In Praise of Phil Ochs: Everyday Magic, Day 887

indexFriday night, I finally go to see the late Phil Ochs in concert thanks to West Side Folk’s “A Night of Phil Ochs,” in which singer, actor and shining soul Zachary Stevenson completed embodied Ochs in voice, gestures, patter between songs, and stories. There’s been no way for me and many others who love his music to see the actual Phil Ochs live since he killed himself in 1976, about three years before I heard him singing “Changes” on the radio and fell in love. At least, that was

Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs
Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs

true until Friday night. Och’s sister Sonny, according to Bob McWilliams who organized the concert and does so much to keep the music alive in our community, once introduced Stevenson by saying, “If you’ve never seen Phil in concert, now you can.” While I can’t compare the real Ochs in concert with Stevenson, friends who saw Stevenson affirmed he was the real deal in gesture and tone.

There are some voices in the world so distinctive and soulful that they feel like the home we didn’t know we lost. The first times I heard James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Kelley Hunt, I felt like they were old friends I’ve known all my life and whose music seemed to know me also. Phil Ochs is part of that small circle of friends for me, but unlike his song of the same title, this circle doesn’t turn away out of self-interest or apathy, but shows up via recorded performances, radio, CDs and records, and even in the songs I play in my mind some days when I swim laps.

Phil Ochs particularly had a depth of passion funneled through clarity, wit, and conviction. There’s no way to listen to any Och’s song without believing him, or at least, that he believes in his bones all he sings. There’s also something about Ochs that transcends the sum of his considerable parts: a great sense of rhythm and verve in his songwriting, his vibrant guitar playing and picking, and most of all, his bell of a voice. I’ve been trying to name that something since the concert as I’ve watched videos of Ochs and listened to Stevenson’s astonishing recording of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”  What was it that made me spend hours decades ago doing the same thing with albums rather than youtube videos when I was 19? I remember long mornings in the KOPN community radio studio in Columbia, Missouri back in 1980 when, on the loose premise that I was looking for music for my democratic socialist radio show, I pored over Ochs’ albums, studying each line and each earnest turn of his voice. He mirrored back to me my yearnings to do something that mattered through writing and activism, but he also spoke and sung right into the center of whoever I was.

Phil Ochs, Berkeley, CA April 1969 sheet 272 frame 11-12

I forgot about this time until the concert when every word came back to me and just about everyone else, even the long chorus of “Draft Dodger Rag.” As I looked around each time Stevenson began a favorite song — “Pleasures of the Harbor,” “Changes, “When I’m Gone” — I saw people so elated they needed to wipe their eyes. I remembered a quote from Ochs that speaks to me more as I age: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Thank you to West Side Folk Folk and Zachary Stevenson for bringing us back this particular beauty that grows in depth and meaning even 40 years after he’s gone.

Pet World and the Real Magic of Animals: Everyday Magic, Day 886

IMG_0912The little girls each pressed a velvet-like bunny into their chests, the girls’ chins nuzzling the sleep bunnys’ heads. A little boy let a large yellow snake wrap around his torso, the snake’s head balancing on the boy’s elbow. A woman rocked a ferret to sleep in her arms. A toddler stood amazed as the turquoise parakeet stepped onto his fingers.

This was the Pet World re-opening eight months after a devastating fire killed many a reptile, all the fish, a kitten, and many other manner of those with claws, fins, and paws last May. Within a few days, our community — composed of many like me who had spent hours in Pet World with their kids or when they were just having a bad day and needed to hold something furry — wrapped around the store that had wrapped around our animal selves. We held a vigil full of concerned children hugging the owners, employees holding each other and weeping, and lots of strollers, wheelchairs and walkers holding candles and making more noise than you’d expect at a vigil. But that’s just it: this was a vigil for a place not just of animals but of our own animal selves. I just read over my post from that time, and I repeat here a quote from Sherry Emerson, co-owner of Pet World with her husband Tim:IMG_0910

Tim can never forget how he felt as a child when he and his young friends were refused entry to their local pet store and not allowed to hold the animals. He knows that the total separation of humans and animals will ultimately lead to the disconnection of humans and nature. We truly believe in our mission.

That mission is a healing balm in action, bringing us back together with the more-than-human species we’re part of, even if it’s happening in a store that sells dog food, crickets to take home and feed your pet tree frogs, and fish tanks. When I brought Shay the dog to Pet World on Saturday for the opening, I was so happy by what I saw — dozens of human animals and other animals getting to know each otheIMG_0908r in laughter, delight, even bliss — that I went back on Sunday, this time taking Ken with me. Unlike Shay (who was respectful and extremely interested in everything and everyone in the store), Ken got to hold a bunny and a dove, and also pet a gecko and snake in between watching the new younger tortoises and the giant, ancient ones adored with arms that looked like medieval body armor.

The children filling the stores, along with their parents, grandparents, friends, and occasionally big or little dogs were experiencing more than an indoor petting zoo. I saw many Pet World employees showing kids of all ages how to let a bird come onto their fingers, where to put their IMG_0923hands when holding a guinea pig, or how to properly pet a tired lizard. One woman who worked there got on her knees to show a bunny to a newborn, both rabbit and kids having the same sized face.

I’m all for watching and being with animals in the wild without disturbing them too much, but there’s something also essential in touching animals, and through touching, finding who we are as humans and as animals. Feeling the pads of the gecko’s feet on our palms, the claws of parakeet wrapped around our fingers, the beating heart of a rabbit or kitten or hamster against our own hearts connects us to the real magic in this world.

Four Funerals and a Wedding: Everyday Magic, Day 885

IMG_0896I used to have more of a “Four weddings and a funeral” life, but get old enough, and things start to shift. In the last month, I’ve attended four funerals and a wedding: celebrations of life, memorial services and the like for a friend’s mom, one of Ken’s uncles, and two local artists who gave so much to our community. Then there was the wedding, one I officiated for some very intelligent, charming and beautiful 20-somethings. The funny thing is that the wedding and the funerals were quilted out of the same crazy collection of colors, shapes, and textures.

At all these events, we told of how the newly or dearly beloved met his or her mate, mused on their quirks and surprising tendencies, NS listened to short speeches about what made this person exceptionally gifted in sharing kindness, attention, inspiration, friendship, and creative pizzazz. I learned how Uncle Murle joined Aunt Edna’s choir to get to see her on a regular basis, and when they were apart for 18 months, how he wrote her a letter every single day. Turns out newlyweds Apollonia and Gabriel wrote a lot of emails back and forth when they were half a continent apart. George catalyzed  a whole community to not just embrace their impossible dreams of what to build or sell or create, but dove right into the necessary details, even if they included hauling (or trying to haul) giant stones home from Italy. Sally collaborated with other artists and writers throughout her final months, and entertained us all by instructing us not to post prayers on her Facebook page but truly fun and 10155789_10152318025726840_3221947869372601182_n1amazing things, such as cats dressed up as turkeys, squirrels performing interpretative dance, mice cuddling up with miniature teddy bears, and even a man wearing nothing but pumpkins. Alice’s mom loved Klondike bars, playing a mean game of bridge, and she even got to fulfill her dream to lunch in the Russian Tea Room. In all of these celebrations, there were photographs and videos, images of the newly-departed in a smart 1940s suit, complete with pillbox hat, or sitting on the patio in the sun, covered in his grandchildren, or the bouquet flying backwards over the bride’s shoulder down the stairs to land in the arms of a woman recently engaged.

What makes a poem a poem are the images: the specific details that connect to our senses and give us a specific door to enter into, walking on the feet of our own specifics. The same is true of a life, and although the abstract words (generous, kind, committed, loving) trying to sum up a life also speak to us, the take home for me are the small moments we share or make: how Murle measured the height of his tomato vines, or when Apollonia and Gabriel had everyone at the wedding, one by one, plant a succulent in a square of soil so they could bring home a miniature cactus farm of their wedding. We toss out and catch stories from one another, and in those stories, we see what love and living well really look like up close and ultimately personal.

886887_2629304770423_817875570794742639_oWe also dance to the Crumpletons, singing along while leaning into old and older friends. We marvel over a giant box of fried chicken from Chicken Annie’s (yes, that Chicken Annie’s of Pittsburg, Kansas fame). We giggle over tiny glasses of chocolate mousse and baby photos of the dearly departed learning to walk in black and white. The pain of loss — with the reality of what Theodore Roethke says – “What falls away is always/ and is near” — is acute as well as the lingering goodbyes to people soon to leave us to travel across the country. What’s also and always real is what we make and enter into when coming together, at a wedding or funeral, to  dwell in the house of love.

Generations: Everyday Magic, Day 884

IMG_0823“In 40 years, I’ll take my kids to Amherst, and walk them around with my old friends and their kids like we’re doing today,” Adin said after we did just that in Columbia, MO.

