Saturday, July 28, 2018

My 10 Favorite Books -- So Far





Any Human Heart, William Boyd

“It's true: lives do drift apart for no obvious reason. We're all busy people,we can't spend our time simply trying to stay in touch. The test of a friendship is if it can weather these inevitable gaps.” 
-- Any Human Heart

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” 
-- Henry James, Louisa Pallant

The protagonist of this magnificent, highly-readable novel, Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991), is a writer, a spy, the manager of an art gallery, and a teacher. The story follows him through much of his checkered, fascinating, intense and ultimately meaningless life, a life like many of us live, only we're usually not spies, accomplished writers, friends of Ian Fleming, thrice married, veterans of years in solitary confinement, and so on. What I admire about Boyd is that he gives us the whole man, lets us get to know him, decide for ourselves, add up his life next to our own. For Boyd (as Robbe-Grillet said of film) his works are always a multi-coded space. It's up to us to break the code; he helps by making signals through the glass.





God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I think it's terrible the way people don't share things in this country. I think it's a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies.” 
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

True and funny. Funny and true. And heartbreaking, of course, 'cause it's Kurt Vonnegut through and through.





One Hundred Years of Solitude, 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end."
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude

Seven generations of the Buendía family, creators and (conceptually) royal family of Macondo, a utopian city in Dreamland, South America traced from 1820 to 1920. It goes from high to far beneath and takes you with it because you cannot let go. Marquez never revealed how he pulled off this sustained dance of word-magic and we are better off not knowing. There are many books, and other things, you can skip in life. This is not one of them. Even most great writers could not match this tour de force.






Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

“The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again.” 
​-- ​Trout Fishing in America

​T​rout Fishing in America has no plot really, and its protagonist/narrator is never named. Some found this disconcerting when the book was first published, and still do. In my case, I was seduced, transported and became an evangelist for Brautigan's storytelling brilliance. And he was funny, very funny, Kurt Vonnegut funny (not sure if the two ever met; Google that for me, would you? I just did; They did not). We hear of the narrator's boyhood, his trout fishing experiences, some as a boy, and his adventures as a beatnik in San Francisco. He marries, procreates, but all along it is his voice and quirky sensibility that surrounds us, carries us along with him. We go willingly, of course. Brautigan was not hung up on chronology. Throughout this winding tale his values shine through -- love, nature, freedom, humor. Why, then, did he kill himself in 1984 with a rifle he borrowed from a bartender friend? Maybe because he could never get his life and his extraordinary narratives to quite merge.




Coming in to the Country, John McPhee

“In the society as a whole,” he writes “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.”
-- Coming into the Country

Coming into the Country examines what Alaska was like in the 1970s using the clean, clear documentary style that McPhee excelled at; he was one of the best non-fiction stylists of his generation or any generation. This was the book that hooked me on McPhee and I went on to read everything he wrote -- he was dauntingly prolific -- until he couldn't shut up about geology, then I had to cut him loose. His portraits of people and landscape, and people in landscapes (Encounters with the Archdruid) stand as the finest written depictions of their kind to see publication. I learned so much from him about writing, and thinking -- ideas and approaches I have drawn on ever since he immersed me in the vast wilderness of The Country, the outer space of Alaska.





One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

"Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler is an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”
― One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I knew a lot of people who knew Kesey, as I come from Merry Prankster Land, California's San Francisco Peninsula. Vik Lovell, to whom Kesey dedicated the novel ( “To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs ...” ) was my psychotherapist when I was a teenager. I met Kesey just once, when I spent a night on his Springfield, Oregon farm, a half-century ago when I was a wandering 16 year old. We walked down to the pond together and fed his geese. "Now in Thailand," he told me, " or maybe it's Malaysia, what they do to sort out the toughest babies from the not so tough ones is they throw them up on a roof. The tough ones hang on, and the not so tough ones they catch as they tumble off. Pretty good system." He was a prankster through and through, pranking his young visitor who was in awe of him (I still am). Kesey, a psychedelic redneck, high school wrestling champion, a "bull goose loony" to use his Cuckoo's Nest hero's McMurphy's term, was also a bull goose novelist. He was a man of great love, charisma, artfulness, fun and good humor. In his sphere as a teen ( I knew many of the Merry Pranksters; my sister's boyfriend in the late '60s was Roy Sebern who painted the famously misspelled "Furthur" on the front destination panel of the polychrome bus) I found him fascinating and compelling. That his novels still hold up as literature is testament to his vast talent. In Cuckoo's Nest he wrote, “But he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.” That was Kesey, talking about McMurphy and talking about himself.




Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing

“My sense of urgency is very simple,' said the professor, 'I've remembered that much. It's because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that's what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die— and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” 
― Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

From the time I was 8 until I was 30, my mother regularly tried to kill herself. Consequently, she spent many months in mental hospitals, was heavily dosed with antipsychotics, such as Thorazine, and antidepressants, such as Elavil. She had many series of electroshock treatments; I recall going to visit her once when her dark brunette hair had turned completely grey in a week. Madness has fascinated me from an early age. I've written about it, researched it, lived it and read about it. I had a Jungian therapist who once who told me that my motivation for the many LSD trips I took was to stay close to my mother even when she vanished into psychosis. "The LSD experience is a model psychosis, you know," the therapist told me. "You were doing everything you could to stay close to her emotionally and intellectually, maybe even spiritually. I think you learned a thing or two about the outer limits of inner space." "Yeah," I replied. Lessing's novel centers on a man experiencing a nervous breakdown. She takes you there. He's lost at sea, he believes. His hospital keepers say he is delirious. That may or may not be true, certainly he is adrift and Lessing allows us to swim out to him. One of the dangers of trying to save a swimmer in trouble is that you may drown yourself. You don't when you read Briefing for a Descent into Hell. But you come damn close.






Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
-- Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is perhaps the definitive Didion book and the one that introduced me, and many others, to her razor sharp prose -- matched only by her razor sharp thoughts and ideas. A trenchant essayist and social observer, she, maybe better than any other writer of her era, limned how the counterculture was just as shallow as its nemesis, the Establishment; just as indifferent, self-centered, given to casual relationships, and flimsy rationales. “My only advantage as a reporter," she once wrote, "is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” She shared this trait of apparent harmlessness with Oriana Fallaci, who completely took apart Henry Kissinger in an interview and he didn't even realize it at the time; he was too busy trying to charm her (later he'd call granting Fallaci the interview the most the most disastrous decision of his career). Didion also took apart, dissected, people, places and situations, cultures and counter cultures. She did it with grace, insight and emotional penetration. And her writing matched her observational skills. She knew she had a gift, and she had the energy and skill to capitalize on it.





River of Shadows: 
Eadweard Muybridge 
and the Technological Wild West, 
Rebecca Solnit

"His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom."
-- River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Here, in River of Shadows, we have a writer whose poetic, elegant style is perfectly matched to her subject. As Brainpickings termed it: "The Annihilation of Space and Time: Rebecca Solnit on How Muybridge Froze the Flow of Existence, Shaped Visual Culture, and Changed Our Consciousness." Muybridge, an out of round genius if there ever was one, did experiments that prefigured motion pictures. By setting up a battery of still cameras with trip wires, he was able to prove that a race horse had all four feet off the ground at once -- and win Leland Stanford a bet. Later he used sequential photos to make "movies" of dancers, runners, and all manner of living creatures as part of his motion studies. The great impact that technology was then having on society was the compression and manipulation of time and space. The railroad, for example, compressed time. Suddenly a weeks long journey could shrink to hours. We are still feeling the impact, good and bad, of this single innovation. Muybridge, Solnit tells us, "In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California... also became a father, a murderer [he killed his wife's lover], and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects." But his greatest achievement was the capturing of time, the anticipation of motion pictures. Radically, irreversibly, the world was changing and Muybridge got it. Solnit explains it like so, “What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.” And now that we are here, what shall we do? If Solnit can't answer that question, her book does an astonishingly good job of explaining how we got here.




Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it.” 
-- Americanah

This novel will bite you and bite you hard, if you've got a soul, a lick of morality, of empathy, if you have experienced racism or know some who has or even just heard about it. Or if you've ever been in love. It's a story of race, love and immigration. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, is living in Princeton New Jersey. Following a breakup with her boyfriend, she moves back to her home, Nigeria. Through the lens of Ifemelu, we first see her new life in America, her love, her work and struggles. Then we experience her return. But the subject is race, race and race. Adichie writes (in Ifemelu's voice), “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.” Racism is as old as America and it's clearly not going away. This is as good an examination of why, how to cope, and the role(s) that love plays as has ever been put on paper. Required reading for anyone with a brain...and a heart.




Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, 
Douglas Cruickshank

Yes, this one's by me. Published in 2013, named Photography Book of the Year in 2014, and I still have a few for sale -- at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! You gotta get one, drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com

Here is what a few critics had to say about it:

"Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him. He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck. -- RALPH; full review here: http://www.ralphmag.org/HP/somehow.html

"[A] big, remarkable book... the opposite of so many Africa books I’ve seen, wry and weird and moving and startling, in ways I’d never associated with that kind of book before." -- The Rumpus; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/YN04A4

"He's a superb photographer and an equally evocative writer, with well defined wit and wisdom... I’ve viewed and read enough fine coffee table books to rank this one among the very best. My take away after viewing Uganda through Cruickshank’s lens is the distinct feeling now that I’ve been there, too. Peace Corps Worldwide; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/tEbqfz

"I was transported by this book. Partly it was the strength of the writing. It is often laugh-out-loud funny — and believe me when I tell you it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something I read. It is also intelligent, affectionate, wry, perceptive, occasionally poignant and often beautiful...
-- The Chicago Tribune; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/LgXuas

"Although Cruickshank had traveled all over the world for pleasure and as a travel writer, he had never been to Africa let alone Uganda and barely knew anything about it except what he calls tragedy porn. "I didn't know anymore about it than what most Americans know and here's what most Americans know — gorillas, Idi Amin, ebola. And now it's the anti-gay law," says Cruickshank, who helped grow a coffee cooperative of mostly women-owned farms in Kyarumba, a village in the Rwenzori Mountains, from August 2009 to April 2012. Everything we know about Africa is wrong, he says. "All you get is the rapes, the murders, the wars. But what goes on most of the time is nothing — people getting their kids ready for school, they're getting some coffee or tea, they're working in the garden, they're fixing a roof. Their life is not a big tragedy and they don't see themselves as victims," he says. The Marin Independent Journal; Read the entire article: http://goo.gl/21eECL

Buy a copy of Somehow: Living on Uganda Time at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! Drop me a line for details -- dsc914@gmail.com


The Entire List:
​1. Any Human Heart, William Boyd
2. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan
5. Coming in to the Country, John McPhee
6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
7. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing
8. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
9. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Rebecca Solnit
10.​ Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10-1/2. Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, Douglas Cruickshank

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Cockettes...



