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celebrating the desert

desertI’ve called New Mexico home for close to 14 years. The first time I visited the southwest, I was smitten with the wide-open skies, the abundant and ever-changing light, and the subtleties of the desert landscape. I even liked the heat.

The beautiful description of the desert that follows is courtesy of my friend Bob Walling, who—in addition to being a very fine writer—is also a former corporate trainer, university lecturer and British travel professional. Thank you, Bob.


April 2015

Chamisa, sage, Morman tea, rabbitbush, broombush, desert rose, paintbush, cholla, prickly pear, scruboak are names to be spoken gently in this land of wind. These inhabitants of the desert enter the eye as quietly and gently as a Navajo person entering a room. Like the Navajo entering they seek harmony with their surroundings without disturbing the air. These plants take little from the land but without adding the silver of the sage, orange-red of the paintbrush or the white of the desert rose the painter’s palette would have missed the honest colors of the desert.

The words buttes, canyons, arroyos, and barrancas, stand as linguistic witnesses to the parade of visitors to this space during the last 400 years. Modern man’s attempt to give names in his language to the violent evidence of a land in turmoil–  land of volcanoes, eruptions and earthquakes. Travelers driving, travelers towing silver bullets, travelers pulling Winnebagos nearly as large as some of the villages they are named after pass down the road, and travelers with their life’s belongings stowed in the back seat traveling 75 miles an hour gawk sideways at the evidence of this geologic violence and hurry through as if the violence might be latent and intent on occurring again. The desert, as it appears at this speed looks like a colorful crime scene of scattered eruptions, deep cuts running blood red and jagged evidence of an angry god. Older people seem to be drawn to drive across the landscape, silent observers in metal boxes to this violence thrilling the eye with color as they once thrilled the body on a rollercoaster.

coyoteIt gives up only the obvious to these visitors in its colors of reds, oranges and browns and keeps concealed the silvers, chartreuses and greens which it keeps tucked close to the land. The rushing motorists soak the eyes with colors already obtained from National Geographic.  The sun bleaches the landscape to a one dimensional panorama. The language of the desert is subtle not read easily by the person passing hurriedly to some unknown destination. The desert speaks in profiles at sunrise and shadows at sunset and the barking howl of the coyote when least expected. The coyote speaks like a desert wind, first barking like a dog and then breaking into a lonely howl which causes a tiny shiver of melancholy in us the lonely audience. The coyote is the loon of the desert, looking like a dog at a distance, just as a loon looks like a duck at a distance. It is in their calls that both establish their lonely independence.

The wind is the storyteller of the desert. The wind wraps you up in a constant conversation, sometimes gently nudging you to think about yourself here and sometimes violently telling its story with wild gusts that kick up foreign thistles across the road. Visitors huddle from the wind when it gusts, make way quickly to their cars and take flight as if the wind’s story is too harsh a tale to be heard by gentle folk. It is the wind that tells us the story of the buttes, sings songs that are deep inside us and gestures with wind language to tell us where best to walk.

Many visitors come here to find purity in a world become too complex at home. Here they hope the colors are true and primeval, but the desert is the world and it is complex. The desert is a multi-cultural experience composed of the tracks left by people and animals that weren’t there four hundred years ago like the tumbleweed from the British Isles, the Russian Olive from Europe, the sheep, horses, and cows from Spain, and the river bed of a canyon yielding the spring buds of the tamarisk. Only the orange of the buttes is native and original here.


This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

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how i misspent my youth

This is the second guest post from Rich Jones, who previously shared some ramblings on his place of employment, an antique store (what’s the big deal with Charles Bukowski?). Here he offers a few brief episodes from his aimlessly misspent youth in San Francisco in the late 60s/early 70s—which back then was probably the best city in the world in which to aimlessly misspend one’s youth. They may remind you of the old adage God watches out for drunks and fools.

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Av...

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Avenue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

will work for weed

When I was thirteen, I got my first job delivering the morning paper with a couple of school chums, brothers who dealt marijuana on the side and paid me a lid per month instead of cash to help them with the route. I’d get up at 3:00am and bike to the corner where the distributor dumped the papers; then the three of us would sit around inserting adverts and folding and loading the papers into a canvas shoulder bag while smoking dope. We’d hit the pavement by around 4:00am.

We delivered papers in one of the tonier neighborhoods in San Franciso—Presidio Heights—which includes a gated cul-de-sac, Presidio Terrace, on Arguello Boulevard. Among others, it was home to then Mayor Joseph Alioto and then Supervisor, now Senator, Diane Feinstein. We had to go door-to-door once a month to collect the subscription fees. Oddly enough, the greatest concentration of deadbeat accounts, those who “paid by mail,” but in fact didn’t pay at all, was within the Terrace.

