Tag Archives: Fear of death

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)

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.