It was all about sex. Or was it?
After midnight one evening in the early 1970s, I was standing in the Pagoda Palace Theater on Washington Square in San Francisco. At the time, the theater ran Chinese movies during the day and then, at midnight, the Chinese audience streamed out and in came a multicolored, unruly herd of glitter- and feather-bedecked hippies reeking of pot and patchouli oil. (It’s a cliché now, but those were indeed the pervasive aromas.) Onstage, penises and breasts bounced around wantonly. There was dancing, there was singing, everybody was loaded on some sort of mind-altering substance, and unbridled sexual outrageousness spilled out into an audience that could be described as enthusiastic only if you’re into extreme understatement.
The glorious Cockettes, the florid and fluorescent LSD-fueled drag review that briefly lit up San Francisco, and excited the media as far away as Paris, 30-some years ago were onstage performing one of their live shows. It might have been “Journey to the Center of Uranus” or “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” or any number of other wacky, apolitical extravaganzas — Rodgers & Hammerstein gone terribly, terribly wrong. Whatever it was, it looked like Kabuki collaboratively produced by Busby Berkeley, Dr. Seuss and Federico Fellini, generously seasoned with Carmen Miranda. As John Waters has described the scene, “It was complete sexual anarchy, which is always a wonderful thing.”
I had a beat-up Nikon F hanging around my neck when poet Allen Ginsberg, obviously stoned out of his gourd, walked up, pointed at the camera and said, “Delicious! Take many, many, many pictures.” I did, too, but I’ll be damned if I know what happened to them. I’ve always regretted losing those photos, but my regret has been mollified by the recent release of “The Cockettes,” a new feature documentary. It airs Friday, June 21, on the Sundance channel and has opened, or soon will, in theaters across the country. It’s also showing at film festivals around the world.
“The Cockettes” is a curious celluloid time capsule that succeeds in a way that few films have at accurately capturing the spirit and riotous acting-out — sexual and otherwise — that typified the most frequently disparaged and caricatured decade of the 20th century: the ’60s. But then the Cockettes would be nearly impossible to caricature — they aspired to cartoonishness and, to their own surprise, reached that sparkling mountaintop, and even stayed there awhile.
The film’s directors, David Weissman and Bill Weber, who spent four years putting the documentary together, describe the Cockettes as “the last hurrah of the Haight-Ashbury at its best.” It’s an interesting distinction because, contrary to so much of what’s been written or filmed about those times, there was indeed a “best,” though most of the lightheartedness, exhilaration and artistic experimentation had been replaced by hard drugs, hard times and bad vibes before the Cockettes first shimmered into existence in 1969.
That may be one of the reasons they shone so brightly: The Haight and the impossibly naive dream of hippiedom were crumbling, but the Cockettes still exuded the optimism, playfulness, sexiness and theatricality of a subculture that slipped away almost as soon as it was born. It was a time, too, when the dark specter of AIDS was still more than a decade in the future and sexual abandon seemed to be consequence-free.
The Cockettes were certainly into sex, drugs, excess and self-indulgence, as creative communities often are, but Weissman and Weber’s film goes behind the glitter and eye shadow and finds that there was something more substantial to the group as well. In addition to being intoxicatingly funny, they succeeded at forming a community of sexual renegades that was focused on new ideas at least as much as it was on sex, maybe more so.
As Weissman put it when we first spoke nearly two years ago while the film was still in production, “This was not about female impersonation. This was what came to be known as ‘gender-fuck.’ There had never been bearded hippie drag queens before.” Underneath the hedonism and circus sideshow frivolity the Cockettes shared an interest in pushing the parameters of sexuality, social acceptance and theater about as far as they could be pushed — they were aggressively messing with cultural presumptions and having a hell of a good time doing it.
Fayette Hauser, one of the original Cockettes, who appears frequently in the film, said of those times, “We were living in a parallel universe of myth, fantasy, self-exploration and high drag. What mattered was enlightenment. A new idea was the valued currency. We treated each other like gods and so we became gods. This acid-induced, profoundly honed persona was what we saw in each other ... In our minds, we lived more fully, loved more deeply and dressed more beautifully than anyone else in the world. We were divas of the highest order and everyone wanted to be a Cockette.”
It would have been easy to make “The Cockettes” little more than an exercise in nostalgia, but instead it’s a highly entertaining act of counterculture archaeology; what Weissman and Weber went through to dig up performance footage, still photos and former Cockettes is worthy of another documentary. Some Cockettes just couldn’t be found. “There was one in particular that we were dying to find,” Weissman says, “who I looked for literally for three and a half years, who we never were able to find, then she miraculously reappeared just a few weeks ago — that was Harlow. Harlow was a ’60s fixture in San Francisco not just as a Cockette, but also as a member of the Plaster Casters. There were so many people who were dying to find out what happened to Harlow, Peter Coyote had contacted us to say, ‘Do you know where Harlow is?’ And Chet Helms from the Family Dog asked, ‘Where’s Harlow?’ Turns out she’s been living out in the country, in Southern California, for a long time.”
“How far have the Cockettes drifted?” I ask Weissman. “Who among them has the least Cockettish life today?”
“Most of them live fairly quiet lives,” he says. “Most are fairly marginal financially, nobody’s really become a yuppie in any way. In their hearts, they’re all still Cockettes.” And several, including the troupe’s founder, Hibiscus, died of AIDs.
In conjunction with the San Francisco screening, Weissman and Weber have curated an exhibition of original show posters and documentary photographs at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I happened to be walking through the exhibit when Weissman, Harlow, another Cockette named Rumi and San Francisco photographer Robert Altman showed up to see the photos, many of which Altman took.
Altman was chief photographer at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1971 and continues to work as a photographer and Web designer in San Francisco. When the Cockettes were at their peak, he was assigned by Rags, an alternative fashion magazine of the time, to do photos to accompany an article about the troupe by Mary Peacock. “I spent about four days living with the Cockettes,” Altman told me, “over at their commune. I wouldn’t call it bedlam, but it was certainly nonstop activity ... Hibiscus had come along and drew all these people to him ... he had a sense of fun about being gay: ‘Not only is it OK to be gay and be out of the closet, but we can sing and dance about it and put on a show about it.’”
Weissman and Weber were determined that their film not be simply a glorified home movie, a cinematic scrapbook of hippie memories. “Bill and I struggled all through making the film,” Weissman says. “We wanted to make a movie that was not a nostalgia piece about something that happened once, but was about possibilities that are timeless — a movie that could serve as a reminder of how important it is when you’re young to be a rebel, to ask questions and to have fun. To seek community and not be totally driven by career and money.”
Nor were Weissman and Weber hoping to bring about some kind of resurrection. “I think that individual eras can’t and shouldn’t be re-created,” Weissman says. “Each era has potential for its own appropriate style of art and rebellion. Things have to come out of their own moments and yet they can also be informed by history. Certainly the Cockettes were very informed by the 1920s and the ’30s aesthetically — but they were also completely a reflection of their time much the way Burning Man is a reflection of the era it came out of.”
In recent years, the success of films like “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Paris Is Burning” have brought gender-bending cinema to a mainstream audience. Whether “The Cockettes” can also reach that audience, as Weissman hopes, remains to be seen. He’s pushing for it to be viewed as a movie that will have appeal beyond gay filmgoers. “I think a lot of people have assumed that this movie is just another drag queen movie,” he says, “but it’s had huge appeal for people who are interested in both the counterculture of the era and countercultures generally. I never saw it particularly in terms of gay things. None of these people came out of the gay movement per se, they came out of acid, they came out of Haight-Ashbury. There are a bunch of straight guys in dresses in a lot of our pictures, a bunch of them.” As Hauser puts it in the film, “People were allowed to live at the end of their imaginations.”
The Cockettes’ trajectory was a relatively short one. They came together in 1969 and it was all over by 1972, their collapse helped along by money disputes and a disastrous New York debut; their act just didn’t work out of context. The East and West countercultures may have had a desire for sexual theatrics in common, but they didn’t speak each other’s language. The New York catastrophe is seen in “The Cockettes” along with its polar opposite: footage of some of their rollickingly good San Francisco performances, as well as clips from their film, an orgiastic send-up of Richard Nixon’s daughter’s marriage called “Tricia’s Wedding,” and the San Francisco arrival of the divine Divine for several guest appearances with the group.
Not surprisingly, Weissman and Weber’s film has engendered plenty of strong reaction. “We’ve had a lot of powerful, personal testimony,” Weissman says. “A woman came up to us at Sundance who said that she had always hung out with the Diggers in the Haight. And she said to me, ‘It’s just become so hard to talk about that time period, because people just think, Oh, hippies, big fuckin’ deal. This is the first thing I’ve ever seen that really captures the complexity and exuberance of what that period felt like.’”
Seeing “The Cockettes” today is an odd bit of time travel to an era when sex, how we saw it, how we talked about it and what it meant to us seems eons away from the present. Despite the hippie revolution that was centered in San Francisco, there was still a great deal of societal naiveté about sex, and gay liberation was still very much in its infancy, which is perhaps why there continues to be something very refreshing about the Cockettes, their spirit and sense of humor.
After the show that night, as I walked out of the Pagoda Palace, the pocket of my Army field jacket stuffed with film canisters headed for oblivion, I spotted Ginsberg talking with a small group of people near the curb. Two things about him were different from when I’d seen him earlier: His pen had leaked all over the pocket of his white shirt and he was wearing lipstick.

