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Cults I Have Known

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Cults tried and rejected

  • Scientology
  • Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (sheesh!)
  • Hare Krishnas
  • Revolutionary Communist Party (“Mao more than ever”)
  • Daytime soap operas
  • Wheatgrass
  • Non-fat, decaf lattes
  • Spin classes
  • Craigslist hook-ups
  • Cars

Cults embraced

  • Dogs
  • Kale
  • Coffee
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Walks in the park
  • Parenthood

Filed under: Autobiography, Humor,

A borrowed life

Housesitting gives you a chance to occupy, for a few days or a week or two, another life, not just another house. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Autobiography

20 Classic Opening Lines In Books

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ANNA KARENINA (1877), Leo Tolstoy  (via 20 Classic Opening Lines In Books |

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with all of Entertainment Weekly‘s picks for classics, but who could argue with that opening from Anna Karenina?

What opening lines would you pick as your “twenty best/favorite opening lines”? Conversely, what are the opening lines of your twenty favorite books? What’s the opening line of the book(s) you’re reading right now? Mine is:

“Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she’d first known this city.”

Interesting to think about what we know from first lines, from this first line. That we are—probably—in London (with those big black taxis), but what else? A certain tone perhaps—wistful maybe, somewhat detached and observant. Hard for me to be sure now what might be just in that line, as opposed to what I know from all the subsequent lines I’ve read.

It might be interesting to collect the opening lines of my books – the ones I’ve read, that I own, the ones I love. Even the ones I’ve lost—the collected opening lines like the ghost of my former library.

What would I do with a collection of opening lines? I can imagine alphabetizing my books not by author or by title but by those first lines, as is done in the index of collections of poetry. Or creating some kind of taxonomy of opening lines and using that as an organizing principle… An exercise in collectorship, connoisseurship, like Rob Fleming organizing his record collection by the order in which he bought them.

Not the Rob Fleming who is a Canadian politician, nor the other one who is an architect. The one from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.  I googled the name and those other ones came up first. How many of you are there on Google? How many of you are like you? One of me lived in the same small town I used to live in. Another worked with Macintosh computers, like me, here in the Bay Area, like me. My doppleganger, but younger. A younger me. I should call him up and warn him about the rocky years ahead.

Filed under: Autobiography, Literature

My 4am Wake-Up Call

Websurfing and blogging at 4:30am after giving up on efforts to get a decent night’s sleep, battered as I am by the psychic tag team of soul-/jet-lag and economically-induced anxiety (241 days to find a job! I’ll never be able to afford a decent place to live!), and what do I run across?

Want To Get Faster, Smarter? Sleep 10 Hours: New research adds to a growing body of evidence showing the perks of a good night’s sleep.

A study from researchers at Stanford University finds that extra hours of sleep at night can help improve football players’ performance on drills such as the 40-yard dash and the 20-yard shuttle. (via NPR.)

Filed under: Autobiography, ,

Calamity: No Other Change of Hobbit

Today I made my first trip to Berkeley since moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area at the beginning of the week. I was going through my usual ritual of renewal and re-acquaintance, visiting the Farmer’s Market for some lunch and then heading off down Shattuck towards Peet’s and Live Oak Park when disaster struck: The Other Change of Hobbit was gone, boarded up.

I’ve been shopping at The Other Change of Hobbit pretty much my entire life, and it is what all science fiction and fantasy bookstores aspire to, perfection of its kind, particularly in its earlier incarnation, next to the elevators in the Durant parking structural. A big open space, lined and filled with books, with chairs and cushions scattered around for comfy reading, a couple of cats on patrol, and a staff – and clientele – of incredibly knowledgeable and friendly science fiction aficionados, experts on the genre in all its form and manifestations.