Columbia was where we met in college, or more to the point, because of what we did in our many non-college hours: potlucks with too much carob (what were we thinking?), romantic romps deep in the fields of experimentation, and protests calling for divestment in South Africa by yelling “The People! United! Will never be defeated” until we retired to another carob-warped potluck to sing Holly Near’s “It Could Have Been Me.” There was a lot of loud Rolling Stones or Supertramp music in between analyzing the socio-economic biases in Mary Popins’ “Let Go Fly a Kite,” and passionate debates about anarchism, social democracy, feminism, how we could save the labor movement, and why poetry, drumming, and organic zucchini could redeem the world.

IMG_0833Sometime in the early 1980s, some of us left. I headed west to start as a reporter for a Kansas City labor newspaper before making my way to Lawrence to marry and have a litter of kids, Suzanne went to Vermont to work for Goddard College and raise a good son, and others scattered to Africa or Boulder, Minneapolis or Kingdom City, MO. Our friend John stayed, worked, raised two beautiful sons. Add in 30 years, and here we are – John, Suzanne and me — with some of our offspring, hitting the streets of Columbia to visit and revisit our old romping grounds with the new generation.

We lunched in a place new to some of us, passing around bites of potato knishes and thai ceasar salad. We tore up the stairs to KOPN commnunity radio, the station where all of us oldsters produced various radio shows back in the day (mine was “Saturday’s Child…..Must Work for a Living,” a Democratic Socialist show), and where we could now thrill in how NOTHING had actually changed (except for piles of CDS along with all the thousands of albums). We introduced our kids to the six columns from the old University of Missouri main building, all that was left after an ancient fire, and said to correlate to the number of virgins left on campus.IMG_0847

Mostly, we talked, catching up on old friends and watching our sons talk — all of whom have vivid and cross-pollinating interests in everything from ecological restoration to Buddhism to cultural concepts of the mind to what kind of revolution or evolution it would take to fix our broken politics. The boys, well, actually men, ranging from 18-26, were the same ages we were when we met, danced all night or rode our bikes in the rain. But they generated same kind of spirit, questions, and sparks we did at this age and still do, I hope.

There’s a lot to consider in terms of what actually has changed in 30+ plus years, most notably the climate, and much else that has gone to the big dogs, such as the corporatism we deconstructed over late-night explorations of new herbal tea blends 36 years ago. If anyone in our crowd even mentioned gay marriage, we would have been sure they were on drugs, but then again, reality isn’t always a strong suit for people eating ice cream at 3 a.m. on the lawn of the local V.A. hospital or asleep all day when they should be in classes (okay, so I speak for myself here). IMG_0843

What is real was this day when we got to walk across and wander along the edges of the bridge between generations, springing up in this place where we watched our kids exchange emails and cell phone numbers, promising to continue their conversations in their present or future places. I love the vision of them leading their kids past old bars, new eateries and well-worn paths where they met their oldest friends.

A Wonder Made of Time and Staying Put: Everyday Magic, Day 883

IMG_0935A few days ago while visiting friends in one of my old homes, Columbia, Missouri, I was delighted to see my pal John run into old friends, catching up just the way I might have had I not moved away. But then again, by moving, I landed in another college town where I grew and am still growing roots.

A few days later, while wandering through the Merc to get a crapload of delicacies for friends facing serious medical woo-hah, I ran into Danny, Mike and Walt, some of my oldest and most consistent friends. In the soup aisle, I turned to see Jill, someone I did a project back in the Pleistocene with, called “Midnight Poetry League” — we clumped together groups of teens and had them meet in dark and interesting places to recite their own or others’ poetry to get singles, doubles, even home runs. The night before, while meeting with old friends at Limestone’s ingesting Nirvana-esque vittles, we ran into waves of friends from various sedimentary layers of our lives. Ken even touched based with a guy he went to Kindergarten with before I gave a taste of my pizza to our friend and yoga teacher.

This kind of thing is an everyday deal (or meal) when you stay in one place for a while. Turn a corner, and you might see someone you partied with at college suddenly, after 30 years, woven back into your life. Cross the street and go weight-lifting, and voila! There’s your adult son’s favorite speech teacher from when he was a toddler. Wait in a long line at the post office and find three other people  you know from bioregional meetings, the annual January Christmas tree burning party, and the time we had that cross-dressing prom at the old Harmony Hall.