June 2002

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sympathy For The Devil


While the Beatles dominated pop in the 1960s, their music was nearly devoid of one vital element: darkness. At a time when authentic blues was still relatively unknown (and also not widely available) to most white kids, those who craved the seductive complexities of the dark side turned to the Rolling Stones. And nothing more vividly illuminated the group’s supposed affinity for Lucifer than “Sympathy for the Devil,” their anthem-cum-incantation in the form of a taunting cultural fable. It was the first cut on the A side of “Beggar’s Banquet” — which now, 33 years later, still stands as not only one of the Stones’ finest albums, but one of the best rock records ever made.
Released on Dec. 5, 1968, “Beggar’s Banquet” came out just 10 days after the Beatles’ White Album, and a year and a day before the Stones’ notorious free concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, Calif. (Contrary to popular legend, “Sympathy for the Devil” was not the song being played when a young man was killed at the free concert. The band was knocking out “Under My Thumb” when 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. Several websites reference Don McLean’s allusion to this incident in deconstructions of his song “American Pie”: “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage/ My hands were clenched in fists of rage/ No angel born in Hell/ Could break that Satan’s spell.”)
The Stones have made plenty of mistakes over the years (“Their Satanic Majesties Request”), but producing a rock opera wasn’t one of them. Though “Sympathy for the Devil” is embedded with enough historical and philosophical scope to seem like the opening act to a drama of operatic dimensions, they wisely kept it to a concise six minutes and 22 seconds. In interviews, Mick Jagger — who wrote “Sympathy” (“I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song”) without his usual writing partner, Keith Richards — has said he was concerned at the time about the potential for the lyrics to come off as pretentious and the band to be “skewered on the altar of pop culture.” So when Richards suggested changing the rhythm, Jagger agreed and as the band worked (and worked and worked) on the piece, it ended up as a samba, which Jagger has called “hypnotic” and Richards referred to as “mad.”
Jagger, a voracious reader and history buff, claimed he was influenced in writing “Sympathy” by Baudelaire. But he was also, as others have pointed out, clearly under the spell of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic allegorical novel of good and evil, “The Master and Margarita.” Of course, Jagger was even more clearly under the spell of the 1960s, a time when — for many — heaven and hell seemed to have come to earth in the most lucid terms.
The song’s opening — “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” — parallels the beginning of Bulgakov’s novel, in which a sophisticated stranger, who turns out to be Satan, introduces himself to two gentlemen sitting in a Moscow park as they’re discussing whether Jesus existed or not. (“‘Please excuse me,’ he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, ‘for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.’”) The song then references Christ and the story of Pontius Pilate, which the novel takes up in its second chapter. Before moving on to the Russian Revolution, the song’s narrator, Lucifer, acknowledges that his listeners are mystified — “But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game” — just as, in “The Master and Margarita,” one of the men approached by Satan in the park thinks to himself, “What the devil is he after?”
In the lyrics for “Sympathy,” Jagger’s narrator jumps from making “damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed [Jesus'] fate” to St. Petersburg, “When I saw it was time for a change,” and kills “the Czar and his ministers.” Curiously (or not so curiously, given Jagger’s penchant for reading history), the only other allusion in the song to Russia’s dark past is an odd one: “Anastasia screamed in vain” — a reference to the youngest daughter of the czar who was murdered with the rest of the Romanov royal family. For most of the 20th century Anastasia was an almost mythological figure, thanks to the specious claims that she alone had survived the murders.
But more interesting than what appear to be direct correlations between the book and the song is how Jagger and the Stones, drawing on numerous influences, Bulgakov’s novel apparently among them, managed — in a rock song — to address serious, even profound, ideas to a samba beat without turning the whole affair into an exercise in dull earnestness. On the contrary, “Sympathy” sounds like a party and works so well, on multiple levels, because its lyrics evoke more than they spell out, while the music not only has an infectious rhythm, it features ingenious layering of sound and background vocals that build to an irresistible, kick-ass tribal hootenanny. Those “woo woos,” by the way, which provide a self-deprecating, cartoonish poke at the song’s spookiness, while adding to the chanting-around-the-bonfire nature of the music, were provided by the four demons themselves, along with two members of the Stones’ 1968 coven — Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull — and the album’s producer, Jimmy Miller.
In writing the song, Jagger used words with impressive economy. He cites Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate, the czar, Anastasia, the blitzkrieg (World War II), the Kennedys and the city of Bombay and mentions Lucifer by name (just once) and in so doing creates a deep, amplified portrait of a world torn by religion, war, assassination and confusion where “Every cop is a criminal/ And all the sinners saints.” Threaded throughout are taunts from the teasing narrator — the traditional demon trickster — trying to get the listener to speak his name: “Hope you guess my name,” “Tell me, baby, what’s my name?” “Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name?” And — at the very pinnacle of the Flower Power era, remember — he then turns on his starry-eyed audience and tells them that they, in league with him, are to blame for the deaths of the ’60s most promising political leaders.
But lest you think Jagger simply mixed up some brainy lyrics and threw them into a recording studio with his talented, stoned friends, take a look sometime at the strange little cinematic time capsule “One Plus One,” a documentary on the recording of “Sympathy for the Devil” (among many other things). The film, which has been distributed in two versions, was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and it’s had a tempestuous history, which I won’t go into here except to say that one version, known by the same title as the song, is not Godard’s cut. That’s the version generally available in the U.S. Anyway, whichever version you view, you’ll see the Stones as they work with meticulous attention to detail to record the tracks and build the elaborate song.
Not surprisingly, given its distinctive sound and eternal-hot-button subject matter, “Sympathy” has taken on a life of its own (and isn’t that just what that doggone devil would want?). It’s been recorded by Bryan Ferry, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Natalie Merchant, Jane’s Addiction, the Hampton String Quartet, the band Laibach (which devoted an entire album to different versions of the song) and, believe it or don’t, the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth pointing out that Rolling Stone magazine’s take, in its review of Ferry’s cover of the song (“‘Sympathy’ has always been recorded with, if not seriousness, at least earnestness”), is dismissive of both the Stones’ version and Jagger’s lyrics, which Rolling Stone called “slightly corny, vaguely ridiculous.”
On the other hand, just last month Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in the New York Observer in which he extols Jagger’s abilities as a lyricist and specifically mentions “Sympathy for the Devil”: “And let’s not forget,” Rosenbaum writes, “at this particular moment, that he’s one of the rare rock songwriters who has addressed the question of evil and apocalypse in a sophisticated way.” Rosenbaum goes on at some length to praise the singer’s “beautiful use of incantation ... a lovely word for a special kind of vocal recurrence, one that combines overtones of prayer, magic, spell casting ... a kind of vocal voodoo.”
The song’s title continues to have almost iconic status and gets all manner of uses. It has been appropriated for a computer game (“Sympathy for the Devil: The War in Russia, 1942-43″) and is tiresomely used whenever possible to headline stories about Jagger’s marital woes and paternity suits or any time bad behavior is the subject. For example, these, all of which appeared in the New York Post: “Jagger’s Ex Has Sympathy for the Devil,” “No Sympathy for Devils” and “Sympathy for the Devil: Why Bill Is No Hypocrite” (an article by P.J O’Rourke). To this day, “Sympathy” is widely discussed online on sites like the Christian Music Forum and referenced in treatises on the devil, such as John P. Sisk’s paper, “The Necessary Devil” in First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life.
Jagger concedes that the song may have been something of an inspiration for all the ’70s and ’80s heavy metal bands that flirted with Satanism, but in interviews he’s repeatedly distanced the Stones from any of it. In an exchange with Creem magazine, he said, “[When people started taking us as devil worshippers], I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today.”
Regardless of, or maybe because of, the swath it has cut, “Sympathy for the Devil,” as good art often does, continues to resonate at least as strongly today as it did when it was first created. Woo woo.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The days in our life, and the lives in our days...