Rarely would a visit to Other Change pass without encountering a conversation about “novels that a nephew who enjoyed Star Wars would like” or “what to read after Tolkien/Narnia/Harry Potter” or something more erudite and obscure, such as novels focusing on xeno-sex or featuring species of star-faring intelligent plants, or talking/telepathic horses. As I got older and bolder, I increasingly joined in these discussions, or tried to at least. The patience and encouragement of the staff and the other patrons could set the standard for nurturing young minds and burgeoning interests. There were, of course, disagreements and disputes, but always within an atmosphere of collegiality, affection and respect. And I got to know some of the owners, and Dave Nee in particularly, pretty well over the subsequent years – decades, really, now that I think about it, encountering them in other contexts besides the store, but always finding them to be among the finest examples of the various intelligent species inhabiting this planet.

I’m sure it wasn’t really perfect, that there were mean and stupid customers, and the staff had off days when they were short with kids asking naive questions. But I never saw any of that. It was for me an oasis, a temple, a community.

And today it was gone.

When I came back to the Bay Area briefly a couple of years ago, it was to discover that another bookstore, another key institution of my life, was gone – Cody’s. And over the course of the following year, both Black Oak and Stacey’s shut down for good. But while the loss of these bookstores – particularly Black Oak – was pretty devastating, it was nothing to the feeling I have now, that struck me as I stared at the boarded-up storefront where Other Change used to be. Just ten minutes ago. I sat down here, in the nearest café, to try to collect my thoughts. I still have tears in my eyes. I can’t bear to look online, to see if they have only moved, for fear of what I might find, or rather fail to find.

This will all seem a bit melodramatic if it has indeed only moved, but if that were the case you would think there would have been a notice or sign of some sort. And the truth is I have been expecting something like this ever since I got back – expecting to turn a corner and find something I love gone… But not this. This is really about the worst.

Filed under: Autobiography, , ,

Waking from a Magic Sleep, in a Golden Land now Ruled by Fear

For the last 30 years, I have travelled away from and returned to San Francisco more times that I care to contemplate—to Australia, to Europe, to Michigan, and back, returning at least once a year (a necessity for maintaining my immigrant status).

Each time, it is like waking from a heavy, dream-ridden sleep. At first, you’re groggy, moving slowly and blinking around uncertainly, trying to figure out, to remember where you are. But very quickly, your consciousness shifts back into the realm of the waking, and the dream fades, disappears.

That’s what it’s like for me coming back to San Francisco. At first I’m a bit shell-shocked, hesitant, trying to get my balance, but soon it’s almost as if I never left, and the previous six months or a year is just a fading dream, unreal, a wisp blowing away in the breeze off the Bay.

This time, I feel a bit like Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle, slumbering for years, enchanted, under the spell of a evil sorceress (hi, sweetie). And now that her spell has melted and I have awoken, I find that I am older than I was and life has gone on around me, without me. My world, my home is still recognizable, still itself, but some things have changed or are gone—some people are gone, too, and I missed these passings, the chance to say goodbye, to mourn with the rest. A lot of life passed me by, my family is gone, my job is gone, my home is gone (you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?) and I have to start over, from well behind the pack.

And the kingdom in which I have awoken is suffering under a great evil. But I’m no fairy tale hero, and the evil that is crushing the kingdom isn’t some dragon or cruel tyrant—globalization and neoliberalism, and the terrible plague of the global financial crisis that they helped spawn, are not going to succumb to a well-placed thrust of a shining sword or a spell of vanquishing. I wish.

And anyway, even if it were as easy as that, as finding the one vulnerable spot in the dragon’s armored hide, I’m not that guy, not the hero. I’ll always be the hobbit, and even then more Merry or Pippin than Frodo or Sam. Steadfast in friendship, willing to love and follow, and to respond to the demands of the moment, to rise to the challenge of an heroic act if it is thrust on me, but I won’t be the one looking for battle, and choosing to walk alone and unaided into the darkness to vanquish evil. I’ll be the one looking for the comfy chair by the fire and a pint of ale…

We are all still waiting for the hero, the knight in shining armor who will slay the dragon, and rescue our jobs and bring back our savings and pension plans and underwater mortgages from whatever stolen horde of loot they have ended up in…

Meanwhile, I’m staying in my mom’s guest bedroom and lamenting the fact that my useless family lost the cool bike I left with them (a Surly Long Haul Trucker) , and I can’t even afford a fucking bus pass—I need to save my small stash of cash to “rent” a table and internet time in a cafe for my job hunting… Where is the hero we need? Where’s my ale and mushroom pie?

Filed under: Autobiography, ,

Song of the Day: San Francisco

This following program is dedicated to the City and People of San Francisco, who may not know it, but they are beautiful – and so is their city…

Eric Burdon & The Animals, “San Franciscan Nights” – from Winds of Change (1967)

What else could I pick for “Song of the Day” on the day of my return to San Francisco, the cool gray city of love, baghdad by the bay? I may be coming back with my tail between my legs, bruised and broke, and it may be true that for me right now “there’s no place left to go,” but as Oscar Wilde put it, “It is an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.” So I disappeared only to emerge, shaken and soul-lagged, somewhere a bit like heaven – home, San Francisco.

Filed under: Autobiography, San Francisco, Song of the Day,

Apologies for Lack of Action

I am relocating from Australia to San Francisco, and it may be another day or two yet before I am back into the swing of things, posting a “Song of the Day” and all that…

Filed under: Autobiography

Song of the Day: Jonatha Brooke is trying to break my heart.

Back to maudlin self-indulgence… You have been warned.

One of these days, I’ll get around to writing about playlists. I have a lot of them, and have been known to spend whole days under my headphones, fine-tuning them and making new ones. Among my many playlists are a number devoted to ex-girlfriends, and also a “depression” playlist. That’s music that will bring me down hard if I’m in a good mood, but which is deeply comforting when I am already down there in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Like now.

Jonatha Brooke shows up with alarming frequency on the playlists devoted to the most significant loves of my life, and also has a number of tracks on the “depression” playlist. She crops up elsewhere—for instance, with a track on my Memorial Day playlist (“War“)—but her disproportionate representation on my ex-girlfriend and depression playlists, as well as her tracks on my “love” playlist, lead me to this conclusion: She is trying to break my heart.

She blames it on her fans: “People want to hear the really sad, maudlin songs…. They want to be moved. They want to have their hearts broken… That’s why I love music. It makes me weep.”

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You can browse through most of Jonatha Brooke’s music and listen to samples—and buy the records—on her official website. Here are some of the ones that appear on those playlists. Most of them are sad—the only ones that are at all upbeat are the first and last—and all of them are about love in one way or another. And I’ll be listening to them all a lot over the next few months. Jonatha’s right; I want to have my heart broken.

The Story – The Angel in the House (1993)

So Much Mine
Love Song

Jonatha Brooke & The Story – Plumb (1995)

Is This All?

10 Cent Wings (1997)

Crumbs – Live at the River Music Hall
Because I Told You
Blood From A Stone
Shame On Us

Jonatha Brooke Live (1999)

Because I Told You So

Steady Pull (2001)


Which ones do I like the most—which make me weep the most or easiest? The live version of “Because I Told You So.” But take a look at the number of tracks from 10 Cent Wings. That’s a sad album.

To be fair, she’s not the only one trying to break my heart, based on her appearances in the heartbreak playlist, Tori Amos is just as bad. I really am a big wet hen.

Jonatha Brooke (b. January 23, 1964) is an American folk rock singer-songwriter and guitarist from Illinois. Her music is notable for merging elements of folk, rock and pop, often with poignant lyrics and complex harmonies. She has been a consistent performer, writer, and artist since the late 1980s, and her songs have been used in popular television shows and movies… (via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

Sirens of Song: Jonatha Brooke.

