Wednesday, November 22, 2017

At the Babi Yar: eating the dead

I have stood at the palisade of the Bibi Yar. The Babi Yar was "the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust." I mis-heard it as Bibi Yar, as there wasn't much available information about it in 1989. 

So much of what I learned was in the oral tradition from the Ukrainians themselves. During the height of Glasnost, they began to speak of the dark secrets of the land. I wonder if it's Ukrainian vs Russian sp.? Baba as in babushka. Babii, plural. The grandmothers' ravine. Yar, A Turkish word. A multi-cultural name. 

 It wasn't just  a mass grave of Jews. Armenians. Tsigani/gypsies. Ukrainian dissenters, students, poets, musicians. Any Nazi dissenter, and later, Stalinist dissenters as well. 

My friends spoke of the massive bonfire funeral pyres that reached to the Ukrainian sky because there were too many bones to hide. Stalin was sweeping it under the rug, so to speak. That summer, Ukraine's golden wheat fields were a carpet of shame. Bone ash fertilized the crops—the Ukrainians were eating their dead for decades to come. 

But the dead were speaking through the mouths of the living—a vast hunger for truth. And so they began to raise the Ukrainian flags for the first time in nearly a century. A vast blue sky over golden fields nourished with bones.

I remember standing at the rim and weeping. It was so visceral. So real. The wind in the trees whispering. Yet there were only a handful of us, there was no memorial. No visual markers to tell us how to feel, like at other holocaust memorials. Just the deep sorrow of the ravine. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017


If I sneeze any harder,
I will be residing in the next county.
Or offshore, say, near the Farallones.
Maybe pee my pants in the process,
I seem to be leaking at all ends.
I'm like a crawdad shooting backwards
out of danger. I scoot into a corner, 
or prop my back for a tuck and roll.
We're not talking petite parakeet sneezes
women seem to manage in public.
But bull-roaring tonsil severing sneezes
that would threaten any crown or filling.
I've heard of people breaking ribs
or rupturing a disk. Seems extreme 
just to get a bowl of chicken soup.  
But a jumbo-sized glass of wine
seems to have quelled my sneezing fits. 
Offers me some form of respite.
Sure, I could take some Sudafed 
to dry up the dripping faucet, 
but then I can't sleep at all. 
Besides, wine's much more fun. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Dancing on the Brink

Last day of the year, 2015: the Farallones, 20 miles  from Point Reyes

On the last day of the year, the Farallones, 20 miles out from Point Reyes, seemed so close, I could almost touch them. A pumpkin sky and ominous black islands. A last gasp from a dying camera; its swan song.

Farallón means "pillar" or "sea cliff," they were once known as "Devil's Teeth Islands," for the treacherous shoals. Part of the Sierras, a block of rifted granitic continental crust thrusted up. A place where I though the dead dwelled. I had no idea that the islands were the abode of spirits, called "Islands of the Dead" by the Ohlones.

The Farallones are home to 400 species of birds, many of them rare, or endangered. I once saw a tufted puffin wing his way off Point Reyes. A small clownish football of a bird winging home with a beakfull of fish.

Vizcaíno's friar, Antonio de la Ascencion, called the islands los Farallónes, the place of cliffs. Probably why San Francisco Bay was never discovered by Vizcaíno, or Drake, who called them the Islands of Saint James. A place of treacherous shoals. A place of many shipwrecks. Not to mention the thick summer fog.

The American whalers, and Russian explorers built sealing stations there, manned by Alaskan Kodiak Islanders, until there were no more northern fur seals left. Whether Northern, or Guadalupe fur seals, we will never know. One of the largest seabird colonies in the U.S. Then the Gold Rush—millions of seabird eggs (500,000 a month) collected, led to the San Francisco Egg Wars.

When I was a child I loved the mournful sob of the bouys when the thick fog rolled in at night. Classmate Ingrid's great-grandparents, the Cains, were lighthouse keepers on the Farallones. The other lighthouse keeper's wife, Wilhelmina Beeman delivered Ingrid's grandmother, Farallon—a child named after the sea cliffs. They moved to the mainland before the 1906 quake, and lost everything. Only a photo of her grandmother in a basket on the porch, in a book, was what survived.

Then the island was Rum Row during the Prohibition. Then we turned our backs on the islands. The shoals were a nuclear waste dump during the 1940s to the 1970s; 50,000 radioactive drums, and 44,000 shipyard containers were scuttled, and are still rusting away—we still don't know what is in them. But it can't be good. Stories of massive sponges growing in the littoral zones.

