Still Alive!

A Temporary Condition

by Herbert Gold

Still Alive!

Hardcover, 249 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

A whimsical memoir of the author's first seventy years recounts the experiences that shaped his outlook and philosophies about living life to its fullest, in an account that also describes his enjoyment of life during his senior years.

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Excerpt: Still Alive!

Still Alive!

still alive!

a temporary condition


arcade publishing

Copyright © 2008 Herbert Gold
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55970-870-8

Contents

Author's Note....................................................xi1.  Remembrance of Cultural Revolutions Past.....................12.  A Night Scavenger............................................293.  Lakewood, Ohio, 1930s........................................454.  A Selfish Story..............................................555.  The Norwegian Captain........................................776.  Adolescence Can Strike at Any Age............................977.  King of the Cleveland Beatniks...............................1178.  Ghosts.......................................................1409.  Edward J. Pols...............................................15410. Advanced Sub-Acute Thinking..................................16311. Still Alive..................................................17212. The Romance of Ambition......................................204Afterword........................................................231

Chapter One

Remembrance of Cultural Revolutions Past

Direct from the People's Republic of China she came with the glad tidings!

We were invited to gather at the apartment of our friends the Natters to hear Myrtle Ferguson describe her experience at the center of the Cultural Revolution about which so many lies were being told in the imperialist bourgeois media. Myrtle taught English in a Beijing school; she wore a monochrome uniform like millions of her fellow strugglers; her hair, brutally cropped, fell over her forehead in a slab no one would dare call bangs. She was traveling in Amerika on a tour of enlightenment, sent with the full authority of the Authorities. Zucchini and Monterey Jack cheese would be served, along with wine. At my request, beer for me.

Piled democratically together on the floor, leaning on giant Esalen pillows, clutching our wine and cheese and sliced zucchini (beer, me), we turned our yearning faces toward oblong Myrtle, standing in her high-collared suit in front of the fireplace. Flirtation and gossip were shushed by our host. We were ready to be instructed.

"My former parents in Swarthmore, that's Pennsylvania, tried to mold me into someone like them, an Amerikan female," Myrtle bitterly confessed. We all knew, thanks to her clipped and crunched pronunciation of the word "Amerikan," that there was a k in there, counteracting our indoctrination by misogynist, patriarchal schooling. "I came to understand my destiny lay in the People's Republic, home to the Chinese people. In the East, land of the mighty Red River...." After the groundwork, she got into the more advanced stuff: "... so I took a job teaching English in ..." Articulated by Myrtle in a doubtlessly authentic People's Republic accent, the word "Beijing" sounded to my ears like amplified granola.

Wind chimes rang out in the evening fog on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Myrtle had brought the chimes as a house present for her hosts, Marjie and Ted Natter. The bringing of house presents was another gracious custom she had learned in the People's Republic.

These were days that tried persons' souls. Cadre Myrtle was resolute, stern of demeanor. Once upon a time, far away, in a place dominated by brutal patriarchal Quakers, they had taught her to be meek and mild, but she managed to escape their cruel manipulations. It was a clean getaway. Unlike erroneous seekers, she had found the truth and intended to share it. The room was crowded. I leaned with my wife against the legs of a couple who had taken the couch. Our friend, Ted Natter, borrowed the neck of my beer bottle for tapping purposes and asked that we discontinue all private whisperings. There was an endless war in Viet Nam, Amerikans were out of step with history, and discussions of chardonnay versus pinot noir should stop immediately.

My teeth bit down hard and satisfyingly on a crisp vertical slice of zucchini. I licked a slippery cube of Monterey Jack. I offered my wife the first chance at my second beer, and she delicately swallowed from the long neck. I loved her every gesture.

Stalwart, serene, and committed to her mission, Myrtle was describing how the People settled a troubling question about the principal of the school where she taught. "The masses entered his office and we determined that he had a landlord mentality which he had craftily hidden from everyone."

Although uncertain if this conformed to the rules, I raised my hand.

"Crafty and deceitful," she was saying, "like all those with landlord mentalities -"

I waved my arm. She ignored the disturbance. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to speak, I spread a mist of beer over our dear neighbors on the floor. Melissa, my well-mannered wife, prudently removed the bottle from my foam-covered hand. "How?" I asked Myrtle. "How did you find out about his landlord mentality?"

"The masses looked into his desk. We opened a drawer."

But they didn't harm him, she explained, because the masses understood that this was not the way of the Great Leader. I murmured, not even certain what I was saying. The masses, in their just desire for reeducation of cadre gone astray, asked the landlord-mentality school principal to sit in the courtyard with a dunce cap on his head; then the masses urinated on him. The masses lined up in orderly fashion to express their sincere outrage and urge him to reform his thought. I believe what I was murmuring was a question about whether the bladder-voiding method of reeducation enlisted both students and teachers, or perhaps it was merely to clear up a technical detail about how the female masses positioned themselves if they remained standing. Revolutionaries, of course, can find a way, even as the turbulent waters of People's Republic springtime rains rush down the slopes of the mountains, finding the correct channels.

Having murmured, I spoke aloud. "Did he reform?"

Myrtle Ferguson, the repentant Quaker from Swarthmore, regretted that the answer remained uncertain. Having taken the capitalist road, the principal chose to commit suicide. He made this decision without consulting his colleagues, typical behavior of capitalist roaders. It was a landlord mentality characteristic to deprive the people of their labor.

Our guest of honor was a seeker of the righteous path, as were most of us. In the future, she might be kind, and so might the masses, but today, this year, this century, there was no time for weakness.

I could have used another long-necked bottle to share with my wife. Ted Natter sought me out during the post-lesson group discussion; socializing was not on the program tonight. He suspected that I was the victim of my own landlord mentality, a recent perpetrator of murmurings. He sought to rescue me by Socratic, or perhaps Hegelian, interrogation. He asked: Was I opposed to culture?

No.

Was I opposed to revolution?

Uh ... depends.

He ignored this. So Cultural and Revolution, you put them together, and you get Synergy, two conjoined, unbeatable mighty goods. "Look at yourself, Herb. Look at history."

I looked at myself and history, now located in an apartment in San Francisco. Peace picketers (I too was one), red Mao buttons (well, Melissa had sewn rainbow ribbons on my shirts), and Earth shoes were on the march. I noticed cartridge belts with bullets on some of the more stylish women and asked one, whom I'll call Trenda (not her real name), why. "It's a neat look," she said. Later she would explain in detail: "Edgy. Pushes the envelope."

No bourgeois exploiters with landlord mentalities were being shipped from post-Summer of Love San Francisco to work on pig farms in, say, New Jersey or Tennessee. Along with Maui Wowie, Little Red Books were being imported to expand the consciousness of sliced-zucchini-nibbling, wine-sipping exploiters (me, beer) on Russian, Nob, and Telegraph hills, and also in Pacific Heights.

Ted Natter had recently taken to reminding Melissa: "Why don't you tell Herb to stay home and look after the children so you can go out and write books?" She gazed at him and explained, with that generous smile, which usually removed the sting from her messages: "He does what he does and I do what I do. And we have nice babysitters, this Filipino and tonight this girl from the Art Institute -"

"Woman, not girl. Filipina, not with an o. But hiring slaves doesn't -"

We'd had our beverages, our cheese and zucchini, and our lecture, and it was time to walk back home, saving an hour off the cost of our slave. Often the best part of an evening out was the stroll home in the San Francisco damp, Melissa's hand on my arm, letting the evening settle silent around us.