Filed under: Autobiography, Song of the Day, ,

If we were Bogie and Bacall

If I were Bogie and she were Bergman, we would have found some way to part that made sense, that didn’t just leave our shared history a shattered wreck. If I were Bogie and she were Bacall, and Jules Furthman and William Faulkner told us what to say, maybe we could have made it work. But even now…

I’m hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask me.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Filed under: Autobiography, Movies,

Song of the Day: Thelonious Monk, “I Surrender, Dear”

Thelonious Monk, “I Surrender, Dear” – from Brilliant Corners (1956)

We have been discussing sadness, loss and heartbreak… Here it is again, at least for me, though from a very different direction. And from a direction for which I have no map or compass. My training is in words, and to a lesser extent images—writing poetry and essays, analyzing films and visual art. Music is foreign terrain for me, at last when it comes to analysis as opposed to consumption, and as I’ve indicated before the tools and training I have don’t equip me to talk about it in the same way I can about film, say, or poetry. Or even songs with lyrics, where I can focus much of my attention on that lyric content, inadequate though this clearly is.

Here is music without words. Profoundly moving music, and music that seems to me to be speaking of loss. Not the love and heartbreak of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” nor even that of Dar Williams’ more subtle and mature take on those issues in “It Happens Every Day.”

What we have here is closer to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” than anything else about which I’ve written. But even that isn’t quite right. There’s nothing in “I Surrender, Dear” like the admission, the blow at the end of the poem—”the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

It’s a reflective, introspect piece, “I Surrender, Dear”—bittersweet but not bitter. There’s pain, but it’s more like the ache of an old wound—one of those wounds that never fully heals, that throbs when the weather changes—or when you see someone with her hair walking down the street. Who is he surrendering to? What is the surrender, what’s he giving up?

Where’s the pain and loss, the bittersweetness in the song? Here’s where my lack of musical knowledge frustrates me, limits my ability to explain what I hear, and justify the meanings that I attempt to make of it.  I think that bittersweet quality is there in the way the fingers move across the keys, the hesitancy and then reach, the physical longing that the tune enacts in the way the hands have to move along the surface of the piano. In the rising and falling. A new passage starts on a rise, louder, with more energy, on a high (a positive note) and then tapers off, slows, drifts away. It’s the moment when Monk turns away—the moment when that absence reasserts itself. Monk is phlegmatic—while there is a sadness, he’s moving on. Regrets, yes, leaving things behind, but moving on—maybe that’s the surrender.

In a graduate writing seminar at Berkeley, a young shy guy with unkempt blond hair, who seldom looked up or said much, blew us all away one day with a poem about love and Thelonious Monk. I kept a copy of that poem with my own work from the seminar as a reminder of what I wanted to be writing, but it’s off in storage somewhere now. The poem was about love and sex, and the failure of love and sex to abolish separateness and loneliness—and it was about Thelonious Monk and his own navigation of these issues, of the labyrinth of the human heart. The ending went something like this:

From the other room, Monk’s music wraps us in quieting sheets.
And all the songs have titles like “Ruby My Dear” and “Well, You Needn’t”
but what they’re really saying is “that’s the way it is,
that’s the way it is.”

“Monk’s music wraps us in quieting sheets.” Yes. For me, particularly here, more so than in the songs mentioned in the poem. The image of quieting sheets comes, I think, from an historical practice in mental institutions—tightly wrapping agitated patients, patients in the throws of extravagant emotion, in sheets, to restrain them and calm them.

It’s what I need now. Not the anguish of words, with their appeal to the cerebral cortex, their promise of sense and communication, of connection—a deceptive promise, language being “elegy to what it signifies.” The consolation of music like this is what I want, the slow drip through the ears straight into the limbic system, some place older and darker. And especially this: one man, the solitude of the piano, by themselves in a pool of light in a smoky room. Music that wraps us in quieting sheets.

