Excerpt: 'Still Alive!' Herbert Gold's idiosyncratic collection of essays on aging mixes humor with philosophical thoughts.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Still Alive!'

Excerpt: 'Still Alive!'

Herbert Gold's 'Stay Alive'
Still Alive!: A Temporary Condition
By Herbert Gold
Hardcover, 250 pages
Arcade Publishing
List price: $25.00

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. Hav¬ing 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 postlesson 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?


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.

Excerpted from Still Alive!: A Temporary Condition by Herbert Gold Copyright © 2008 by Herbert Gold. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved.