Past Washing Over

I remember a chilly afternoon almost 30 years ago. I was crossing Tappan Square at Oberlin, it was cold, my Navy pea coat wasn’t warm enough and since I’d never succumb to the shapelessness of down, I was freezing per usual. Pale yellow light with gray in it — to recreate it would require dipping a stick of chalk in a beaker of dilute urine, not that I have ever done such a thing — the hue of lake-effect-snow about to start.

I wore two Benetton scarves, pink and teal, which I wound together into an impromptu lattice every time I went outside. I was so damn cold. Walking from the art history building back home, to my room of happy misanthropes and adorable psychohistorians (psychohistory was a major, back then). And I ran smack into Pete Yarrow.

I knew he was there to perform with Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, which must have been an awesome show for faculty and people schlepping in from Cleveland. (The next day I saw Ronnie, a kind-looking lady with grandmotherly curls, also in Tappan Square.) Not that my friends and I would ever have attended that show. We were too busy trying to remove pumpkin-scented candle wax from an Eva Hesse sketchbook stupidly loaned by the art museum to pyromaniac students.

But back to Pete Yarrow, freezing his ass off too. Today I’d have made a fuss, thanked him for the songs I heard on the car radio just 13 years before while a little kid en route to my family’s ski house on many a dark Friday night.

But in 1985, I said, Whoops, kept sprinting (it was so damn cold) and then thought, Wow, that was Pete Yarrow.

Lately I have been thinking about death more than usual. Given my general lifelong macabre gestalt, we’re talking quite a bit of thought. How healthy people sicken and don’t get well. I’m not a Mets fan, but I remember all the players from 1986, one year after I plowed into Pete Yarrow. Mookie, Dykstra, Gary Carter. The exuberant Gary Carter of almost 30 years ago, shown photographed in a golf cart not long before his death last week, bloated by steroids for his terminal brain cancer. Trying to smile. Nothing worked.

Certain things just don’t get better.

A year after my Pete Yarrow collision, I was working for a publisher, taking a break from school thanks to an illness which luckily did get better. The ragtag editorial staff and I followed the World Series. A freelancer named Chester Weiner (love it) explained baseball to me, played Nina Hagen too loud on bad headphones and asked why I refused the office mousse truffee.

Almost 30 years later I still see the wet greasy spots on the paper plates in that historic stone building facing the Great Neck train station.

I need to think more about today. As a friend from then and now tells me, repeatedly and with flagging patience, “Let the past wash over you!” And each time I ask him, What song IS that?

In an effort to throw a wrench in his plans to get me thinking current, I present to you my latest playlist: “Past Washing Over.”

Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Circle Game” (avoid the latter at all costs for at least three weeks after an old friend dies).

Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” (live and not live).

Phish’s “Backwards Down the Number Line” (yes, it’s from this decade, and yes, I secretly really, really like Trey Anastasio).

Byrds: “Ballad of Easy Rider,” “My Back Pages,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and the fuchcotah “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

JT’s “Sweet Baby James” and “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

Carpenters’ “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”

And the Peter, Paul and Mary version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” It’s remastered. Pete Yarrow comes in strong through my right speaker.

Note: I’ve kept “Thunder Road” off the list. That’s all I need. “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” I get weepy with that one, even when I’m not dredged in this dense, gloppy cornmeal of Remember When.

What the hell should I be listening to, Katy Perry?

The current Pete Yarrow, who strongly resembles Martin Gilbert Blank (one of my favorite people of all time)

Excerpt: AH HERE WE GO — Tehachapi Loop


Timothy Bowles. Age 47, Tehachapi CA.

When you see the name of an almost lover on the manifest of an airplane crash on CNN.com, you suck in air.

In Joan’s case, it was a hexagon of Krab in a supermarket salad which smacked her epiglottis when she gasped, hard, during a late lunch break. She’d heard about the Snowqualmie Air crash on NPR en route to work. And then, this afternoon, the map of the route ending near Point Mugu, eyewitnesses, passenger list.

Joan always scanned such lists.  She read obits. She read legal notices and the Pennysaver and cereal boxes.  Joan was never not reading. This was her method of anxiety management.

So, Timmy Bowles, there you are.  47, Tehachapi.  Hello. Why were you flying to Portland? And alone. How did you afford a vacation in what, Cabo? I thought that for you it was Paris or nothing.  And look at this.

An ending that is royally not good. That is what happened to you.

Damn.  Tim Freaking Bowles. She tossed the food, sat still, put her head in her hands for a moment because she thought it appropriate, then called her college roommate, to whom she told everything, even though said college roommate was presently drenched day and night with Courvoisier.