Yes, and here we are, still dancing on the brink of the world. Words from the lost Ohlone language:
uxar-at kai pire.
On the cliff, on the edge,
on the brink of the world,
we are dancing.
Day of the Dead, All Soul's Day, The beginning and the end of the Celtic year. My grandmother, brother and mother all died right before Samhain. So, Samhain, All Souls' Day, and El Dia de los Muertos is a three-fold sorrow. Thinking of my mother who wanted her ashes scattered off the Golden Gate, to drift to the Farallones. Maybe I should give her back to the sea.

Fitting image for El Día de los Muertos.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

SFSU survey may have got more than an earful from me

A SFSU alumni survey may have gotten more than an earful from me, I wrote lengthy diatribes, so I saved my responses (below). (Say how ya really feel, Hurley...)

Name one person who made a positive impact: Advisor and mentor, English/ Creative Writing teacher, Prof. Dan Langton, who went out of his way to assure that I was able to transcend the process of being a returning student; he helped to keep things relevant, and offered community credit for work I was already doing; he was not a bureaucratic hoop jumper as so many teachers I encountered at SFSU have been.

Because I needed a correlative, I chose playwriting. Brighid Mullins was a fantastic Creative Writing/theater teacher, I learned a lot from her, especially a deeper appreciation of Aristotle. A good bridge. Roy Conboy too was the real deal. Relevant. A shoutout to Joe McBride who ran all the weekend cinema classes, He was fantastic. Loved the historical overview of film noir.

I found the late Justin Chinn to be an abysmal Creative Writing/theater teacher, if you could call him that—he was fine for the newbies, but not for someone with a lot of writing experience. He skated on his thin persona, and did not teach; my only B grade, out of 56 units of A grades, I might add, because I pushed for more in-depth material. But it turned me off to playwriting.

I might add that I had a profoundly disturbing experience when I first attended SFSU during the mid 1970s, I found the Art Department, and facilities to be sub-par, and I dropped out of school after a year, and finished my BA at Sonoma State.

The only bright moment was taking a class from Prof. McGrath in anthropology, which led me to a lifelong pursuit of Celtic Studies.

SFSU has made dramatic inroads since those early years, but it is still not top notch, at least in my experience.

What am grateful for: That I got my MA, but I never completed my MFA because I ran into too much obfuscation and run-arounds, and downright contradictions, from the respective deans of Humanities, and the Graduate Admissions powers that be, when I tried to file for my MFA. I was literally on the homestretch, I had completed ALL the coursework, it was merely a matter of filing papers, and turning in my thesis. But I couldn't get the paperwork completed and signed off. Tired of wrangling with bureaucrats, I left SFSU in disgust. This is one reason why I cannot wholeheartedly recommend SFSU.

I was simultaneously enrolled at UC Berkeley's Celtic Studies program, while pursuing a MA and MFA in Creative Writing, so working with SFSU English Prof. (Peter?) Flynn, whose office door was always open, allowed me to create a bridge for my ongoing learning, which wasn't offered at SFSU. It meant I was able to also pursue my scholarly interest with some of the great scholars at UC Berkeley including Prof. Alan Dundes, and Professors Dan Melia and Robert Tracy.

I find your Education Department to be the most appalling I have ever encountered. So much so that I gave up on the idea of obtaining a credential. I would not recommend them. Period.

Also, my partner, who got his credential at SFSU, got a similar monkeyhouse runaround when he tried to complete his MA in Education. Because I was witness to his Education classes, teachers and assignments, sometimes sitting in on classes, I can safely say, your Education Department is/ was awful. There is too much nepotism and concern which leads to a closed shop mentality. Probably only one decent professor in the department who had integrity, was Flores. The rest had their jobs, it was all about them keeping their jobs, not about the students' welfare, or a meaningful education. SFSU cranks out sub-par teachers who are incredibly ill-equipped to succeed in the real world. Pedagogy is not the teaching of pedagogy for pedagogy's sake. But there you have it. Mirrors reflecting mirrors ad infinitum.

I have worked in California schools as an artist in residence since 1979, so I have worked with an astonishingly wide range of teachers.  The ones from SFSU are always the sub-par ones; they are C students.

You do need to hire more stellar and inspiring teachers within the Education Department, not teachers whose sole interest seems to hanging onto their jobs until retirement. I have never seen such nepotism and cronyism in my life. Perhaps by now it's improved as that was more than ten years ago and some of those teachers have moved on (one would hope). But I kind of doubt it. It's a self-perpetuating cycle.

Advice to future SFSU candidates, given that both my experiences at SFSU were not stellar, I would choose my words carefully, and remain non-committal, rather than say what I really felt, as I do know SFSU has been a great experience for many students.

Other comments: I think I've thoroughly covered the winter of my discontent pretty thoroughly in the above comments. Sadly, I'm still angry at SFSU, and its bureaucratic and often draconic policies after all these years. It was not a good experience.