our bodies exhausted and our spirits restored, wondering when we’d see our Bell again.
After years of avoiding or being dismissed from jury duty, I was finally selected yesterday as a juror on a trial in which our county sheriff’s department had filed a criminal charge of assault on a peace officer, naming a 20-year-old man I will call Brady as defendent.
Brady is a convicted felon who at the time of the incident was living in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park on the outskirts of town with his mother and two 10-year-old boys, Brady’s brother and a cousin. Brady looks a bit like Justin Timberlake with the crewcut and stubble beard. We never learned the nature of his felony, since it wasn’t pertinent to the current charge. He was on probation for the felony conviction and has an admitted drinking problem, for which he was in a program called Drug Court, entailing daily monitoring and testing by county officers.
The night before the incident, Brady’s mother had left for the state capital to accompany a friend who was having a medical procedure. She had left Brady in charge of the little boys. On the day of the incident, Brady got up early, woke the boys and made sure they had what they needed, and left for his construction job at the historic downtown hotel which is being refurbished.
The boys went to school that day and returned home in the afternoon, where Brady met them after getting off work, again making sure they had what they needed for the evening. Then he went to the gym, where he regularly tried to work out the stress of his probation and all that micromanagement of his life by the county. In early evening, the sheriff’s department got a call from someone at the school, expressing concern that the boys were unsupervised at home, and a junior officer was dispatched to the trailer to make a “welfare check.” He found the boys alone and was told Brady was taking care of them. His superior, a sargeant, arrived a few minutes later.
At the gym, Brady got a call from a neighbor who said the trailer was surrounded by cops, so Brady raced home and skidded to a stop behind the junior officer’s vehicle. He saw the two officers standing outside the door of the trailer and shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The junior officer, standing at the door, on a small porch at the top of three steps, said they were conducting a welfare check on the two boys, and Brady, now at the bottom of the steps and increasingly agitated, responded “Show me your warrant!” The officer mentioned the welfare check again, and Brady started up the steps.
The officer, who was larger than Brady, shoved Brady in the chest, and they both fell backward onto a small cement landing containing a large rock. The officer, on top of Brady, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The two officers pulled him to his feet, marched him to the nearest patrol car, and pushed him into the back.
While the sheriff’s officers waited “for Brady to calm down,” the junior officer went into the trailer “to make sure the boys had something to eat,” despite the fact that the primary goal of the welfare check – to ensure that the boys had supervision – had been met. When the officers returned to the patrol car, Brady apologized for his initial hostility, and they released him from the car and the cuffs. Then Brady’s mother arrived, back from her trip, and the officers explained why they were there and departed.
That night, the junior officer opened a report describing the welfare check, but omitting the incident with Brady.
Brady had bruised a rib in his fall on the rock, and the next day he and his mother filed a complaint at the sheriff’s office.
Finally, four days later, the junior officer completed his report, claiming that Brady had “charged up the stairs at him in a threatening manner” and he feared imminent physical harm, and the department filed a criminal charge of assault.
In the trial, the only witnesses to the incident were the two officers and Brady. The boys had been inside the trailer and only came to the windows after they heard the men crashing to the ground. But the officers’ testimony was vague and conflicting. Neither could remember precise dates or times, and the sargeant admitted under defense examination that when he thought Brady was “charging” the junior officer, Brady could equally likely have been trying to get into the trailer to make sure the boys were okay. During the incident, both officers had recorders on their belts which they had failed to turn on, so there was no objective evidence of the exchange between the three men.
Both the boys and their mother were brought in as witnesses for the defense. It was clear the boys idolized Brady, and they both seemed like good boys, but it also became clear that Brady’s younger brother had been coached by his elders on what to say, so their testimony didn’t do us any good. The mother was nervous, flustered and inarticulate, her voice seemingly ravaged by cigarettes, whiskey, or worse, so she couldn’t do much good either.
Brady had been serious and subdued throughout the proceedings, but when the boys were brought in, you could tell he was concerned for them. His own testimony was articulated simply and straightforwardly, with concentration and apparent sincerity. He said he wasn’t threatening the officer, he was just trying to get into the trailer to see the boys.
The judge in the case was a pleasant, mild-mannered woman who mostly just let things roll. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were big men with huge bellies; the defense attorney resembled 1950s TV personality Captain Kangaroo and had a distinctive rocking gait and dramatic gestures. The state prosecutor – our paid servant – repeatedly misrepresented the facts we had been shown and the testimony we had heard, in an obvious attempt to cloud our judgment. His voice and arrogant presentation reminded me of Agent Smith in The Matrix movie. The defense attorney, on the other hand, overstated his case so much that we were kept hours beyond the expected close of the trial.
After the opening testimony of the two officers, I had made up my mind that there was ample reasonable doubt about what happened at the steps of the trailer. But during the hours that remained, I agonized a bit about what the other jurors – all women, all strangers – where thinking. What if a majority believed Brady guilty? Would I have to sacrifice my convictions for a unanimous verdict?
Finally we found ourselves alone in the jury room. One of the women laid a notepad with notes on the table in front of her, looked at me and said “You’re the foreman!” The other women all chimed in “Yes!” I sighed, considered for a few minutes and agreed, always unwilling to shirk responsibility. I asked the woman across from me to share her notes. They turned out to be points of doubt that we all agreed with. I signed the Not Guilty form and we returned to the courtroom, where the judge read our verdict, Brady and his attorney rejoiced, and we jurors were quickly led out of the building into the mountain sunshine, where the cottony clouds of monsoon season were mustering around us in the sky, their bellies darkening under the weight of impending rain.