Remember that schmuck in Tehachapi? That lying sack of shit with the photographic memory of Pound and Lowell? The guy who reeled off The Waste Land on my voicemail, while no doubt shopping solo for marital groceries, when it was safe to communicate with the women he told he was single?  Oh, let’s not forget the long aerobic walks in the dead of night in the foothills of Tehachapi. That’s when he’d call me. Huffing and panting on his trusty Walmart throw-and-go phone.

Yeah, said her roommate, slurring per usual.  I remember.  Wow.  He is really, like, dead?

© Anne Isaaks, 2012. All rights reserved.

Tehachapi Loop, a railroad marvel, Tehachapi CA

Hot Arugula Tropical

This will not be a dour or wiseass or boo-hoo I-Hate-Valentine’s post. Yes, I dislike Valentine’s Day under any circumstance. But solo, as I am, it’s a nasty piece of cocoa butter and lecithin solids.

A million years ago someone told me that “It may be Valentine’s Day next week, but every day is Valentine’s Day with you” or something to that effect, which wasn’t as Nutrasweet as it sounds today. It was apt and hinted at the deeds and actions proving the love of someone.

It’s a verb thing, love. Talk is cheap; loquacious folks do it well. Sometimes it means something and sometimes, not. Without actions as armature for words exchanged, it’s all a slurry, or as an English prof of mine once wrote about a poet he disliked, “There’s no beer under all that foam.”

Of course I freaking love to talk, or yenta it up, gesticulate, yak. If you know me, you know that.

Also, if you know me, you know that for me, food and cooking are not always a slam dunk into casual chomping.

I recently discovered a neat online hub for people cooking dinner. It is called dinnerlist and it is helmed by NYC chef Faye Hess. I discovered Faye on Food Network’s Chopped and immediately noted her presence, a chutney of urbane/urban/joy. She’s very impressionistic and sensory in her food and her food writing, and, as a mom (her kid is named Ferdinand — how cool is that?), she is very conscious of the realities of real food being prepared and eaten by real people. In your real home.

Faye loves to cook things until they are “delicious.”

So many culinary blogs reek of precious or appearances or kitchen-as-politics. Not Faye’s. Faye is very joie de stove. I hope she’s writing a cookbook, is all I can say.  I post sometimes at dinnerlist.

Tonight: Valentine’s Dinner for One. The entree: Hot Arugula Tropical.

The recipe:

Spent much of today and tonight helping my terminally ill mother-in-law, who is still my mother-in-law ten years post divorce. Left her house at 8pm. I’ve been so busy with kids and work and helping my mother-in-law, I haven’t cooked, really. The way I like to cook, that is. Not hungry tonight, but did go to the store for milk. And looked at some arugula. Bought some things. Went home (kids at dad’s) and put on Hercules and Love Affair, low.

Three cloves of garlic, slivered. Heat in bit of canola oil in large cast-iron pan. Add one plastic container of pineapple pieces in juice. Turn up heat, reduce. Squirt some honey mustard around. Stir, reduce. Cube half a container of firm tofu. Add to pan. Shake cayenne, grind pepper. Throw handfuls of fresh arugula into pan. Stir, let the liquid rise, reduce, throw in more leaves. Grab handful of cherry tomatoes (in So Cal we have many neat varieties) and toss in. Try to apply tomato surfaces to hot pan, for char. Cook until tomatoes almost burst.  Refreshing, tropical, peppery, sweet. Far better than the six-inch Subway turkey with honey mustard and cucumbers I had planned.

I am spending a lot of time lately with someone who is not going to live for long. Since this has been a month of thinking about death in new and frequent and maddening ways, the timing of my mother-in-law’s decline is, well, I don’t know. Sensible I guess. Right in line with the whole schmear of fear-of-death, head-in-my-hands, feeling my throat constrict just like Babette Gladney (death phobic extraordinaire) in White Noise.

We sit and watch TV and discuss Whitney Houston. I make her English muffins and subtly spray Lysol and try not to trip over oxygen tubing. And she is so much smaller than she was, just a month ago.

If love is verb, and food is love, and cooking means you love someone, then I came home and cooked myself some Hot Arugula Tropical. I cooked it until it was, as Faye would say, “delicious.”

And now I’m going to wash my happy orange pan.