Eventually, the brothers got tired of the paper route, so I took it over as a sort of sub-contractor, still working for marijuana. I really enjoyed that job; I liked the deserted streets, the cool morning air, the walking around, and of course, the dope smoking. Unfortunately, I lost it after about a year when the paper consolidated routes and began requiring car ownership for delivery people. But it was fun while it lasted.

boots in the sand (stoner version)

When I was still in junior high, I cut school a lot to hang out with an older group of stoners. They liked to hang out in Lincoln Park, near the southwest corner of China Beach, a place called Eagle Point. It was near a contemporary style wood-sided house occupied at the time by members of a local rock group known as “The Jefferson Airplane.”

One evening, some of my friends and I were out there drinking beer and smoking pot, when I felt the call of nature, got up, and staggered downhill. Coming around a bush, I suddenly found myself treading air and plummeting down the cliff face, too drunk to be scared until I was well on my way. I was wearing a three-quarter-length leather jacket I’d scored at a thrift store only weeks before, which kept me from shredding my back against the rocky shale as I slid down.

As luck would have it, the tide was coming in, and I landed up to my knees in partially liquefied beach sand. The sand was like glue, and the only way I could move was to step out of the pair of knee-high suede cowboy boots I’d spent several months of odd job wages on (earned in the underground economy of the time) at a surplus store on Market Street. Totally shaken and scared witless, I half crawled, half waded through frigid, knee-deep water to China Beach, weighed down by my wet clothes and the leather jacket. From there, I managed to walk from 28th Avenue to 10th Avenue and Anza Street in wet woolen boot socks, raising a set of blisters the size of Kennedy half-dollars on the soles of my feet. Thanks to the cold sea water, adrenaline pumped into me during the fall, and the long walk home, I was stone cold sober when I got to the front door; thus, I managed to sneak to my room, avoiding embarrassing parental inquiries.

When I saw my friends at school the next day, they all swore they’d been completely unaware that I was missing.

fade to blue

While nominally attending high school, my wiseacre friends and I spent much of our time hanging out in an area known as “the Pit,” which was located under the western side of the concrete stands of the football stadium. The Pit had restrooms that were kept locked except for game days and a windowless utility/storage room where the groundskeeper, whom we all called “Jack T. Gardener,” kept his equipment. Jack was pretty cool. He would unlock the restroom when we had a quorum and didn’t report us when we smoked cigarettes or drank beer there. He even kept some softball equipment for the impromptu games we held in the early afternoons when we were buzzed and mellow. In exchange, we kept the Pit cleaned up and carried our empties off campus so he wouldn’t get into trouble when the boys’ dean, who shared a last name with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, came snooping around.

My best friend, Ed Chung, was part of this group. One day while the two of us were wandering stoned and happy down Clement Street, we found a box of plastic sunglasses in the trash outside the now long gone Owl Drugstore. Their frames were of various styles but all of the same rather unattractive shade of blue (probably why they were being thrown out). We took them over to the Old Man Shack where seniors played checkers and smoked themselves to their graves in Mountain Lake Park and sorted them out. In the process, I discovered I could wear two pairs at once, with the second pair resting atop the first so I looked like I had four eyes. Ed tried on two pair as well, and we both laughed till our sides ached. Then Ed thought up a stunt we could pull, which he organized and we carried out that very evening.

Around 8:00pm, Ed, his older brother, Ray, our friend Chris, and I all met at a tennis court off 25th Avenue and smoked a joint. We then walked out to four bus stops westbound along the 1 California Electric Line and spaced ourselves one stop apart, between 25th and 32nd Avenues, where the line turns south at Lincoln Park to loop back towards downtown. Each of us was wearing two pairs of blue framed sunglasses, one pair atop the other. The bus, with only a few passengers, stopped for each of us. We got on, paid our fares, and seated ourselves from front to rear. When the bus arrived at the 33rd Avenue turn-around, we all got off. The driver didn’t say a word, but he definitely gave us the fish eye.

We managed to get through this stunt without cracking up on the bus. Afterward, we headed to Eagle Point to smoke more dope.

ice sledding in San Francisco

There used to be an ice vending machine at a Union 76 service station located on Geary Boulevard at Stanyan Street. For, as I recall, a dollar you could get either large bags of crushed ice or solid 12×12 ice blocks.

The doors through which the ice was dispensed were large enough for a slender teenager to crawl through. So we’d climb in and steal blocks of ice and then haul them the six blocks over to the Presidio Golf Course via Arguello. Along the way, we’d scrounge copies of the throw-away newspaper The San Francisco Progress which typically accumulated unread on front porches and in the vestibules of flats and apartment buildings.

