1967 and the death of Groovy

Photo by Marc Riboud at the Pentagon, 1967

1967 was one hell of a year. I’ll try to make it short. It broke open in February, six weeks into my second semester at Rhode Island School of Design; the art school administration, in an attempt to purge hippies, used rule 153.b. in the college handbook to throw me and twenty percent of the freshman class out of school without explanation, and told us we had 24 hours to get out of town.

My mother popped three dexidrine, gassed-up her Pontiac Firebird and raced up to Providence, Rhode Island at 90-miles-per-hour. “You’re stupid,” she’d bark out every few miles as we drove to Westchester, “you know that?” By the time we got home my father was there; Mom and Dad had officially divorced just a few months earlier, the first legal divorce due to “irreconcilable differences” in the history of New York, or so my mother told me somewhat later. “Maybe the army would do you some good,” Dad yelled, but I’d grown up watching Sgt. Bilko and there was no way I was going to join up to fight in Lyndon Johnson’s stupid Vietnam war.

I bought a VW bug for $400 and got a job at a sheet-metal fabricating factory over the border in Connecticut. That lasted just a month or so, until I felt too threatened. The guys at the plant were what we’d now call blue-collar Trumpists; coarse, loud and aggresive. “Hey Al, did ya remember to bring them scissors so we can cut college boy’s hair after lunch?,” manager John Stelmak would yell over the deafening noise. “Go Airborne,” he confided in me privately.

Meanwhile, I’d applied to the NYU Institute of Film and Television, and been accepted, so in early summer I found an apartment at 8 St. Marks Place in the East Village, a studio on the fourth floor in an old tenement walk-up a few blocks from The Magic Circus. It was in front of the Circus one evening that PR Bobby tore off my beaded necklace. “You know who I am?,” he said threateningly, “I am Lucifer, I am everywhere.” He waved his hand, “Now go away, Bitch!”

I filled my apartment with kitch and a mattress on the floor, and began to introduce myself to other tenants. The “super” was an old guy named Joe, who passed me off to his nephew Johnny Benigno. Joe, Johnny explained, was actually Crazy Joey Roma, short for Romatowski. “Crazy Joey was part of the Dutch Schultz mob,” he said pridefully. Johnny was a street-smart, lower east side kid with a fast mouth filled with only a few teeth. During a period of three days employment at Radio Shack, he boasted he’d put half the day’s cash receipts into his pocket instead of the cash register. After I’d moved out, I heard he’d moved to Woodstock and had a gun.

Johnny shared a studio with Pinkie, so named because he was missing one. A middle-aged auto mechanic, Pinkie had let his blond hair grow long figuring it would help him score with  hippie chicks, but his perennially greasy hands and dirty fingernails escaped his attention. There were plenty of hippie chicks, many of them runaways. Kitty Findlay from Silver Springs, Florida shared my apartment for a few weeks along with her white cat she’d named “cat”. Kitty ended up pregnant, and a guy named Lee Littleton was the father; I was told she named her son Silver Fire.

Lee was an aspiring rock musician and compulsive womanizer who lived on the ground floor. He got a gig at a bar mitzvah in Long Island and since I could carry a tune he invited me along. When we got back to St. Marks Place he revealed that he’d stolen three velvet tablecloths from the temple. When I introduced him to my girlfriend Peggy a few months later, he complimented her boots. “Beautiful family, man,” he told me, grinning.

Unlike my street-side studio apartment, the units in the rear of the building were dark, tiny studios, with two miniature windows looking out into a soot-stained air shaft. The radiators in the building never worked properly, but the gas stoves heated the rooms adequately unless it got down into the 20s, when ice would form on the inside of the windows. Hidden behind their tightly-locked metal front doors, long-term residents went about their busines silently, avoiding the hippies who had invaded their space, but we’d run into them at Stachu’s, a Polish restaurant around the corner on Avenue A; we lived on their doughy pirogis, which cost like seventy-five cents each.

NYU was a bust. I dearly wanted to join humorist Paul Krasner’s protest march to levitate the Pentagon, but that plan interfered with writing a 42-page paper on the poems of Dylan Thomas. I decided to withdraw, and explained my priorities to the Dean of Students. “Yeah, sometimes I feel like tossing these file cabinets out the window,” he empathized. Years later, Paul told me some Pentagon brass reached out to him in advance of the march to set up a meeting and find out more about his “levitation plan.”

