Archive for the ‘My Life’ Category

Peyote and Me

Thursday, August 18th, 2011 by nick

Me and Victor would order the green peyote buttons, several dozen at a time, from Lawson’s Texas Cactus Gardens. They came with planting instructions, but we never planted any of them. This was 1965 in Iowa City, Iowa. The buttons cost a quarter apiece. When a shipment came in, we would put out the word to our friends who would come over to “the mission” for a peyote party. The mission was what we called the crash pad where I and a bunch of other people were living on communal pots of Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners.

We knew nothing about peyote. Victor had read something somewhere about it and found out you could order it through the mail. So we did. Somewhere we learned that you should first clean out the white fuzz that supposedly contained small amounts of strychnine.

Everyone would sit around with sour expressions on their face, munching on fresh, green peyote buttons. The only record we had at the mission to play on our cheap portable record player, was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I must have heard that record at least a hundred times, in all states of consciousness.

These peyote parties became a fixture in Iowa City for a couple of years. It was never a large crowd. Everybody knew everybody very well, as well as it is possible for people as young as we were, still blank slates, to know each other.

I married Susan that year and soon after we had a son, Jason. I was working at Component Homes on a pre-fab housing assembly line. It was brutal work for a 6’2″” 145 lb weakling. Ten hour days, and a half hour for lunch. I would go to a nearby bar and order a boilermaker, a bottle of beer and a shot of bourbon, and that would be lunch. After work I would buy a quart of beer to drink when I got home. I loved Jason. I would hold him in my arms and carry him around our apartment, pointing out its features and explaining the world to him.

After a little while, we moved to Ames so that I could finish my degree at Iowa State. I needed to make up two flunked PE courses, a beginning accounting course, and a sophomore literature course. I worked at the Student Union, washing dishes and setting up chairs, and Susan’s folks helped us out. After I graduated, I got a job as a programmer trainee at the Iowa State Highway Commission, which was not far from the house we were renting. And I got it because of peyote.

One of the regulars at the Iowa City parties was a guy who had a girl friend in Ames who used to come over to Iowa City for the parties. She was beautiful and smart and sweet. Everyone loved her. And she worked as a computer programmer at the Iowa State Highway Commission. She hipped me to, and recommended me for, the job. I took a programmer’s aptitude test and scored 100% in half the allotted time, and my career in software development was launched.

Peyote got me another job, many years later. Sometime in 1995, when we were living in San Francisco, in a little row house in the Sunset district, I got involved in the Native American Church, attending all-night peyote ceremonies in a tipi. I invited my old friend, John, from The Farm communal days to one of these meetings. At that time he was the manager of the San Francisco Chronicle’s newborn, experimental website, The Gate.

Before the meeting we talked about it. The Gate was John’s only topic of conversation in those days. He was having trouble finding a tech guy who was competent and communicative and trustworthy. I gave him a detailed run-down on just exactly what kind of person he needed. Coincidentally it was a perfect description of myself. In the morning when we emerged from the tipi, all peyotied up, having undergone an intense bonding experience, he offered me the job of Technical Director. I was there for five years and built the first major newspaper website’s technical underpinnings, almost single-handedly, from the ground up. It was a major milestone in my checkered career.

Workin’ at the Heinz Plant

Sunday, August 7th, 2011 by nick

It was 1966 in Iowa City. Susan and I had just gotten married and our first child was on the way. We were flat broke. Victor said he knew where I could get a job. He had worked there before, at the Heinz plant in Muscatine. It was tomato season, and anybody could get a job there. Victor and I worked there for two weeks, which made us some of their most reliable employees. Most guys didn’t last that long.

We worked 14 hour days on the assembly line, stacking boxes of ketchup onto palettes. The pay was $1.65 an hour, no extra for overtime. We slept in the barracks and ate in the company cafeteria. A charge for room and board was deducted from our pay. Ketchup and mustard were free though.

The barracks had a communal shower and a big room with bunk beds. The migrant workers in those days weren’t Mexicans. They were middle-aged white guys who followed the ripening of fruits and vegetables around the country, from Oregon to Iowa, what we used to call hobos. It was hard to get much sleep for the constant sound of coughing all night.

The compound was surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire that pointed inward. After our shift, Victor and I would crawl under the fence at a hole we had found, crawl over a culvert across the creek, and hike into town. We only had time for one beer, but it was worth it. Then back under the fence and into bed. If everyone else was more or less asleep, sometimes we would go into the shower room and smoke a joint. The sound of giggling in the shower room and two guys coming out sometimes got us a few funny looks.