Most mornings I wake up before the monkeys, struggle to find the opening in the mosquito net, wander out to the front balcony and read the news or reply to emails as the sky lights up. By 7:00, the sun is peeking through the palms and the mango trees, and Honesty and Bashura are opening their small shops across the road. The packed matatus are bouncing down the dirt track toward downtown, taking people to work; the boda-bodas are revving their engines and hustling suicidal rides through the rush hour traffic to everyone who walks by; some brave souls accept their offer, pay for the privelege even. Then Mukisa toddles out, settles in my lap, helps me eat my eggs, yells at the chickens three floors below us. And the monkeys show up to entertain their biggest fan.

We live in Kisaasi, a country-town-like neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. It is lush with trees and domestic and wild animals. The bird life is especially rich and loud (there are more species of birds in Uganda than in all of North America). The ibises, for example, don't seem to be able to fly without squawking loudly; they wait until they're cruising past about 5 feet away from us then let out an ear-splitting, guttural shriek that makes Muki jump about 6 inches and nearly gives me a second heart attack. Then there are the turacos which come in an elegant palette that ranges from warm grey to royal blue to deep black with red highlights. They are exquisite and have one of the odder calls, sort of a low gurgle that morphs to a deep bass coo.

Mukisa climbs on and off the stool next to me 5 or 6 times -- it's his most recently acquired talent -- falling only three or four times. I catch him most of those times, but he invariably knocks his curly-haired head at least once on the hard tile and we have a good cry. I hold him and comfort him and he then penguin walks back into the house to wake up mama. We try to tell him "No" as little as possible. He can touch most everything in the house, carry it around, try to make it work. The only restrictions are those things that might hurt him. Inconveniencing me is not his problem; he is not in my hurry; figuring out how and why the world works is his job. Mine is to make sure his discoveries happen in safety, and without destroying (or dropping from our third story balcony) expensive electronic devices that me and his mother must stare into throughout the day -- to service our addictions.

Once Mama Ruth wakes up, there is an hour or so of play and silliness. She can get Mukisa laughing harder than anyone can. They are still lounging in bed, Muki nursing, while I cook myself breakfast. There is some very good bread here -- whole wheat, crusty, and slathered with seeds. We eat a couple of loaves a week. I always cook breakfast for myself, Mama, Muki and nanny Sophie. First I melt a big chunk of margarine in the skillet, then I put in two slices of the luscious bread, which I've torn holes in. I break an egg into each hole, add pepper and salt.