The Presidio Golf Course had a hill to the west, just past the clubhouse near the Arguello Street Gate, that sloped steeply and dramatically down towards Mountain Lake Park. We’d take the ice blocks up to the crest of the green, put the pilfered newspapers on top of them, and then ride them down the manicured hill—typically stoned out of our minds.

When pursued by the MPs, which was frequently, we’d escape by crossing a deep, concrete culvert that ran parallel to the hill and was choked with blackberry bushes. After crawling under a chain-link fence and scarpering for the nearby park exit at 6th Avenue, we escaped onto Lake Street, scratched and bleeding, but free. We never once got caught.

a collaborative adventure

This is a guest post by my friend Sylvia Davis, a very creative quilt artist. She graciously agreed to undertake making something to hang on a wall in my living room. I love the resulting piece.

A group of friends was at my house for dinner, and as often happens, we all gravitated to my workroom to discuss my current quilting projects. Silent amongst them stood Joycelyn, who was looking thoughtfully at each of the wall hangings in the room. These were predominantly modern abstract stained glass-like patterns in bright colors using bias tape and sometimes beading. They had been created over many years sans any formal training other than an occasional quilting class and around working full time and raising teenagers; they were just for fun. Later she asked if I could make one like these for her, as she had a space in her living room that called out for something interesting. And with that, our collaborative adventure began.

Soon I put together many of my design books for stained glass (mostly Dover) and a notebook of my own projects and went over to Joycelyn’s place. We looked around at her living room, noting the design elements and colors that already existed (heavily Southwest), looked at the space above some bookcases where the wall hanging would be hung, and determined a size of 46 x 18 inches. We went through all the idea books, putting Post-Its on all the pages that showed something she liked. Then we went back to each Post-It page one by one and discussed which details she liked, pulling graceful lines from one, circles from another, and placement from yet another as well as the idea of having one design element go outside the basic rectangle. We made a rough drawing of what we had in mind…

…and set off for the quilting shops for fabric. Two stores later, voila! We found a Southwest abstract in several color schemes. There we sat on the floor of a fortunately empty store, bolts all around us and two store cats wending their way in between us, and we made our decisions.

As I drove home after our purchase, I was utterly amazed that in one short afternoon we had both designed the wall hanging and bought the fabric! I had expected a much more laborious process. Our success lay in Joycelyn’s innate design sense, which meant that, even without the element of color, she knew immediately what she liked and didn’t like. Combined with my experience in which details would likely work and which presented too many problems or conflicted with the overall design, we had made short work of the whole designing process.

Then began several weeks of communication with each other whenever there were decisions to be made about colors and other details, sometimes in person and sometimes via photographs and e-mails. We were both startled at the number of times we had been independently thinking of the same change. We progressed through the paper true-to-size layout…

…transfer of the layout to the background light teal fabric, grid quilting of the background…

…placement and sewing of the curving lines, and assembly and attachment of the circles without a hitch.

I couldn’t find the right color of cording for some of the circles, but found crocheting thread and braided it into two sizes, and we both liked the texture the braiding added and the tie-off of the threads that created some draped detail.

When the wall hanging was nearly complete, we met in a gemstone shop to choose the final embellishments. Then, only two months later, her new wall hanging was proudly in place, a bold statement that pulls many elements of her living room together satisfyingly.

What a delightful adventure!

NOTE: I couldn’t agree more. Collaborating with Sylvia was great fun, and after just over six months, I can’t imagine not having this piece hanging on the wall of my living room.  It just seems to belong there. Thank you, Sylvia! Looking forward to our next project together.

what’s the big deal with Charles Bukowski?

The following is a guest post by Richard Ford Jones (brief bio below), a series of anecdotes drawn from his interactions with the dealers and clientele of an antique mart located in one of the oldest buildings still standing in Downtown Reno, much of which was lost to casino development. Jones works as a substitute floor person for dealers who can’t cover their required days. As with any collection of people, he says, there are personality clashes and mini-dramas galore, and cooperation is hampered by internecine squabbles. He attempts to maintain a circumspect demeanor in his dealings with the various factions.

1.

Due in part to the antique mart owners celebrating their sixth anniversary by laying out cookies, crackers, and cheese, it was a fairly busy day, and we had a few street people and assorted characters drop in. My ability to attract crazy people wherever I go remains undiminished, as all sought me out and engaged me in conversation. Per fellow workers, several are regulars who live downtown and come to the store to get out of the heat or cold and drink free coffee. They know to avoid them. I treated them all like customers, and we got along okay. One guy, a bit more together than some of them, actually thanked me for being nice to him even though I knew he couldn’t buy anything. This can be a tough town to be down and out in, considering how hard it tries to part people from their money. “I am my brother’s keeper” will never be the state motto.