We had three guys on our box-stacking crew, me, Victor, and another guy. Victor had worked there before, and he had a system. By working together and stacking the boxes in a certain pattern, it made it so much more efficient that we could do it with only two men. So we took turns wandering around the plant, stealing pickles, having a smoke.

Eventually the foreman noticed that we were doing the job with only two guys, so he came over and took our other guy away. Victor told me to just stop and let the boxes fall off the end of the line and smash on the floor. Pretty soon we had a pile of cardboard, ketchup, and broken glass at our feet. When the foreman came around again, Victor threw up his hands and said, “We just can’t handle it with only two guys.” We immediately got our third man returned to us, and life was good again.

Crazy is as Crazy Does

Monday, August 1st, 2011 by nick

For awhile I worked as an attendant on the day shift at Psych Hospital in Iowa City. It was 1965. I was 21. Psych Hospital was part of the University of Iowa. They only accepted patients who had some reasonable prognosis of being returnable to society, no hopeless schizos, no catatonics. I worked on the women’s ward. There were mostly manic-depressives and despressives, a few schizophrenics, and a few teenage girls and young women who were committed by concerned relatives for what were really moral transgressions. The depressives got shock treatments, after which they were somewhat confused, disoriented, and missing part of their memory, but were generally less depressed. The manics and the schizophrenics we just had to deal with, although they were of course thoroughly thorazined and lithiumed.

The primary therapy at Psych Hospital was to inform the patients who really wanted to get out, that there was a way they could make that happen. They were essentially trained in how to act normal so that no one would know that they were crazy. If, after a certain amount of time, they didn’t get “better”, they would be sent to the big house, the state mental institution at Clarinda. It was a very effective therapy. I witnessed many miraculous cures of mental illness.

One of the patients on the ward was a young woman, mid-20′s, sexy. She was in for f**king a priest. She liked to f**k, and had been committed by a concerned relative. You could do that in those days. I was forced to resign from my post on the day shift at Psych, partly because of her. I had applied to be transferred to the night shift, where I had several friends. After submitting my application, I was called into the office and told my services were no longer required. The two reasons given were that I had been having an affair with the afore-mentioned priest-f**ker, and also, that I had been distributing communist literature to the patients. I was entirely innocent of these disgusting crimes, but, it so happened, I knew the two guys who were actually, respectively, guilty. They were friends of mine. They worked on the night shift. What could I do? I didn’t much like the job anyway.

While I was still working there, a good friend of mine wound up as a patient on the men’s ward, across the lobby from where I worked in the women’s ward. Bob Costler (the name has been changed) was someone I had known from my years at Iowa State. I was an Economics major, but all of my friends and associates were writers and poets in the English department. Costler was the best of the poets. He was short, stocky, red-headed, freckled, from some little Iowa town, and he had a lyric gift. He wrote ornate,evocative poetry, kind of like Dylan Thomas.

He moved to Iowa City awhile after I did, and one night, after ingesting some peyote or mushrooms or something, he had a psychotic break. I wasn’t there when it happened, but later I went to visit him across the hall at Psych Hospital, where he had been committed. We were sitting on a couch in the visiting area, a big room, about twenty people. He leaned over and said, “You see that guy sitting there on the other side of the room?”. I said, “Yeah, I see him.” “Is that me?”, he whispered. He was quite serious.

Later, in the mid-70′s, after Bob got out for good, I saw him a couple of times in California. He had a job at the Shell oil refinery in Richmond and had married an extraordinarily square woman. The sense I got from him was that he was as crazy as ever, but had learned an elaborate discipline which allowed him to pass. There was no more poetry. He considered it part of his illness. I sensed a fierce determination in him to never ever fall back into whatever the dark, fearsome place was that he had worked his way out of.

I think that’s how it is, for most, if not all of us. We learn to mask our insanity. Some of us are better at it than others. It’s called civilization.

Building Catfish Pond

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 by nick

“In a home, it’s the site that matters.”
-Lao Tzu

How we built a ten bedroom, two story house on Saturdays, with a little help from our friends.

It was getting on late summer of 1977 when it began to collectively dawn on us, the residents of Catfish Pond, that winter was going to come again. We were living in the oldest surviving army tent on the Farm. Between it and the two shacks next to it we needed 4 wood stoves. We had no money, of course, no carpenters, and about a dozen little kids among us. It was clear we should build a house.

The crew consisted of two farmers, a printer, a truck driver, and a couple of poets. Michael, one of the farmers, had hung sheet rock in Colorado once, so he was put in charge. The plan was to move in by Thanksgiving. Not knowing what we were doing made it easy to be optimistic. We actually moved in a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving of 1978. It took a little over a year of Saturdays, during which time we earned the money, wrecked the materials, learned the skills, and built the house.