Thelonious Monk –  (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer who, according to The Penguin Guide to Jazz, was “one of the giants of American music”. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including “Epistrophy,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” “Straight, No Chaser” and “Well, You Needn’t.” Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70… (via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

Also check out: My favourite album: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk | Music |

Filed under: Autobiography, Song of the Day, ,

Why I’m moving back to California…

In fairness to my readers, I should point out that this graphic is not entirely accurate. It’s somewhat out of date—Steve Irwin should be replaced by Bindi Irwin. And presumably afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, the mapmakers seem to have deliberately downplayed some of the dangers of Australia, and omitted others entirely. While fires are listed, neither floods nor hail the size of grapefruit appear. Nor is Tony Abbott given a look, though these days there is a real danger of being mowed down by him on his bicycle while he is distracted plotting a US-style religious right shake-up of Australian politics. Likewise, there is no mention of hoons or bogans. Crocodiles are shown, but their propensity for hanging out in swimming pools is inexplicably omitted.

The fact that Australia has some nasty snakes and giant crocodiles and killer sharks is well known. That it also has the meanest and most painful plant in the world, less so. The stinging tree—found mostly in Queensland—has tiny silicon hairs covering the leaves and fruit of the plant, which break off in the skin if you brush against it and then can’t be removed. The effect is apparently extraordinarily unpleasant. When I lived in Far North Queensland, a story was making the rounds of a fellow who brushed against a stinging tree with a very sensitive part of his anatomy while taking a leak along the dirt road running north from Cape Tribulation (the name is a bit of a giveaway). Even given the nature of the affected area, apparently the pain was so great that amputation was seriously considered.

And though the nature of Australia’s snake population (see here or here or here) is known in vague and general terms—largest number of species of venomous snakes, snakes with the deadliest venom, yada yada yada—people outside of Australia simply have no concept of the truth, and this map does not begin to convey the true horror of the situation. Australia has lots of venomous snakes, sure—so does the US. But in Australia, they are common—even in major cities. My son’s school in the center of the nation’s capital had to be shut down twice one year because snakes were hunting the playground. They cut down all the bushes and laid down a gravel cordon sanitaire around the school in an effort to limit such incursions. Going for a walk in Melbourne or Adelaide? Watch out for brown snakes. Going for a swim in the summer resort area south of Sydney? That stick in the water might be a red-bellied black snake.

And don’t even get me started on Taipans. Yes, they are the most venomous snake in the world. (Of the top five most venomous snakes—wait for it—all of them are Australian.) But scary as it may be, that factoid fails to convey the full nature of the Taipan. This is a snake on steroids, whacked out on crystal meth. It’s not lounging around in the sun, torpid and sleepy like a rattlesnake. It’s fast and mean. It will look you up in the phone book, come to your house and bite you when you answer the door bell—and it’s over 2 metres long! Forget sharks with frickin’ lasers—it’s the most venomous snake in the world, highly energetic and over 2 metres long!

Speaking of sharks with frickin’ lasers, these are no longer limited to the waters around Adelaide as the map claims. They have been implicated in a number of boat fires and explosions in Queensland waters, including a couple that engulfed boats carrying refugees and asylum seekers.  There are rumors that Pauline Hanson, Australia’s answer to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, may be behind these attacks by sharks with frickin’ lasers on illegal immigrations, but there has also been talk of the Royal Australian Navy recruiting the sharks as a low cost but deadly addition to the fleet, a deterrent against invasion by Indonesia.

Then there’s the Sydney Funnel-web Spider, which also has been shortchanged by the mapmakers, who simply describe them as “giant.” They are indeed giant—up to 4.5cm for just the body—but they are also black, aggressive, and have powerful fangs. They hide in burrows and crevices in yards throughout the Sydney area, and leap out at people (no kidding). If no one comes into the backyard for them to leap at, the males often wander into houses, looking for a fight—a true fact. (Sydney males of other species tend to wander into pubs rather than homes for this purpose.)

Of course, despite these phenomenal and totally freakish dangers (crocodiles in swimming pools, stinging trees, sharks with frickin’ lasers!), Australia is also a country of tremendous joy and beauty, and there are things about it I will greatly miss…

Filed under: Autobiography, Humor, , , ,



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is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.



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