2.

Early in the day, John, one of my fellow floor persons (he sells newer Oriental Art merchandise he buys from another store in the area and marks up) latched onto me and bent my ear periodically for seven hours. I just have “polite listener” written all over me, I guess. He started out by mistaking me for another dealer, a gay guy named “Duke” who sells Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes, old plastic car models, and Deco cocktail sets. There is a superficial resemblance; we’re both relatively thin (though I’ve developed a pot belly over the winter), balding, bespectacled white men in our late fifties with receding salt ‘n’ pepper crew cuts. But Duke has a thin mustache, bad skin, and is several inches shorter than I am.

I finally got John to realize he was talking to another person by pointing out that I only “looked” gay. He then went into a song and dance about how he couldn’t really see me clearly because he’d broken his glasses (he had a cheap set of drugstore readers he carried in his vest pocket). There was also some speculation on my being Duke’s evil twin, and I may have stuck myself with a new nickname.

3.

Our standout customer today was “George,” an old guy doing the full Gabby Hayes: scraggly grey beard and long grey hair, battered Stetson, frayed white canvas shirt under a black leather biker vest, grubby blue jeans several sizes too big, and beat up suede running shoes. He claimed he’d been, among other things, a miner and a hobo. We got to talking, and when the wide-ranging conversation turned to scattering ashes of your loved ones, he declared he’d scattered his sister’s ashes in a casino. I told him about scattering Pop’s ashes on the east slope of Mount Tamalpais (in Mill Valley CA). George, as it turned out, was a graduate of Tamalpais High School. “You’re the first person I met in thirty years ever mentioned that name!” He ended up buying a three dollar silk rep tie. “Sometimes I just feel like dressin’ up.”

4.

One of our regular customers, a woman who appears to be schizophrenic, is obsessed with a “fortune telling wizard” the owner’s wife has in one of her booths. The wizard is a maddening device comprised of a black box atop which is a clear glass ball. Within the ball is a cast resin figurine of a wizard garbed in peaked hat, star spangled robes, and all. It has a proximity sensor and sound generator that produces an annoying electric scale run randomly every few minutes throughout the day, and a loud electric hiss whenever anyone comes near it. When fed a quarter, it verbally intones your fortune in a few brief, clichéd words.

This customer sometimes arrives just before closing to “consult” it, and if denied access to the wizard becomes very distraught. Yesterday, she also purchased a paperback copy of the Edith Hamilton classic “The Greek Way,” which she paid for in loose change. The manger allowed her to slide on $0.68 she didn’t have. She promised to bring the money today.

5.

“Dan,” who is five feet tall if he’s an inch, looks like a cross between Professors Irwin Corey and Timothy Leary in miniature, complete with the wispy grey hair, wry squint, and toothy grin (possible false teeth.) His story is that he’s of royal blood, related on the German side to the Houses of Hanover and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but enjoys being a “commoner.” Yesterday when he was in, he led me to a case where the dealer was displaying some chi-chi ladies feathered hats. He pointed to a picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and told me he was proud to see “his cousin.” And the thing is it might just be true.

Like so many of the others who come in here, he just wanted someone to talk to. Still, you have to wonder what the big deal was about Charles Bukowski; maybe it’s just that he wrote it all down.

                                                                                                     

Bemused in Casablanca (1998)

Richard Ford Jones began writing in the late 1980s, when in his early 30s. During a brief three-month period he produced six novellas and short stories, none intended for publication. He jokingly refers to these as “The Jones Canon.” He did not write anything in a literary vein again for another sixteen years.

His next spurt of creativity was from 2004 to 2008, during which he wrote four humorous genre pastiches for an annual 500-word writing contest in The North Bay Bohemian. The contests involved either building a story on an introduction (with plot elements provided by the judges) or utilizing a list of words in the body of a story.

While Jones has had no literary output for extended periods, he has for many years been a self-described “inveterate crank letter writer,” penning scores of letters to the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, two Northern California newspapers, and now the Reno Gazette Journal, quite a few of which have seen print.

The many authors Jones admires and has read repeatedly include: Michail Bulgakov, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Paul Cain, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Robert E. Howard, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, St.Clair McKelway, Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle), Alfred Bester, Luo Guanzhong, George Borrow, Alexander Dumas, Fritz Leiber, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray.”

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