In accordance with the teaching of Lao Tzu, we began by picking the site. That was easy, and fun, walking around in the woods, arguing with your friends. The important thing about the site is to remember where the sun is. Our house is 62 feet long, built lengthwise on an exact east-west axis. Our long south wall, filled with windows, fills the house with sunlight all day in the winter. On a sunny day, with the temperature below freezing, we can heat the whole house just by opening the curtains. No need to build a fire until evening.

The next step was to dig the footer. It was all pick and shovel work in a mixture of rocks, clay, and tree roots, but it was something we knew we could do. So we measured and strung a few strings, and dug the ditches.

Pouring the footer was likewise well within our ken. The hardest part was helping the driver get the cement mixer unstuck from the mud. Once the footer was poured, the house began to feel more real. It gave us the impetus to get some jobs wrecking cinder block. People were glad to let us haul it away. All we had to do was knock it loose, load it in a truck, bring it home, and chip the mortar off of it. Lucky for us, Rodney, the mason, lived across the street. He showed us how to set it up, and taught us how to lay block. A bunch of the block had come from a pool hall, and was painted on one side, some pink, some blue, as I recall. So when we laid the block, we made a geometric pattern out of the different colored blocks.

One of the many Saturday jobs we got, to earn money and wreck materials, was rebuilding part of a stone wall foundation for a huge barn on this old woman’s Tennessee farm. Ruby was in her 70′s, as thin and mean as a snake. We jacked up the barn, hauled boulders and mortared them into place. It was quite beautiful when it was done. Then she cheated us out of some of our money. But, with what we had learned, we got a couple more stone wall building jobs.

Once the foundation was up, all we had to do was deck it and frame it. We already had a lot of the lumber from a house we had wrecked. By the time Thanksgiving came, the foundation was built, the first floor was decked and framed, and we were broke again.

During the winter all work on the house came to a stop. Caught up in the exigencies of our last winter in the tent, we almost forgot the house was there.

When spring came, we remembered. By now we had learned enough building the house and working off the Farm on Saturdays, that Michael figured we could take on something more challenging, so he got us a job building a one room addition on a house in Columbia. We contracted to do the whole thing, foundation, framing, roofing, siding, insulation, dry wall, wiring, painting, all for $5,000. Since we could only work on it on Saturdays, we split the job with the farming crew, who did some work during the week. We all learned a lot of stuff, made a little money, and built a nice addition.

Now we were in a position to do something. We collected all our lumber and roof tin, bought some more lumber, and talked to the construction crew. Charles and Sam came over with a crew and in one week, framed the second floor, raised the roof, and tacked on most of the silver board. We were broke again, but, in our back yard, was a huge, silver house.

The next big project was insulation. The Farm made a deal with a factory in Nashville, who just threw away all their loose fiber glass scraps. Free fiber glass! So one of the truckers filled a semi with fiber glass and parked it in front of our house. Three of us, one hot summer day, put on long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and bandanas over our faces and unloaded the truck. We filled three rooms up to the ceiling with fiber glass. To put it in the walls, I brought home some 4X3 book cover stock from the print shop, stapled it to the studs, and stuffed the fiber glass behind it. We also filled the attic a foot deep in fiber glass.

Thomas, one of the Farm electricians, came over one day and helped us wire the upstairs. I learned enough helping him that I could finish wiring the rest of the house by myself. Willie, the Farm plumber, and a guy who was here with his old lady to have a baby, put in all the plumbing, PVC for the drains, and copper for the running water.

Everyone had the same experience of seeing most of the house get built by somebody else. In the end it was hard to say who had built the house. Although we had all worked hard, it seemed to have happened by magic. Synergy is the hand of God.


This is what it looks like now

The New Kitchen

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011 by nick

The dishwasher quit working. It would just make this horrible noise and not do anything. So we figured we’d get a new one at Home Depot and have them come and install it and take the old one away. But when we looked at their terms, they said that they wouldn’t do removal and installation if the flooring went up to, but not under, the dishwasher. Sure enough that’s what our crappy, glued down hardwood veneer floor did.

So we called up our friend and jack of all trades, Daniel, and asked if he would come help us. He came, expecting a pretty simple one day job to get the broken dishwasher out. He came and he took it out. The floor underneath was rotten. So he took out the cabinets and sink in order to replace the floor. The walls behind the cabinets were rotten, and the cabinets were too, all the walls behind all the lower cabinets, and all the cabinets. So they all came out. The walls were stripped down to the lath.