Love Thy Sisters

Like so many of my age in San Francisco during that space of glorious Unreality Check, I had been reinfected with adolescence, but doing it better this time, giddy with the music (the "San Francisco Sound!"), the dancing, the avid gaze of the young as they (we!) danced, grokked (?), & grooved, and read Hermann Hesse for life guidance. Well, burdened with judgments I couldn't quite overcome, I made an exception for Hesse on the grounds of excess mysticism, for Chairman Mao on other grounds, but not for the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, and even Country Joe with his "gimme an F" antiphonal chant against the Viet Nam war. Goddamn, but it was fun. Blessed indeed was it to be alive in Golden Gate Park, including the Panhandle. Was that eucalyptus I smelled, or was it smokable banana peels? Space travelers who had no need of NASA equipment launched themselves from Hippie Hill day and night, bongos and guitars providing gentle and soothing jet propulsion.

During a season or two, the new world began promptly on Monday or any other day when the troops of the children's crusade climbed off the Greyhound from Galveston, Ithaca, or Cleveland. I was already here, smelling the flowers, the patchouli, the eucalyptus, and my wife's hair. We consented to be very young, very happy. Although "digging ze scene," as a hitchhiking French hippie said, practicing her San Francisco-speak, I also - not really an adolescent - dug narrowing my eyes and inscribing judgments.

The lament that youth is wasted on the young was newly scored for electric guitars. Now youth could be wasted on everyone; love oh love oh careless love. We looked deeply into each other, often seeing only ourselves, but sometimes, yes sometimes, seeing the other. Nearly twenty years earlier, sprung into civilian life after three years in the U.S. Army, I had stumbled into a marriage that began with low-level guerilla warfare and ended in an all-out scorched-earth campaign. But as sometimes happens, suffering was not absolute. There was survival; there were two daughters after the term of warfare. And now here was Melissa, loving to my daughters, who returned her care with adoration. I was young again; Melissa was still young. We brought into this new world the three children we wanted, all in a row.

The ecology of Eden would not be complete without apples and snakes. The democracy of flowerdom contained elements of an unfree command economy. Timothy Leary preached both freedom and psychedelic prescriptions, and covertly dosed his visitors' drinks. Our friends the Natters intended to change the nature of marriage in general and our own in particular. Truth trumpeters, truth activists, Marjie and Ted believed that the marriage of Melissa and me required drastic reform. Unmet requirements were a challenge to them, especially in a time that demanded change "by any means necessary," as a pithy Black Panther put it.

They launched a lightning campaign to save our souls. Foremost on the program was that child and household duties must be moved from the wife to the spouse. The writing trade needed to be transferred to the wife. Once these matters were settled, more would come up.

Unfortunately, we balked at reform. I continued practicing prose; Melissa believed it was her own choice to spend much of the day with our children, who wore gender-specific clothing except for diapers. Marjie and Ted had their work cut out for them.

"Companionship" is a word derived from an idea meaning "the sharing of bread." Our friendship with the Natters might have become monotonous except that monotony was not allowed in this time of the Summer of Love hangover. Although Ted was pinched in judgment and vindictive when disagreed with, and Marjie was virulent in her anger at what violated each turn in her evolving code, they both had wide, generous, bright, and happy smiles. That's almost the same as having large, generous, accepting hearts.

Melissa and I thought to rescue a friendship "by any means necessary," even a bourgeois dinner involving candles, wine, and normal conversation about children, psychedelics, and the War in Viet Nam.

Ted and Marjie were happy to join us, making a seminar of four, not even asking first who did the cooking. Our own last-ditch campaign, envisioning light at the end of a tunnel of dissonance, included rack of lamb, brown rice, and a salad that included baby shrimp and a delicate vinaigrette dressing, which Melissa included partly so she could pronounce it like the waiter at our favorite North Beach restaurant: "vinegaret." Sometimes her jokes were tainted by elitism.

The feeding neared its mellow yet fraught conclusion with crème brûlée prepared from a secret recipe Melissa had inherited from her mother and promised to give to nobody except her own daughter. We bit the crisp caramel, we licked the high-cholesterol spoons. Marjie put her hand on my wife's hipbone and announced: "We can only destroy patriarchal control of Amerika if we learn to love our sisters."