I hitched a ride down to D.C. with a guy named Lenny, a carney pitchman who practiced his patois on me for the entire five hour drive. A few hundred thousand of us marched and then congregated in front of the steps of the Pentagon and watched author Norman Mailer get arrested; by ten at night the crowd dwindled to a couple of hundred seated diehards warmed by fires set in metal garbage cans. I left after the surrounding soldiers emptied their canteens on us; I crashed in a stranger’s apartment, and caught a ride back up to New York City the next day. Despite our best efforts, the Pentagon never lifted off the ground, not even an inch.

Then Groovy died. Groovy was a lower east side icon, an affable and outwardly innocent flower child who happened to overdose on hard drugs. His death hit the St. Marks Place community hard; our alternative newpaper, The East Village Other, made a big deal about it. The Summer of Love was over and flower child culture slipped into the icy grip of modern chemistry and New York’s looming winter.

The Draft Department had me report to 25 Whitehall Street for a physical; I prepared by not bathing or changing my clothes for a week and given my wretched appearance and demeanor they shuttled me off to the psychiatrist’s office right away figuring I was a druggie. When Dr. Engels leaned toward me asking, “Tell me Larry, do you like girls?,” I knew I’d be rejected. They sent me home 1-Y, unsuitable for the military except in an emergency.

I moved through a series of odd jobs; they were easy to find but hard to keep. I nailed plywood on the windows inside of an abandoned soap factory; by the end of the day my shoes were caked and covered in animal fat renderings from the floor and I had to throw them away. I tried being a delivery man using my VW, but racked up more in parking tickets than I earned at $4.25 an hour. I worked at Village Movers for three days; hauling furniture and heavy boxes up and down four flights of stairs left me physically disabled for a week. When all else failed, I’d wander to the West Village and panhandle for quarters until I had enough for a couple of cans of tunafish.

One late October night, I found myself in a nearly deserted subway station with no money and the realization that I had a key in my pocket that opened only one of nineteen million doors on the entire island of Manhattan. By then I had a shit job as a file clerk alphabetizing receipts in a windowless room filled with cigarette smokers. Freezing as I waited for the A-Train, I told myself, “If your fate is to be 18-years-old and have a shit job, you can be 18 and get a shit job someplace warmer.” I’d already moved in with my girlfriend up on West 87th Street and by the end of December we’d saved enough to board a plane to San Francisco where my first sight of the fog crawling over Twin Peaks left me speechless.

I never looked back.

My 400 mouths to feed

People like to take care of living things, like plants or pets. Watching plants or animals grow and change stimulates physical and emotional reactions only possible between living things. A pet rock may be attractive and a cute idea, but little more.

I’ve grown exotic plants for most of my adult life, and many members of my cactus and succulent collection are well over 40 years old. I’ve watched them grow–some very slowly–and mature. And of course, I’ve watched some die; witnessing the cycle of birth and death is inevitable when caring for living things.

While reading an article in The NY Times, I recently discovered that people like me have been given a name: Plantparents. The name implies the degree to which caring for living plants assumes the character of parenting; protection, water, nourishment, freedom from disease and harmful pests. On Facebook, Plantparents often refer to their cute or beautiful “babies” and proudly show off photos, lots of them. Honestly, it sometimes strikes me as a bit creepy, but then I reflect on what is actually going on in such relationships at deeper levels.

Human beings are fascinated–perhaps obsessed–with what the ancient Greeks considered the life force. They developed all sorts of theories to explain where life force comes from, where it resides, how it manifests, and where it goes when death is delivered. In short, they considered life force divine–a god-like entity taking up residence within a person, particularly within the bones . Translated from the Greek, this entity was called one’s “genius”–what we might call the soul–and upon death the Greeks believed the genius would leave the body. We still often use the word genius as something apart from a person, referring to someone’s “special genius” in the third person.

The other realization of the ancient Greeks was that life force required moisture, and in the absence of liquid, life would “dry up.” Accordingly, their rituals and blessings were closely associated with anointing, the use of water, oils or wine to enhance and reinvigorate the life force. These traditions remain part of modern culture, and we see them in baptism, toasts to good health and cultural emphasis on drinks of all sorts and flavors. Moisturizing our bodies is generally an element of daily life.

Life began in water, of course. The Greek myth of Aphrodite (Venus), the sensuous goddess of love, has her born within ocean foam. In this way, mythology often carries forth the elemental truths we moderns mostly take for granted. Greek and other mythologies are origination stories, necessarily connected to the elemental forces of nature from which we emerged and to which we remain irrevocably connected. The sacred and essential life-giving nature of these forces are forgotten at our peril.

So it is that caring for living things is a circular ritual; we nurture life because through that process we ritually nurture our own lives, a cycle of affirmation that psychically and spiritually offsets the inevitability of death.