When I was a kid, I craved this kind of continuity, which is why I thrashed around so much during the stretch when our family left the old country in Brooklyn for the spanking new house in the ‘burbs where I didn’t know anybody. True, the kids in P.S. 251, my Brooklyn school, sometimes beat me up, and I didn’t have so many (e.g. any) friends, but I loved the sense of being known by and knowing people and places. While there’s jumbles of canons of literature about the fallacy of romanticizing small town or in-grown community life, especially for those who march to a different set of conga drums — and there’s ample issues with too many people knowing too much about each other’s business — there’s also a sense of homecoming in the expected and surprising familiar.

When I wander Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence, I don’t know who I’ll meet for the first or 3,141st time. I would say it’s like living in an unfolding tapestry, but it’s not always that coherent a design or linear a process. Maybe it’s like tossing a salad of dozens of ingredients and seeing what nuts, seeds and fruit show up on top. Or maybe it’s putting a message in a bottle, then seeing when or if it returns, and what the message means now. Whatever this phenomenon is, it’s a wonder made of time, presence, witnessing each other’s changes up close and from a distance, and stepping again into the fold of a hug or a conversation after a day or a thousand days of being apart.

There’s a simpler way of saying what makes this wonder: staying put. For those of you somewhere for a long time, I hope your roots and branches bring you stunning blossoms and nourishing fruit. For those of you just landed or in the process of landing, I hope you find good ground to plant yourself, and all you need to delight in all the wonders right at hand, right now, as soon as you turn a corner or open a door.

A Year of Reunions: Everyday Magic, Day 882

In the arms and lap an old friend
In the arms and lap of Suzanne, one of my oldest friends

Stay around long enough, and you’ll meet yourself and everyone else you love coming and going, sometimes even more so, like all of 2015 for me. People and places seemingly long gone and far away rolled through my life, or I rolled through them all year long, from friends I haven’t seen in over a decade to landscapes imprinted in my imagination a very long time ago. Oh, reunions, how I love thee, especially when guided by serendipity, surprise and the awesome magic of picking up just when we left over 4 or 40 years ago.

IMG_2694
Ken in the Davis Mountains

Some of the reunions were well- engineered, such as a long-planned trip to Big Bend National Park in extreme (and I mean “extreme” in every way you can imagine) West Texas, where Ken and I honeymooned 30 years earlier. It was the first time I experienced desert, and let’s just say I wasn’t a happy camping (I do mean camping, which was on the side of a mountain surrounded by javelinas). This time, we stayed in a lodge in the Davis Mountains, a place we discovered in ’85 when we only had an afternoon in this savannah, a lush and dry at once landscape mixing prairie and forest with big expanses of mountain behind mountain. “Let’s go back here and spend more time,” my 25-year-old self told my 30-year-old husband. Turns out, we just needed three decades to make that happen, and upon returning, it was all brand new anIMG_3999d deja vu at once. We marveled at the land and sky, I didn’t complain about how stark the landscape was (I’ve grown to love desert), and while we didn’t hike 17 miles in day (oh, our strong younger selves!), we walked ourselves silly and even waded in the Rio Grande.

Other places I threw my happy arms around included a  usual reunion hangout — my often-annual trip to New York and Brooklyn, this time walking across the Brooklyn Bridge my parents crossed regularly with my siblings and me back in the 60s (in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon) when we lived in Brooklyn, and our dad worked in lower Manhattan. Of course, I also visited the old subway arcade, closed since 9/11, where my dad’s store was long ago.

Catherine and Ken near Madison
Catherine and Ken near Madison

Some re-meetings were more far-flung, like going back to Madison, WI a mere 27 years after we trekked up there in a baby blue VW van with friends for the wedding of Catherine and Peter. Amazingly enough, Daniel (our oldest son), upon settling in Madison for graduate school, at a barn dance ferreted out Catherine, who he had never met, because something about her seemed familiar. Reunion ensued with great joy, amazing food, and a vengeance!

The big tree near Columbia with old friend John
The big tree near Columbia with old friend John

I found a town I lost by mistake — Columbia, Missouri, where I lived for some extremely formative college years when I was teetering between daily infactuations with all the least-likely candidates, too many part-time jobs (from making popcorn to shaking newspapers together), occasional schoolwork, and a whole lot of roaming all hours of the night through the town I claimed as mine. Nothing like brunch with three old friends to open my heart and remind me why it’s never a good idea to remind them about the time I said, “Anarchists, Socialists! What’s the difference?” It also wasn’t a good idea to lose a town less than three hours away, and in January, we have another mini reunion there with pals John and Suzanne.