Wilted salad, arugula, pineapple, cayenne, tofu

Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Roger McGuinn)

Thirty years ago, a friend of mine wrote me a letter on stationery from Kasser Bros. Liquor Company. His dad was a liquor salesman in Atlantic City, so, as I was discover through what became a lengthy correspondence, there was a steady supply of letterhead. My friend was sitting shiva for his uncle.

“Yes, my uncle did die,” he wrote. “We just finished saying Kaddish, which is actually quite a beautiful prayer.”

I remember the letter precisely. The paper itself is in an accordion file in a basement in Great Neck, New York, so it’s not in front of me. This is part of the fun of being eidetic.

My friend and I and an assortment of talented and quirky youth had just ended a three-week orgy of poetics, Allen-Ginsberg-style, so Kaddish was in our vocabulary. Ginsberg’s, that is. His elegy to his mother. Part I of “Kaddish” opens:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,
talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head…

My friend’s uncle died on the last night of our basically unsupervised teen poetry sleepaway camp. We sat up all night talking and listening to cassettes on a boombox, which wasn’t unusual. That night, though, we were especially bereft, hour by hour, dreading the end. We didn’t want to say farewell. That night, like all the nights, we never tired. Not an ounce of bleariness. And no coffee. Imagine that.

My friend knew his uncle was sick, but during all that hypomanic group frolic, of which he was impresario, he had no clue he’d standing in a Jersey cemetery 48 hours later. I recall the exact turning of the sky, 5AM-ish, Annandale-on-Hudson, bird sounds, my sixteen-year-old brain crisp with sleep deprivation. Late that morning, all the parents came to pick us up. I have a photo of my friend Emile’s dad putting his guitar case in the car, hatchback open. We were so glum. We knew our lives had changed and we didn’t want to go home. Going home was absolutely the worst thing to ever possibly happen.

A few days later, the letter from my friend. I needed to check out Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, he said. In addition to the James “Blood” Ulmer. And keep the “Jim C. book as a tribute from you to me, dig?”

I am 99% certain I transcribed a poem by Ezra Pound’s girlfriend, H.D., in my reply, on my own family business letterhead.

Such cute pishers we were.

Pocket Poets, Kaddish

In his first letter on Kasser Bros. my friend provided what we would today call a playlist. His soundtrack for shiva, playing in his bedroom: Byrds. All Byrds. Nothing but Byrds.

“No more Byrds for me for a month,” he wrote.

Lately, in my 2012 San Diego life, I have been thinking about death more often than usual.

When you are extra aware of death and time passing and the aging of everybody and the hideous early deaths of some, Roger McGuinn sounds perfect. The jingle-jangle keeps you going. There is dirge aspect, to be sure. But there is glistening.

The other day, while IM-ing with Emile of the aforementioned family hatchback, I confessed that I’d just played “My Back Pages” 15 times in a row.

He ordered me to put on the Jam’s Sound Affects ASAP. His advice is always excellent, and I complied. It didn’t work, though.

Straight to “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

No more Byrds for me for a month.

Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon

Who knew Truckee, California, would be my second favorite town on the planet?

One of the unexpected gifts of my life in California is my passion for landscape and history. Truckee has both, and that is quite the understatement.

First can I say: Donner Party. Don’t get me started. I wrote about it, and I’m still writing about it (my forever-in-progress Living in Cheese). I can never get enough Tamsen Donner. (The sole reason why one of my kids dodged the name is the fact that “Tamsen” would become “Tams,” and I once knew quite a nasty Tams.)

But this is not a post about the Donners, as devoted as I am to the people and starkness of that extreme and awful time. Nor does it concern other Truckee history, often not discussed, terrible things involving Chinese workers who built the Pacific Railroad (1863-1869) running through the town. I could write all about that railroad, the track echoing I-80, the steep freeway climbing from Nevada to Truckee. That drive deserves a post of its own. States change curve by curve, you accelerate through Nevada California Nevada California as immortalized by the Jayhawks’ song of that name:

First you twist
Then you turn
You’re on life’s icy mountain, dear passenger

Can you help me to find, Nevada California.

Or the cold Truckee River. Nature dazzles. Pines dark green as bottle glass, rocks russet, the snowiest shiny snow you ever saw. And perhaps it’s what the locals call a Bluebird Day: Fresh snow from the night before injects light into a sky too clear to call cerulean.

This is Sierra Nevada, yes, and jagged terrain hangs as backdrop over the downtown district. Everything is old. I go for the storefronts, the aging brick and mortar, not the merchandise. This is no touristy mock cowboy spot. There are beautifully restored homes such as Richardson House, which is managed by my friend Chelsea Walterscheid. Chelsea cherishes and protects the history of her lifelong hometown in a most inspiring way, and she can set you up with a stay at Richardson House, or a personal tour of any aspect of Truckee history, including the jail. She’ll tell you about Hooligan Rock. She knows the true Truckee. She understands Jibboom Street.