For lunches and dinners we cook a combination of local Ugandan food (some of the healthiest in the world), prepared by Sophie and Mama Ruth, which includes matooke (steamed, mashed plantains that taste like mashed potatoes), rice and beans, posho with mukene sauce (mukene are small fish; posho is steamed bread similar to a dumpling), and my concoctions -- pasta, stews, etc. The market produce -- fruits and vegetables -- is abundant and varied. We also eat roast or fried goat, Nile perch, tilapia, and snack on fried grasshoppers with cold beer in October and November when they are in season. 

After the morning ritual, I shave, shower, put myself together and go off to Cafeserrie to work, drink coffee and observe the wildlife, especially the old white guys with the hot young black women, an abundant pairing here. As a member of that demographic -- the white geezer component -- I find those couples fascinating. There are a good number of them in Kampala (and in other African cities, no doubt), and most people's prevailing assumption is that the men are in it for sex and the young women are in it for money. That was my initial assumption too, but then I started closely observing these relationships, got to know some of the couples, and became involved in such a love affair myself. They are not what they seem. The initial attraction may be centered around sex and money, but as time passes and the two become real, fully dimensional people to each other -- vulnerable, fun, loving, lonely, giving, taking -- they connect on a sweet and deep level. They talk, get to know and appreciate one another. They fall in love, and in like (the more important of the two in my opinion). In many cases, after a time, you see them with children, babies. 

There is one guy, an American, I see at Cafeserrie regularly. He is maybe 10 years older than I am; I'm nearly 65. He comes in with a mixed race boy of 5 or 6 years old. They have lunch, laugh, talk. Sometimes they are joined by the boy's mother. She's very dark-skinned, must be from Northern Uganda or Sudan. The three are happy together, relaxed, caring. The man -- who I've chatted with a little, showed him photos of my son -- is helping the young woman finish university and raise her son. He is a retired construction company owner. He told me he and his wife never had children. After she died 4 years ago, he decided to come to Africa. He'd never been here before and, like me, was immediately smitten with the place and the people. He returned home long enough to sell all his belongings. He came back here and has never returned to the U.S. It's a plotline that you come across often here. I'm living it.

I feel fortunate that I'm at a point in life where I can spend so much time with my boy. And Nattabi is similarly fortunate: We spend many hours everyday with Mukisa, take him most everywhere with us (he's very social, at ease around people, charming, curious). He is especially fond of men and we have several friends who have had close friendships with him since he was an infant. One of our best friends, Rashid, comes by about once a week to take Muki out for 6-7 hours. He takes him to the mall, to antique car shows, out to eat with his friends. Muki adores him and Rashid dotes on Muki; it's a rich association for both of them.

We are so lucky that we all stumbled into each other -- Nattabi in the middle of her life, me in the final quarter (which is turning out to be the happiest) and Mukisa at the beginning of his. All three of us are healthy, happy and looking forward to the future. We have a nice place to live (no extra charge for monkeys), plenty to eat, we sleep well, we go for walks, our work and various projects are going well. Mukisa likes to laugh and thinks his mama is very very funny. He laughs politely at my jokes. He enjoys it when Nattabi and I dance and act like big fools, which is often. He is walking, running, jumping and climbing all over everything. Nattabi's most spoken and most ignored phrase, "Muki! You are going to fall!" He is very verbal but not quite speaking yet; soon. He brushes his 8 teeth about 45 minutes a day and likes having his lush locks combed. He carefully cleans his little ears with Q-Tips every morning. He helps mama pick out his clothes. Luganda and English are spoken in equal measure around our house and most places we go. I imagine he sees them as a single language. He enjoys being read to and Nattabi (more often than me I'm ashamed to admit) reads at least one book a day to him. He loves his nanny, Sophie, and so do we. She is Muslim and when she prays Muki kneels beside her. He knows he must be quiet when she is praying, but he finds other ways to distract her. She also cooks, does laundry, cleans the house and often brings her sons over. They love playing with Muki; sometimes they all stay overnight. The boys are about 9 & 12. We sometimes take them swimming with us, always a fun day. Nattabi's tour company is picking up steam and threatening to start making real money. My work, including helping her build her travel business, is varied and satisfying, if not lucrative. We are busy in a good way. 

On balance, when looked at from a distance, it is, as always, the best of times and the worst of times. No matter how perfect things may seem momentarily, we are every moment reminded of the tentative, fragile nature of that perfection in our lives and the lives of all we know and don't know. Living here, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are everywhere in evidence, keeps us aware of that truth every moment of every day. We are within a day's travel of where homo sapiens began and before us we see how far humanity has come in it's present form, since its inception 200,000 years ago. It's no joke, unless God has a particularly bent sense of humor. Just in the last few weeks we've heard of loved ones dying, having severe illnesses, losing everything in a raging wildfire. So it goes, as Vonnegut would put it. Thank you then, or as they say in Luganda, Webale, for staying in touch. It's important to me. I believe in the art of communication; it's my religion, and my wife and sons are its saints, its angels. Bless you in all you do.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Stalking the Dewey-Eyed Platypus




When I told a friend that one of the main reasons I was going to Australia was to try to find a platypus, he said, “Aren’t they mythological or extinct or something?” They are not. In fact, platypuses are surprisingly abundant, though the odd, duck-billed creatures are also a shy, elusive evolutionary anomaly that few Australians – to say nothing of foreigners – have ever laid eyes upon. Some consider seeing one in the wilderness tantamount to bumping into a mermaid or a unicorn. When the first platypus skin arrived in London in 1798, many thought it was a hoax, and the poor thing has never entirely shaken the stigma. What could it expect given its looks?


The platypus safari commences with a flight out of Brisbane’s Archer Field in a blue and white, 10-seat, twin-engine airplane cruising over a parquet of flat green farmland and eucalypt forests. It is early fall – that is, April – in Queensland, warm and a little humid.


After an hour and a half, and an in-flight picnic of cheesecake and orange juice, we land on a grassy airstrip near Carnarvon National Park. Once I’m out of the plane, dozens of grasshoppers – the kangaroos of the insect world – hurdle over my feet and crash into my ankles as three yellow and blue pale-headed rosellas – small parrots – slalom between the polished trunks of the nearby gum trees. Within a few minutes the hot weight of the outback sun has caused my bald scalp to get as overheated as my prose, and I’m thankful that I’ve brought along an old tan Borsalino and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I put both on my head, where they stay for the remainder of the expedition, and we drive off toward Carnarvon Gorge, home of the platypus.