We can never know exactly what happened between Brady and the officer, but it had become clear to us jurors that the junior officer had been the aggressor in the incident, that he had exceeded his duty by entering the trailer against Brady’s wishes, as a form of intimidation, and that days later, after Brady filed a complaint, the sheriff’s department had decided to retaliate with a criminal charge, seeing Brady the convicted felon as an easy target. We, on the other hand, saw Brady as someone working hard to turn his life around and be a responsible caregiver for the boys. If the sheriff’s department had its way, Brady would have ended up in prison, and the boys would be left with a broken family and a discouraging experience of an unfair society.
And I was reminded again that the people who are paid to serve us sometimes try to harm us instead. It was only the incompetence of these officers that betrayed them in their shameful mission.
My weekend movie was the 2009 film Last Ride, in which Hugo Weaving plays an ex-con who makes his 10-year-old son an accomplice in an increasingly desperate flight from the law across the spectacular natural landscape of South Australia. The brutality of Weaving’s character finds one (of many) outlets at a remote water hole where he tries to teach the frightened boy to swim by throwing him in the water and holding him down: “C’mon you wuss!”
That scene instantly evoked a memory of my Grandpa Carmichael, my surrogate father, who told me he learned to swim because his father (great-grandfather Howard, who I also grew up with) threw him in the river and told him he had to sink or swim. Apparently, Grandpa had solved this childhood crisis on the spot via the sidestroke, which became his only swimming style.
By contrast, I had friendly one-on-one swimming lessons with the star of the high-school swim team, so until seeing the movie it hadn’t really occurred to me how terrifying that first experience could be. I tried to picture my great-grandfather – who was generally good with children – throwing my Grandpa in the river – a tree-shaded, muddy waterhole with low, muddy banks just like in the film – wondering what the father was feeling, what the son was feeling, how those feelings might be churning like the muddy water – or simply programmed by tradition. What sort of reconciliation would emerge later in safety, whether gratitude, respect, or lingering resentment.
People who haven’t experienced much cruelty may hold simplistic notions of what is cruel, and how “cruelty” functions in society and ecology. Richard Nelson, in his beautiful deer-hunting memoir The Island Within, reports watching a sea otter slowly devour a living salmon tail-first while the salmon watched itself being eaten. And most of us have seen TV clips of hyenas bringing down and feasting on a living wildebeest. How do humans benefit by condemning some behavior as “cruel,” and how much of this depends on the context?
The “cruelty of childhood” is an old cliche, and I certainly experienced childhood as the cruelest phase of life. I was one of the smallest boys in town and was bullied all the way up to my senior year of high school, first because I was small and later because I got good grades. The jocks and the tough boys were always verbally abusing me, threatening to beat me up, chasing me, punching and kicking when they could catch me. The neighborhood bully once found me out in the country in the woods by the riverside and shot me in the leg with his BB rifle. That’s when I found out I could run faster than other kids – I ran all the way home, leaving him in my dust.
My Dad tried to compensate for his absence by packing intense parenting into short visits. One of his favorite father-son activities was the old Scottish tradition of roughhousing, fighting for the sheer love of it, which in the old days often led to casual maiming and blinding. Dad was in his view trying to teach me to be a man, but he was huge and obese, so the contest was patently unfair and traumatic for me.
One of my ex-girlfriends grew up in a family where a lot of physical violence occurred and was mostly tolerated. They were all big, strong people with violent tempers. She told me of her younger brother throwing a cat off a bridge into a river, waiting for it to swim to shore and throwing it back in again, over and over. In some sectors of our society – sports and the military – bullying and brutality are considered essential to learning toughness and endurance. If you grow up isolated from cruelty, you may end up unprepared and powerless when you do meet it.
So where and when is it appropriate to learn about intimidation and physical force?
Or maybe the right question is how. In Last Ride, the father’s brutality really came out in how he treated his son – the same vicious way he treated the victims of his crimes. I don’t see my great-grandfather treating my Grandpa like that – I envision a firm but encouraging act. And in The Island Within, Nelson evokes the traditional hunter’s creed of respect for the prey – which raises the question of how and why we are different from the sea otter. I don’t buy the conventional answers to how humans are different from other animals; I’ve heard about the Asians who relish eating animals alive, and I can’t condemn them, not having the full picture.
After his first (failed) swimming lesson, the boy in the movie appears traumatized. And in the end, for other reasons, Last Ride won’t end up on my list of favorite films. But the glorious final scene shows how, in a cruel world, a hard lesson may be transformed into a moment of liberation.
Our land is in a mountain range that had special significance to the desert Indians, but it’s doubtful that our property saw much use by Native Americans. There are lots of mining ruins dating back to the 1870s, but whereas I’ve found prehistoric campsites, potsherds, and rock art elsewhere in the range, I have yet to run across artifacts in our canyon.
But my scientist friends hit the jackpot on this trip, finding a large agate scraper on the bajada, and a nice small arrowhead on the slopes.
The boys revisited an area up the canyon where the old miners disposed of their bottles and cans, and collected some nice pieces of purple and blue glass.