Stephanie with the late and great CJ
Stephanie with the late and great CJ

Other reunions came swiftly by surprise, like when our old friend David called to say that, surprise!, he was coming to town in two days. We were able, although we were about to leave town ourselves early the next morning, squeeze in a beautiful visit complete with lingering dinner and catching up on everything from the nuances of our children to climate change. Our pal Stephanie was able to stop in on her way across the country for deep conversation and a lovely walk both in the country and downtown. In all cases, we talked, as the old cliche tells us, like no time had passed although we were sharing many vivid moments about what exactly happened (as much as we can conjure it) in some of that passing time.

With old friends at the poetry therapy conference in Black Mountain, N.C.
With old friends at the poetry therapy conference in Black Mountain, N.C.

Getting on the road sparked all kinds of reunions. I loved seeing old friends from Lawrence in Minneapolis, and also reuniting several times with siblings of my friend, Jerry, who died over a year ago, but left us one another. Various conferences threw me in the arms of it’s-been-too-long-since-we-talked friends in Black Mountain, NC, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. I got to hang out with my sisters and mom, niece and nephew, and new brother-in-law in Orlando, and a bevy of Ken’s family we hadn’t seen in a while.

My cousin (front, left) I reunited with after 43 years (I'm behind my brother, and my cousin in front of his).
My cousin (front, left) I reunited with after 43 years (I’m behind my brother, and my cousin in front of his).

Back home around Thanksgiving, I reconnected with one of my cousins who I grew up with but lost to family distance (both the geographic and emotional kinds) for 43 years. While we’ve talked some on the phone and have emailed in recent years, there’s nothing like getting back together in person after over four decades. It was hard to stop talking, and I look forward to meet talking to make up for lost time.

Andrew and family with Daniel and me on the back deck
Andrew and family with Daniel and me on the back deck

And just last week, my old pal and office mate Andrew visited from Macau (near Hong Kong) with his wife and 17-year-old daughter who was a toddler last time we saw her.

Everything circles, spirals, vanishes in the swamp of life, and then pops back up. This year, that included even the Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series for the first time in 30 years, reuniting us all with the Royals’ slogan, “keep the line moving,” which means just to get a hit, any hit, keep moving, and if everyone works hard, plays smart, and gets the right pitch, you’ll get to run back home. The line, it turns out, never was a line to begin with, and if wait at home long enough or wander far enough away, you’ll likely find out just how curvy and hilly time is. I couldn’t be more grateful for each homecoming.

Karma, a Disgruntled Cat, and the Bob-Tailed Squirrel: Everyday Magic, Day 881

IMG_0712For years a certain squirrel has tormented my cats, strutting his stuff in slow motion from the deck railing while both kitties watched from inside the house The more agitated the cats, the more indulgent the squirrel. He even jumped to the window that separated them, and the cats on the inside window sill and the squirrel on the outside, mocking them in his miniature parade of pride.

If the windows are Cat TV, the squirrel was a daily reality show designed to inflame cat desires and piss them off. As such, it had high ratings: the cats were glued to watching the squirrel who caused them no end of aggravation.

Karma takes many forms, even that of a fat cat. Although we try to keep our cats indoor because of the coyotes in the area, Sidney Iowa Goldberg has a habit of getting out, thanks to Shay the Dog who graciously opening the door for himself and the cat. Having a dog who can open many manner of doors and a cat jonesing to escape the safe bonds of the house is beyond our control, although Sid is pretty overweight and moves so slowly that he’s relatively easy to catch. Either that, or he comes bounding to the door within an hour, having been taught well by the dog that this is how you get back in.IMG_0707

The other day when Sid went on his afternoon walkabout, I didn’t think much of it, and as usual, I was relieved when he raced to the door to come back in. The next morning, just when it was time for the squirrel show to begin (it starts as soon as it’s light out), a curious thing happened. The squirrel returned, but not his tail. Strangely enough, the cats weren’t as interested in the squirrel channel, and they also seemed strangely at peace while Mr. Squirrel walked along the railing with a whole lot less confidence or balance.

While I can’t prove Sidney bit off the squirrel’s tail, it sure seems like a good possibility. In the meantime, the bob-tailed squirrel is struggling with low ratings, but hopefully, still enough fallen bird seed and acorns to get by.