The man driving is John Stoddart, who, along with Linda Stoddart, his wife, manages the Oasis Lodge adjacent to Carnarvon National Park. They are both former high school teachers, and like many Australians, they seem to find wry humor in both the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Stoddart, I find out, knows a lot about platypuses. During the next few days’ conversations he gives me a short course in Beginning Platypusology 1A.


To start with, he says, they’re smaller than most people assume. The average adult is a foot to 18 inches long. The heaviest one on record weighed less than 5½ pounds. They have a birdlike snout that resembles a duck’s, but the grayish bill is soft, not hard. They are mammals of the order called Monotremata (the only other member is the equally bizarre, hedgehog-like echidna, also a native of Australia), characterized by their egg-laying and the cloaca, a single orifice for excretion and reproduction.


Monotremes are also the only mammals known to react to electrical fields. Platypuses have electrosensitive pores in their bills used to detect the electrical currents generated by the muscle activity of their prey – shrimps and insect larvae. (They have a tremendous appetite complemented by “a metabolic rate like a blast furnace,” according to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ definitive history of Australia’s founding.) It is believed that they may also use their electrosensitivity – a true “sixth sense” – for “seeing” stationary objects under water.


The platypus has beautiful, thick, waterproof fur and a plump tail something like a beaver’s, the top of which is covered with fur. They were hunted for their luxuriant pelts until 1912, when legislation was enacted to protect them nationwide.


Much like birds, they have a single functioning ovary, the second one being poorly developed. The females lay eggs but suckle their young with extraordinarily rich milk. Platypuses have webbed feet and the males have a venomous spur on each rear leg that can deliver a nasty sting. Stoddart tells me the story of a man he knew who managed to get spurred in the finger by a male platypus. “The poor bloke’s finger was no good after that,” he says. “It turned blood red and shriveled to a point like an old carrot.”


Aborigines knew the platypus as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, and it figures in some of their myths. In one – a moral tale – the platypus’s origin is attributed to a wayward duck who disobeys its elders, wanders away from its pond and is imprisoned and raped by a randy old water rat. The child this coupling produces is a platypus. This is no less solid an explanation of the platypus’s beginnings than most modern researchers have provided.


Platypuses are found in deep burrows along the muddy banks or feeding among the shoreline reeds of rivers, streams and ponds in eastern Australia, on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia (where they were introduced by a naturalist in 1940) and in Tasmania. Just one pair – named Jack and Jill – successfully bred in captivity, and that was 50 years ago. On the official Australian wildlife cuteness scale the platypus rates second only to the koala and just slightly ahead of the wombat. The palm-size baby platypus is too cute to discuss in rational terms.


While Carnarvon Gorge is a platypus stronghold, John Stoddart tells me, I shouldn’t get my hopes up about actually seeing one, but if I want to try, dawn or dusk are the best times to seek out Australia’s duck-billed irregularity.


As intent as I am on satiating my desire to meet a platypus, like every other first-time visitor to Australia, I also hope to see a wild kangaroo as soon as possible, and shortly after arriving at the Oasis Lodge I get to – they’re all over the place.


The lodge consists of a central reception building, which houses the dining room, a library where gatherings and nature talks are held, and a number of luxurious “tent cabins” that evoke camping without actually immersing you in its often romanticized but typically uncomfortable specifics. The buildings are scattered over several acres of lawn, with palms and gum trees to provide shade. Scattered over the lawn are kangaroos, looking so much like giant prehistoric mice I’m inclined to offer them a piece of cheese.


When they aren’t lollygagging around on the lawns – their usual midday activity – they are grazing or bounding or battling with each other, or staring at the guests. The lodge asks guests not to feed the kangaroos, which has kept them untamed, so you can’t approach any closer than about 10 feet. That’s good, because the rebounding beasts can get to be a nuisance.


Indeed, in some places tourists find that they must apply popular aerosol kangaroo repellents, such as “Roo-quat” and “Roo-Be-Gone” as frequently as sunscreen. And if you absent-mindedly leave your door open, making it possible for one of the large marsupials to sneak in and jump on the bed (they’re worse than young Homo sapiens when it comes to this activity), they can destroy a box spring in mere minutes, play hell with a goose down comforter and make an expensive duvet history in a matter of seconds. It is no coincidence, then, that neither pogo sticks nor trampolines have ever been marketed in Australia.


At one point I ask Stoddart what the word “kangaroo” means. “Joseph Banks,” he replies, “was the naturalist that sailed to Australia with Capt. Cook. The story’s told that when Banks came ashore and first glimpsed the hopping creature, he asked a native what it was, and the aboriginal said something that sounded like ‘kangaroo.’ Later Banks asked another aboriginal what the word meant. ‘Kangaroo,’ the native told him, means ‘Hell if I know.’”


Curiously, I find no verification of this report in the literature. But in “The Fatal Impact,” Alan Moorehead’s elegant account of Cook’s “invasion” of the South Pacific, Banks is quoted and he does sound perplexed. The naturalist accurately describes the gray kangaroo as “of a mouse-colour and very swift,” and then remarks, “What to liken him to I cannot tell.”


Fortunately for Joseph Banks, his powers or description were not further taxed by the platypus. It would be another 27 years before a European (not Banks) first stumbled upon the fur-bearing duckoid, foolishly sending the hide off to London where he was ridiculed mercilessly. (There are certain discoveries it’s best not to reveal.)


Carnarvon Gorge itself looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with forest poured into it. The massive rock cliffs are composed mostly of sandstone capped by a layer of basalt. The forest below is light and airy, home to a variety of tall eucalypts – the slick-barked Sydney bluegum is the most prevalent – with macrozamia and other palms, native hibiscus and the sandpaper fig growing beneath the silver-green foliage of the gum trees.