The view from my back yard

When I gaze up into the trees from my backyard I’m always struck by the ways they grow into and towards the light. A very large red-barked Eucalyptus over nine-stories tall in my neighbor’s yard dominates the sky from down below, its silver-colored leaves shimmering in the sunlight. In my own yard, an old Black Walnut with a trunk diameter over three-feet wide spreads its leafless winter canopy across the entire fifty-foot width of the yard, its bare branches revealing a pattern designed to maximize exposure to the sun.

Conventionally, science refers to such plant behavior as phototropic–light-seeking growth patterns dictated by genetic disposition. This observation, however accurate from a scientific standpoint, misses the heart of the nature of life as a creatively adaptive anti-entropic force which powerfully seeks to thrive, even in the most adverse conditions. A full appreciation of life-force includes wonder–at its stamina, inventiveness, persistence, diversity and strength.

Even wonder at all this still misses, for at its heart life displays something beyond science, words or poetry. Life is an expression of love.

The force of love I have in mind is not the sentimental sort emotional people enjoy, though even the roots of sentimental love sit deeply embedded within a greater force of love. I’m speaking about the force of love that brings and binds quarks together and from there the larger particles that self-assemble into atoms, molecules, protein chains, cells, bodies and the myriad forms of life.

Theoretical physicists seek a Grand Unified Theory to explain emergence from the void, and the late Stephen Hawking spent his life looking for an explanation of the force that unifies the quantum world of the very smallest we cannot see with the ordinary world of the very largest that we can observe. He knew, intuitively, that a single force underlies all things, but science is loathe to call it love. Love, after all, sounds anything but scientific; and yet, this love spans the universe.

Love, of course, is a mystery–The Mystery. Just as the trees in my yard long for the sun, so life itself displays great longing. The force of love beckons living things–urging, compelling, yes, even demanding. It is beneath hunger and thirst, attraction and rejection, happenstance and plans. The force sustains and destroys in ways that human beings can sometimes observe but never entirely explain or understand. Thus the great mystery of love is and has been called by many names and also described in many ways, but call it as you will, as the Taoist’s say, the Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.

And yet there’s more. The force of love is instantaneous, timeless and unbound by space–like gravity. This is The Mystery that so fascinated Hawking, who spent years trying to understand the nature of Black Holes, the cosmic structures absorbing–should I say loving–space-time itself into a dimensionless singularity. It is this same force, Hawking knew and sought to understand, that binds quarks together and forms the entire fabric of the seen and unseen cosmos. If you choose, it’s possible to feel the force of love right now; it’s in you, it’s outside of you–it is you. It’s not a moment to moment, fragmentary thing; it’s all-of-it right now.

So there it is, the view from my back yard.

Nearing 70 but still livin’ in the 60s

Photograph by Marc Riboud

The 60s changed my life, or more correctly, the 60s changed my mind. I am a member of the “love generation”, that cohort of baby boomers who discovered that a sacred presence permeates all things, that words can never do it justice and that one of its manifestations is life.

We were not the first human beings to uncover this truth; before the rise of technology and the global dominance of Western Europe such awareness was widespread. The indigenous people of the world, now either exterminated or their cultures corrupted, knew their fate was tied to the land, sea and air and that a healthy Mother Earth provides refuge for all beings, two-footed, four-legged, winged and of all description. The rediscovery of such basic sanity by the 60’s love generation–expanded consciousness fueled by the mind-altering perceptions of psychedelics combined with the sight of our beautiful blue planet floating in space–was the impetus for the modern movements of ecology, human emancipation, artistic expression and holistic global awareness.

Not every baby boomer joined the expanded consciousness movement; those of us who had, it turns out, were naive. We thought it was a revolution, but it was not; the forces of materialism swamped everything. Technology became global, but fragmented communications into “social” media while reinforcing abstract illusions of identity; the fragmentation of society now mirrors the mind-numbing manifestations of consumerism’s appeal to individual desire. To those untouched by the expanded consciousness movement passing years have reinforced attachments to greed, force, militarism, nationalism, totalitarianism and nativist identity–now surging around the globe in a desperate effort to preserve materialist illusions.

Perhaps my confidence and that of members of the “love generation” in the power of basic sanity is misplaced. The levers of power have fallen into hands of cold-hearted, zealous materialists whose invocation of the “sacred” is purely cynical and religious fundamentalists with dark visions of a looming apocalypse; could there be a vision more materialistic than a better life after death?