Then a friend offered to give us a bunch of pre-finished solid oak flooring that he had left over from building his house. How could we not replace the floor? So the crappy floor came up and the glue was laboriously scraped off the subfloor.

Candace had already stripped all the wallpaper off the walls, and we had a gas line put in and bought a gas stove from Scratch and Dent. Candace had also found 200 square feet of 12 inch marble tiles for $100 on Craig’s List. She painted the walls, the wainscoting, the ceiling, and all the cabinets.

Daniel had not bargained for this. He just thought he was taking out the dishwasher. Even though we were of course paying him, this was not on his schedule. Nevertheless he saw it all through, plumbing, electrical, installing cabinets, sheet rock, wainscoting, light fixtures, laying hardwood floor, tile counter tops, and aesthetic collaboration. It took a couple of weeks, all in all.

Here is a link to a slide show of the process.

Let’s Hear It for the Jews!

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010 by nick

My former wife Susan, the mother of all four of our children, has a framed photograph on her wall, of her grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s wedding, I’m not sure which. There is Hebrew writing all around the outside of the picture. My son and his Jewish girl friend were over one day, and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Jewish?”

Susan’s last name is Prugh which is an Anglicized version of the family’s real German name Brugh. My guess is that Susan is indeed Jewish, and that her kinsfolk back in Great Britain changed their name in order to assimilate, a common practice among Jews living in England.

So that means our kids are Jewish. When I first heard about this, very recently from my youngest son, I momentarily thought that that meant that I was Jewish too! I was quickly disillusioned as I realized that it wasn’t about me. Anyway, I am jealous.

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch22, A Memoir. He found out that his mother was Jewish when he was middle-aged. Her mother’s family had changed their name, and his mother was determined that her children would become part of the British upper class.

So their Jewishness was hidden. Once he had found it out, he went to visit his Jewish grandmother. She told him all about it. She said that she had always seen it in him and his brother because they had the “Jewish brains”.

I want Jewish brains. I am a Jewophile. Hitchens says that the reason that the Jews are, and have always been, so hated is because they saw through both Jesus and Mohammed, and have never been forgiven for it.

This is why I love the Jews:

The first century sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once said: “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.” An old Jewish story tells of a Russian Jew who was paid a ruble a month by the community council to stand at the outskirts of town so that he could be the first person to greet the Messiah upon his arrival. When a friend said to him, “But the pay is so low,” the man replied: “True, but the job is permanent.”

Easy Rider

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010 by nick

I am not a big fan of the movie “Easy Rider”. I don’t like the portrayal of the South as a bunch of ignorant rednecks who shoot people they don’t understand. It may have had more verisimilitude at the time, but it is certainly not the South I have come to know in the 22nd century. I personally know better than the movie’s soft focus idealization of the hippie, communal, back to the land, movement. Dealing cocaine is not my favorite metaphor for the free enterprise system. All that said, the movie, for me, is really about the ongoing decline of courage in America and the rest of Western Civilization.

When I look around, I see frightened people. Afraid to change jobs, afraid to move, afraid to get married or divorced, afraid to associate with people different from themselves, afraid to age, afraid to question whatever orthodoxy they are constrained by, afraid to face reality without prozac. I see the percentages of takers versus makers reaching an unsustainable tipping point.

When I think about my father flying bombers over Germany, and the other young men in Europe in World War II, the Americans in the great depression, the soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, the troops wintering in Valley Forge, the pioneers, I can’t help thinking that there has been a considerable decline in the daring manifested by the desperate pilgrims that first sailed the North Atlantic to the New World.

I sailed the North Atlantic in the winter in a troop ship, the U.S.S. General Harry Taylor, in 1956, from New York to Bremerhaven. It took two weeks. It was no picnic, but my life was never in danger. It is in no way comparable to the death-defying courage of those who sailed back and forth between Europe and America in the age of wooden ships and iron men (and women).

The national character is about to be tested. The global financial system has collapsed. Since the collapse there has been a world-wide attempt to cure the disease of over-borrowing and over-spending, with a massive increase in borrowing and spending. You don’t have to be Ron Paul to have doubts about the efficacy of this homeopathic solution.

The market has come back to some extent. There has been some anemic GDP growth. The pundits are all talking about the “recovery”. This is an illusion, folks!

The collapse has not gone away. It is being postponed, and the longer it is postponed, the worse it will be when postponement is no longer possible. The politicians, pundits, and bankers are all in denial. Ordinary people, many of whom have been living off their home equity loans, are just beginning to wake up to the reality.

The Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and the Chinese Communist Party, and Wall Street may be able to string it out for another year or two, but when we all completely, flat out, run out of money, the ride will not be easy.