Extravagantly painted parrots (splashed with crimson, chartreuse, deep yellow, electric blue), large white cockatoos with an ear-splitting shriek, and jug-headed kookaburras (like our kingfisher, but with a taunting cackle as their song) are plentiful. The wealth of butterflies is a poignant reminder of how scarce they’ve become in much of the United States.


The sun-mottled forest floor is carpeted with high grass and bracken ferns. It is common to see eastern gray kangaroos, wallabies (a smaller kangaroo) and the occasional dark-coated rock wallabies (a shy kangaroo that behaves like a mountain goat) either nibbling at the ground cover or bounding through the brush. There are also ibis, heron, blue-faced honeyeaters and pied cormorants. And a smallish python known as a carpet snake – because of the pattern of its scales – in addition to bearded dragon lizards, turtles and monitor lizards, called goannas, that can reach 4 feet in length.


At night the Carnarvon sky is ink-black felt speckled with white paint. Nocturnal animals are ubiquitous, including an assortment of possums and a sweet-faced, big-eyed creature known as the sugar glider – so called because, like a flying squirrel, it uses the webbing between its front and rear legs to sail from tree to tree where it feeds on the eucalypt’s sugary sap.


At the bottom of the gorge runs Carnarvon Creek. Along its banks grow wispy Casuarina trees and the weeping red bottlebrush. Near the water’s edge are found green tree-frogs, which are preyed on by the creek’s freshwater keelback snakes. And if you’re extremely quiet and very still (and don’t wear bright-colored clothing) and patiently watch for the telltale shivering of the reeds, you may catch sight of a platypus. But, as I’m often told, “It ain’t too bloody likely.”


From April through November, staff members of the Oasis Lodge lead daily hikes, some of them fairly arduous, throughout the gorge and up to its more spectacular vistas, like Boolimba Bluff. (I hiked to the bluff on a Sunday. As I stood at the top looking down to the camping area from hundreds of feet above, a hymn being sung by the small congregation attending an outdoor Anglican service – which I could not see – came wafting up out of the gum forest. The effect was reminiscent of a scene from “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”)


You can go hiking on your own, of course, but the young, dauntingly vigorous staff members make good company. They’re also knowledgeable about the terrain and the gorge’s flora and fauna, not to mention the fact that they carry a big backpack full of tea and snacks, which they prepare and serve during a rest stop along the way. One of the least strenuous walks is geared specifically to those desperately seeking platypuses.


On the appointed day we get up before sunrise and drive a mile or two to the Carnarvon Gorge trailhead. I keep the window down as we drive through the dawn forest so I can listen to the bird songs and other noises – the archetypal “jungle sounds” we’ve heard all our lives in Hollywood movies. The caustic laugh of the kookaburra is especially familiar. (One of the many perverse satisfactions of living in the media-besotted world, I’m ashamed to admit, is visiting the real thing and finding it exactly as depicted in a motion picture or on television – the twisted pleasure of having reality validated by illusion.)


As instructed, our small group has worn dull-hued clothing. The platypus has keen vision (and conservative taste in apparel), and it is put off by loud outfits. We’re also told not to speak, which certain of us find particularly onerous.


We enter the forest and walk over the creek on stones to reach the start of the Nature Trail. We follow the creekside path with nothing but cackling kookaburras and beeping Nikons to puncture the primeval silence. Across the creek, a wallaby and its offspring are having breakfast, which gets me to thinking: When God created Australia’s animals, perhaps he somewhat overestimated his abilities. At the very least the deity exhibited peculiar taste, if not a perverse sense of humor.


First of all, most of the beasts’ proportions are screwy; they look like a design experiment gone wrong or a rough sketch for an animated character that should have been canceled by the cartoon committee before it could see the light of day.


Consider the kangaroo – it is essentially a fur-upholstered pear with spring-loaded rear legs. Its creator apparently ran out of steam about waist level because, except for its well-developed biceps, the upper trunk, arms and head of the venerable kangaroo don’t amount to much when compared to its substantial lower body. Fortunately, the beasts seem to have little or no self-consciousness about having such a preposterous appearance, as that could only generate complex neurosis that would be no help whatsoever to a creature that must focus most of its attention on dodging boomerangs, bullets and dingoes in a natural environment that can be harsh on the best of days.


The Australian people, on the other hand, are quick and funny, gregarious and natural-born raconteurs. As testament to their bountiful good humor, they have courageously put the kangaroo, and the equally illogical emu, on their national crest, and the platypus on their 20-cent piece. A race less comfortable with irony might have downplayed such a collection of ridiculous faunae, but the Australians are proud of their continent’s curious beasts, and on average, more knowledgeable about them than we are about our more banal assortment.


When you ask Australians a question, they’ll often give a well-informed answer or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll make up something that either sounds like the truth or actually improves on the truth. In either case you come away satisfied.


The Nikons are beeping excitedly as we approach the platypus viewing overlook. We make a few detours to the creek bank, but the guide shakes her head and motions us onward. Finally she stops at a clearing atop a small embankment and indicates that we should form a line. It’s about 20 feet to the other side of the creek where tall reeds wander into the slow-moving water, creating a perfect feeding area for the platypus.


The sun hasn’t yet ascended above the walls of the gorge, but the sky is the color of a morning glory blossom and the sandstone cliffs are either changing from orange to pink or from pink to orange. We stare intently at the reeds and the nearly still, black water. Nothing. A Nikon beeps. Nothing. A couple of people move off down the trail, impatient. Nothing. Then the guide points emphatically and whispers, “There.”


Something is moving through the reeds, jostling them as it goes, something underwater. And then, just clear of the reeds and out in the open, no more than 4 yards away, it comes to the surface. First the legendary bill, followed by a slick, furry back. It’s a great brute of a platypus, easily 12 inches long, maybe 14. It takes a breath, quickly glances at us with its small, dewy eyes, and disappears into the dark creek with a kick of its back feet. The reeds jiggle a little. And again nothing. And a Nikon beeps as the morning sun drools through the eucalyptus leaves. And we walk on.


Later, back at the lodge, I tell John Stoddart of our luck. “Was it a good-size one then?” he asks.


“Probably about 8 feet,” I say. And for a brief moment his eyes widen before he explodes with a kookaburra chortle, which makes me think that for a second or two, I just may have had him going.