This was not a stab at learning the secret recipe for crème brûlée. This was a Pass.

Melissa's delicate Celtic skin turned purple with embarrassment, both because of the theoretical and argumentative nature of the pass and also because of the respective husbands witnessing the event. The passee moved away. The hand was detached, it slipped off. There was a difficult moment of silence.

As a typical misogynist sexist host, it was my duty to say or do something. "Uh," I said. And then: "So, Ted, what do you think about this?"

His voice, normally high, rose almost to a treble clef, as if his chest had tightened. "I totally respect it," he said.

"Do you want to love your brothers, too, uh, that way?"

"I do, I do! Problem is ... you wouldn't be up for sharing the experience with me? Most of my friends have bought into the straight thing. And the kind of man I could pick up -"

He read my mind. I was thinking of the cluster of Polk Street hustlers near Hard On Leathers, Gray Wolf Clothing, and a bar, The White Swallow. The Castro was just being colonized.

"- that kind, it would be, I don't know, sort of like uncomfortable?"

Right. It took two to tango, even this theoretical tango, this tango in the portion of the cortex that measures moral imperatives. "Someday," I said, and he gazed expectantly into my eyes, "someday we'll have to not talk about this."

The evening ended with insincere vows all around to meet again soon. I told Melissa that I loved the way she blushed a deep purple, because I could never provide such a dramatic portrayal of embarrassment, due to my darker skin. "We Scottish-Irish-English have all the luck, don't we?" she said. She sighed. Our friendship with the Natters seemed to be suspended.

Nevertheless, in the metropolitan village of San Francisco, we met and remet. That's the deal, one of the peculiar advantages of living in a metropolis with all its eccentricities and dangers, like a space station on earth, and also in a village with its proximities and interconnections. During an afternoon espresso run at Caffe Trieste, flagship of the Beat flotilla, now beached among tourists, memories, and a few stray boheems, I found Ted also taking an afternoon espresso. Great minds do not always think alike; not all minds are great; but espresso is a valuable common lubricator. We moved our chairs to sit together. Instead of commenting on the niceness of the weather and the steamy warmth of the Trieste, I asked Ted if he thought Marjie had developed in recent years some kind of suspicion of men. "Oh, no," he declared, defending her consistency. "It's long-standing. Not me, of course, we're super-close."

"I know you're an exception. But why the hatred of other men?"

He struggled for a succinct explanation that would not delay our return to spouses and children. "Well, she's studied history. Hitler was a man."

Aristotle was a friend of mine (not him personally, but his writings); the syllogism implied here lay beyond my grasp. I tried to think, Q.E.D. It didn't work. I tried to think, Therefore ... Still no luck.

Ted hastened to assure me that it was nothing personal and remedy was available. Ever since they decided not to be husband and wife but spouse and spouse, equal, level, parallel, and sharing, all discord had evaporated from their partnership. He agreed to clothe their two sons in dresses so that they would appreciate what women face in the patriarchal world. She compromised on one matter. They were allowed to urinate standing up if they insisted.

"Copacetic with you, Spouse?" she had asked.

"Cool, Spouse," he answered.

They didn't eat grapes (César Chávez). They sewed their own rainbow flag to hang at the door (gay rights). They chose Halloween as their major holiday because witches can be of any gender, no matter what prejudiced people think.

Later, Spouse and Spouse got divorced anyway.

The family therapist whom Marjie, now mostly Marjoe, consulted asked her, "Do you want to split?" and Marjoe said yes, so the family therapist said, "Well, that means you're fine, so off you go, sister." It was a divorce of the new No Fault variety and of the even newer Everybody Wins persuasion. They still shared picketings, marches, and custody of the sons, who objected to their dresses, although their father referred to them as caftans. On the playground during soccer practice, fellow students sneered at linguistic distinctions.

(Continues...)




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