A five-minute walk  from the stores of Donner Pass Road and you’re on Jibboom Street.

I love Jibboom Street. Such great examples of structures, former brothels and saloons and flophouses, in a state of suspended decay untouched (mostly) by developers. I walk there often, to Coffeebar, and, if I’m lucky and she’s in town, to Urban Angels, where Kori Walker understands big wavy Jewish hair like no one else. The hair salon’s name says something about that small street, its past, and the decades of women who lived there. To put it country (or New York) simple, they were there. They’re gone now. But they’re not.

You may not understand this, or agree, or think that I’ve been in Cali way too long and it is time for me to make like Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues” and go back to New York City because you “do believe I’ve had enough.”

I sense stuff and that is all I want to say about it.

Jibboom Street brims with it, this ineffable quantity, a change in the air. The people on the sidewalk before.

Many of the ladies of Jibboom Street are buried at Truckee Cemetery.

I love old cemeteries. I could write about all the impromptu old cemeteries I’ve reveled in over the years, starting with Sagamore Hill’s pet cemetery and then the tiny grove of 19th century headstones found while hiking at that bucolic Catskill hellhole for Great Neck sixth graders known as Ashokan, but this is not the post.

Perhaps it’s odd that I spend time in old cemeteries. Since childhood I’ve been more petrified of death than Babette Gladney in White Noise.

Lately I’ve been thinking about death more than usual.

There are actually two cemeteries in Truckee: the Catholic cemetery, a small and verdant plot down a slope, and the main cemetery on East Jibboom Street. Both have been in use for 150 years.

The “urban angels” of yesteryear’s Jibboom Street share a resting place. It, like the rest of the cemetery, is cared for by a lovely man named Greg Van Loon.

Greg understands the power of this place. Being at this cemetery, in the company of the many graves, is to recognize that Greg does not so much maintain this ground as care for it. Here, “care” is a verb of doting and devotion. It is no mere job.

Greg’s awareness and honor of those resting there, and their stories, many unknown, moves me every time I think about it.

In his office is a wooden cabinet with a decal on it: “Life is Good.”

I know that one day I’m going to go out or move on or croak or leave this place or cross the Rainbow Bridge to find my dead cat Spenser or plop down into the same oblivious state I was in prior to birth. Do I miss 1964? I wasn’t there. To paraphrase Mickey Sacks’ father in Hannah and Her Sisters, I was unconscious.

Still, I’m terrified. I know this fear is as old as the hills.

If I knew that a Greg Van Loon would exist, in perpetuity, wherever I was, to watch over me, I wouldn’t be so scared.

I would know he’d be sitting in his office with the space heater and tools and ledgers, and, when needed, he’d gently adjust whatever marked my spot, and I could handle it. The being there.

Today’s his birthday. Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon.

Ticket to Exuberance: The Jayhawks at the Belly Up, January 31, 2012

The morning of this show, I remembered I bought a ticket months ago. So I went.

Jayhawks, original lineup, irresistible.

Gary Louris and his Gibson are, I believe, the same age.

I have been thinking about death far too often the past two weeks.

I suck at math, but have been making calculations. Thirty years ago, what was happening? I was in Mr. Mack’s English class, pointedly reading Pound’s Cantos and saying screw you to almost everyone. Thirty years from now, I will be 75 freaking years old. God and the Prime Mover willing, that is.

Though I am not into Mindfulness Meditation with a copyright and trademark, I’ve always been mindful of small, good things. Plus I absorb minutiae. The term for this trait is “eidetic.” I do it with words, meals, moments, visuals. Remembered paragraphs from magazines 25 years ago. And not profound paragraphs.

I freak people out with my recall of their past.

A guy from college said, “You’re not supposed to remember that. That is my memory, not yours.”

I was there in the quad, smelling popcorn and mildew, I heard him, I saw the precise shucking of his parka. This was 2010 when I spoke with him, 25 years since he announced his recent shtupping of a certain someone on the 50-yard-line. Ours was not a rah-rah school, so this collegiate moment and image charmed me back then. It promptly lodged in my brain.

Along with so many private dirty details, my own and others, restaurant tables mid meal, sounds of chairs in 1987.