I’m confident that in the long-term basic sanity will prevail, but the basic sanity I have in mind is the sanity of Mother Earth, not people. The earth is a patient mother; she knows that in the end we will all crawl back into her arms. It has always been this way for Earth’s children. Nothing can save us–not technology, consumerism, politics, our imagined gods, and certainly not materialism. We’ve never owned a thing, you see, not a molecule; All and Everything we are or have is borrowed and will be returned. This is the truth of basic sanity unblemished by belief.

Meanwhile, what’s going on is heartbreaking. A form of paranoid, mass-hysteria is spreading in a global pandemic, and never more alarmingly than right here in America. As materialist fear grows, so grows their desperation, which inevitably turns to scapegoating and the embrace of authoritarian power; the truth of basic sanity is gnawing away at their confidence in externalized forms of happiness and human society itself. Episodes of ethnic cleansing, dreams of turning human beings into biological forms of machine intelligence, manipulating genes and hopes for immortality itself speak to their desperation. The materialists’ true apocalypse is seeing through the veiled reality of materialism’s illusory nature.

We of the love generation may have been naive, but we were not wrong.

(Photo by Marc Riboud)

Confessions of a cactus and succulent nerd

I recently returned from a five-day convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, held in Tempe, Arizona. That’s right, I’m a cactus and succulent nerd. For the past forty years I’ve been growing and collecting cactus and succulents, and some of the very first plants I acquired are still alive and in my collection.

In Tempe, 350 of us listened to talks and lectures by botanists and growers from all over the world. Gideon Smith, a Mandela University professor from South Africa, entertained us with stories and photos about the unique plants and history of that part of the world; Ernesto Sandoval spoke about his favorite cactus species in Brazil; Rob Wallace, PhD, gave a talk entitled “The sexual habits of cactus.” You get the picture; Botanical Latin was the language of the day and we nerds reveled in it.

Like most conventions, there was a banquet dinner (rubber chicken, of course), lots of “thank you’s” to volunteers and various awards given. An auction was held, and priceless specimens of rare plants were bought at ridiculously high prices, all for a good cause, of course. And there were the plant vendors, who had set up tables covered with cactus and succulents, all for sale to us cactus and succulent nerds. We snatched ’em up.

Everyone there was a collector, some as hobbyists like me, and others as professionals. The plant collector, given the number of plant species in the world, generally must focus on a particular family of plants, like aloes or agaves, for example. Whatever the focus, however, the care of living things, often for a lifetime, breeds an appreciation of nature overall, and its remarkable, stunning diversity.

That diversity, and appreciation of it, permeates the soul of plant collectors. Growing and collecting plants is not merely the simple fulfillment of desire; taking on the responsibility for preserving life runs deeper than that. In his work, the late, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan identified what he termed “jouissance,” a pleasure so attractive and compelling it’s almost “sexual” in nature; accordingly, we plant lovers sometime refer to ourselves as Hortisexual.

Gazing at my collection as the late afternoon sun highlights the myriad forms and colors of my plants, I sometimes fall into a powerful reverie, almost trance-like in its character. The shapes, spots and textures all together manifest what the Sufi’s call the experience of “unity through multiplicity” or what the Buddhist Heart Sutra designates as the samadhi of “profound illumination,” which elucidated by Tibetan teachers means “perception of the profound in the enumeration of phenomena.”

In this way all of life, including humanity, can be appreciated as nature’s great display; the diversity and speciation of living things unites us in a seamless web of interconnectedness, the Hindu “Jewel net of Indra.” The individual particularities of each plant and each person are the jewel-like expression of a unifying life-force now billions of years old: exuberant, resilient, creative, colorful, energetic and irrepressible.

On a tour of the Desert Botanical Garden, we learned that cactus are the fifth most threatened living species on the planet. It’s city sprawl and development that’s the main reason for it, whether in Brazil, South Africa or Arizona. This fact was not lost on us cactus and succulent nerds, those who appreciate the unique forms and varied character of these botanical wonders.

One hundred and fifteen degrees

In 1972 I lived in the foothills of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. It was a modest little house with a swimming pool built in the 1950s by the man who created Meadowood, now a world-famous luxury resort; he and his family lived there for a while. Three elderly gentlemen lived in the original turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the property; the oldest of the three was named Fred and was 101 years old, and Gordon, who was around 70, claimed to be in communication with entities in “the other world.

Anyway, the property had once been a fruit orchard, mostly plums. The fruit trees had been planted in terraced sections of the hillside, and I’d never seen or tasted as many varieties of plums in my life. The local deer enjoyed the plums, too; I’d hear them coughing up the pits while they were in season.

Speaking of seasons, I saw it all while living in that spot for three years. One winter it began to snow as I left home to head down to San Francisco. I had a graphic design business on Second Street near Mission, and since gasoline was only 28 cents a gallon in 1972, the commute was not terribly expensive. The traffic, by the way, was far lighter than it is today. Anyway, as I reached the valley floor and drove down Silverado Trail I realized the snow storm was a biggie; I turned around to head back home but the Highway Patrol had proceeded to close Deer Park Road headed into the hills, stranding me down in the valley. I walked home, climbing an old dirt road up the hillside wearing my leather dress shoes. Around me, branches heavy with wet snow were snapping off with a loud “crack!”.

By the time I made it back home there was six inches on the ground, but the snow had begun to change to rain. It rained the rest of day and night, and by the next morning, the entire Napa Valley floor was flooded from Highway 29 all the way to the Silverado Trail. Everything under water, the valley had become Lake Napa.

Summer season was entirely different. The Napa Valley’s one mountain range further east, and normally the temperatures are higher than in Sonoma Valley. One summer’s day, however, it felt like the Sacramento Valley. The day dawned like any other, with a cool morning. But by noon, I could tell we were in for something different. My thermometer said 99 degrees, and it was not yet the hottest time of the day; over the next few hours the temperature climbed higher.

When it hit 115 degrees a phase shift happened and nature pulled a switch. In an effort to protect itself from dehydration, the leaves on an old English Walnut tree near the swimming pool literally turned brown in two hours and all fell to the ground. So too did other broadleaf deciduous trees suddenly drop their leaves.

I jumped into the pool, which felt good, but upon getting out I’d begin sweating before the pool water had even evaporated off my body. Even breathing felt different; like the trees, my own body needed to retain its moisture and it was all I could do to just lie down and move as little as possible.

As I write this at 3:20 in the afternoon it’s nearly 110 degrees in Sonoma. I’m watching the trees.

Call Me Spanky

Spanky of Our Gang “Little Rascals”

Like many, I find myself thinking about how best to resist the powerful emergence of reactionary, right-wing politics in America, and I’ve decided to go with the Our Gang School of Political Resistance. It’s an approach that worked wonders for Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Wheezer, Darla and “Pete” the dog in the Our Gang ‘Little Rascals’ comedy shorts of the ’30s, and I see no reason why it can’t work wonders today, namely doing what’s right and having fun while doing it. The recent Women’s March, with it’s hand-made signs and knitted, pink “pussy hats” was an example of classic Our Gang tactics.

If you’re old enough to have grown up watching the black and white Our Gang episodes on early TV, you’ll remember how the “Rascals” would have to confront a dilemma in each episode. Sometimes it was saving “Grandma” from an evil landlord trying to evict her, but often it was the challenge of being confronted by the local neighborhood bully, Butch.

Butch, like most bullies, relied on tactics of fear and intimidation; the ever-present threat of physical violence and coercion were his most frequent tools. Sneering and arrogant, Butch portrayed himself as tougher, meaner and braver than the members of The Gang, and his clenched fist was the symbol of his menace.

The members of Our Gang were an odd lot. Spanky was the chubby schemer, Alfalfa the lanky nerd, black Buckwheat innocently clever, Wheezer mischievous, and Darla charming. Alone each was vulnerable, but collectively they were a powerful and creative force for good. In episode after episode, their wits and inventiveness overcame oppression and its threats, whether a greedy businessman or the venal Butch. Herein their method of resistance was displayed.

As a group the Rascals Gang was inclusive and diverse. Each member, despite his or her individual weaknesses found support within the group and a way in which to display particular talents. Alone, none of them could overcome the threat of Butch and his violence, but together they were unstoppable.

As to the individual talents of each member of Our Gang, all found a place in collective strategies and solutions in overcoming evil. Alfalfa’s window-breaking singing, Spanky’s organizational skills and so forth displayed an inclusive strategy, one in which everyone was valued for what could be contributed to the group effort. Even Pete the dog, the spotted mutt with a black ring around one eye, was enlisted.

And here’s the other secret about their success: having fun. No matter how daunting or even scary the prospect, The Gang found a way to have fun while overcoming adversity. Sometimes it was theater – putting on a talent show to raise money. Other times it was the power of invention – creating a better “car” made of wooden crates pulled by Petey or rigging up a series of traps and ropes to tangle-up a thief. When it came to Butch the bully, the solution was often to reveal him as a coward. The early lesson of Our Gang was that bullies are always cowards.

I’m taking these realizations to heart as I consider my own forms of resistance and ways to join with others in resisting the forces of greed, intolerance and violence. Inclusivity, diversity, creativity, courage, effort and humor; these methods of resistance worked perfectly for the members of Our Gang, and given our current challenges, they feel just right to me.