The precise moment of a New Years Eve spent on a phone long distance with my best friend, both of us wondering what the eff have we done, why are we 23 and sad, her brother — a bit older and sad too — intoning awful Edie Brickell lyrics in the background.

It’s like it happened yesterday. And I store all of this crap.

And when something hideous happens, I make computations. Bad in math as I am, this is not a good thing.

As the mother of the brother and sister mentioned above once told me, “Youth is wasted on the young.” As a friend who calculates things for a living told me today, “Don’t spend your middle age forecasting your old age.”

Jayhawks Setlist, Belly Up Tavern, 1/31/12

I think rocking out to Gary Louris and Mark Olson (especially Gary Louris) is a fine outlet.

The one thing I’d change: better sound for Karen Grotberg. Her piano makes “Blue,” as far as I’m concerned. I wanted more of it. Karen Grotberg, from one bespectacled black-clad mom to another: You look awesome and I love to watch you play.

The person directly behind me made this recording. I’m the head of big bouncing hair. The beefy forearms at the end are not mine, however.

Chanting “walkin’ on down the road” with a crowd of people who genuinely loved this band, as I do, felt really good, since, I realized, everyone in that room is getting old.


Satellite of Love

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the sky photography of experimental geographer and scholar of classified satellites, Trevor Paglen. Paglen documents stealth military installations, a dark world of covert domes and fortified fences he shoots from great distances, often with cameras meant for astronomy. He does gorgeous work and is clearly smart as hell.

If Don DeLillo and Bruce Nauman decided to hook up and have, somehow, a biological child, well, that spawn would be Paglen.

The deliberate, slow passage of a satellite is one of my favorite things to see here in So Cal, out in the desert, where the Milky Way doesn’t hide and the zodiacal light — a cone in the sky — shows itself if you know where to look.

According to San Diego astronomer Dennis Mammana, who showed me the zodiacal cone on the night of my 45th birthday, on a dry lake bed with a group of night-sky-shooting and wildflower-craving and fannypack-schlepping desert adventure tourists, zodiacal light “is produced when sunlight is scattered from dust particles spread along the plane of our solar system.” It ascends from the western horizon, this cone of faint light blue.

That night I did a bunch of things. I peppered Dennis with many annoying questions. Why was the Aurora Borealis visible in the Hudson Valley for three whole weeks in July 1982? Have you ever seen a UFO, Dennis? And what about my good old friend, Comet Hyakutake? Will it return, and if not, why? Let’s talk about when the moon gets really big. I drove the poor guy nuts. And with my night blindness, I slammed into his big-ass telescope, kept walking into lenses.

After leaving Dennis to his celestial ministrations, I joined the desert yentas around a campfire. Requested “Leaving On a Jet Plane” and was obliged. It was great. That is one song I love to sing, and I ruin it each time.

So there was “Jet Plane” and “Yellow Submarine,” which I did not sing, and some James Taylor which I butchered as handily as the John Denver.  A great 45th birthday night.

When it was too cold to trudge from telescope to campfire, I stumbled to the cot I’d dragged to the middle of a field. No tent sharing for me,  no way. There was a cot, a sleeping bag, the ski jacket I slept in, my glasses on (and fogging) as I watched the satellites pass overhead.

Because, sans Aurora and comets and particularly colorful and brilliant meteors, satellites are my favorite thing to watch.

My favorite Lou Reed song is “Satellite of Love.”

And on my 45th birthday, in my army cot (see below), I thought of “Satellite of Love.” And whenever I think of “Satellite of Love,” I think of December 7, 1984, when I played that song 20 times in a row in the middle of the night, in my Oberlin dorm room. My uncle died that night and I hadn’t realized it. The next day I’d write a paper about Emily Dickinson’s “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House / As lately as today.” In that paper I would mention the shiva observance I would miss, still at school and not slicing bagels with the mourners. My grandmother, when she called me, quipped, “Annie, we got a shocker.”

I hung up the phone, played “Satellite of Love” some more.

I listened to a lot of Lou Reed back then. I still do. The media may be different, no more cassettes, no more boom box. But it’s the same Lou, and a lot of him too. And more. His “Candy Says” with Antony? I would not have appreciated Antony Hegarty, at 18 in my dorm room.

I didn’t appreciate many things at 18, in my dorm room or anywhere else.

But “Satellite of Love,” I craved.

When I think of outer space, I think of oblivion, and I get terrified. When I think death, more oblivion, more terror for me. Yet I cannot get enough of satellites, of photographs showing the etched arcs of star trails in the sky.

My 45th Birthday, Clark Dry Lake Bed, Anza-Borrego Desert