Friday, January 25, 2013

Angelic voices, #1: Ella sings "Summertime"

On the rare occasions I watch tv, I gravitate toward PBS. Over the years, the local affiliate has run dozens of documentaries about musicians who mattered, including Ella Fitzgerald.

I came to the Ella Fitzgerald documentary from a place of ignorance, as I had a limited familiarity with her catalog. Intuitively I  imagined the First Lady of Song as light (maybe even happy), based on the finger-snapping, swing jazz I associated her with.

That night I discovered the pain and sadness in Ella Fitzgerald's life, from a childhood of privation to homelessness, a wrenching divorce, and an offstage restlessness that kept her on the road until her health would no longer allow it.

The undertow of suffering dovetailed with the most powerful moment of the documentary, the version of "Summertime" below. This performance lay buried in my soul for years until I found it on YouTube recently. It's exquisite on many levels:  the black and white stock; the close-ups (including the single bead of sweat rolling down Ella's cheek); and the simple, understated arrangement, which makes this rendition all about the voice, and gives Lady Ella the space to shine.    

With this post, I'm inaugurating the "angelic voices" series in honor of vocalists who have enriched my life. Suggestions for future posts are welcome.

(Click on box in lower right for full screen)

*Click here for "Angelic voices, #2: Marvin Gaye sings 'The Star-Spangled Banner'"

and here for "Angelic voices, #3:  Janis Joplin sings 'Cry Baby'"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop

"I Have a Dream"
Martin Luther King, Jr. packed a lot into a short life.

King was just 26 when he became the spokesman for the Montgomery bus boycott (during which time his house was firebombed) in 1956. 

He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. In 1960, he was arrested at a Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in, one of thirty times he was arrested in pursuit of social justice. The next year, influenced by King’s work with the Freedom Riders, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in interstate travel. 

In 1963, King was incarcerated for protesting discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Later that year, he gave the “I Have a Dream" speech. 

At the end of 1964, King became the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, he led a march in support of voting rights from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, across the Pettus Bridge, in defiance of state troopers who’d terrorized demonstrators on an earlier march across the bridge.

By early 1967, it had become obvious that equality under the law (as codified in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) couldn't begin to compensate for the centuries of oppression and humiliation blacks had endured through slavery and Jim Crow. A grinding poverty pervaded America’s inner cities, which had erupted in riots over the past three years.

Many Americans felt that the U.S. was spending too much money on guns (the escalation of the Vietnam War) and not enough on butter (domestic programs). In April 1967, King gave one of his most famous speeches, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” The next month, at an SCLC retreat, King and his colleagues decided to focus their energies on an Economic Bill of Rights which would shift government money from the futile Vietnam War effort toward economically-disadvantaged Americans of all races through full employment, low-income housing, and other anti-poverty programs. This movement became known as the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and would eventually draw King to Memphis in 1968.


Sanitation workers demand to be treated with dignity
The trouble in Memphis had started at the end of January. According to the Memphis History website:

"On January 30, 1968, 21 [black] workers were sent home without pay because of the rain. When the rain let up an hour later, white employees were still on the clock and worked all day for pay. This caused a furor among the men and T. O. Jones [a former sanitation worker and president of the AFSCME Local] took up the issue with the new Directory of Public Works, Charles Blackburn.

"….Two days later, the first day of February, two sanitation employees - Echol Cole, 35, and Robert Walker, 29 - were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. They were inside the truck trying to escape a driving rain long enough to eat their lunch. Work rules in the Sanitation Department called for workers to clock out when it rained. Meanwhile the predominantly white supervisory and administrative staff were allowed to continue working for pay. Both of the dead men were relatively new to the job. Neither man had a life insurance policy."

A few days after these incidents, on February 4, King gave his "Drum Major Instinct" sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In that speech, he said*:

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?"….

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. (
Yes) (*audience responses in parentheses)

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Before long, King would go on his last mission.

Back in Memphis, the deaths of Cole and Walker galvanized the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers, most of whom were black, “received virtually no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations, worked in filthy conditions, and lacked such simple amenities as a place to eat and shower.” The workers went on strike February 12, demanding better wages (many of them lived at the poverty level despite working full-time), more humane working conditions, and recognition of their union by the city of Memphis, a cause they’d been fighting for since 1963. 

On February 23, the city council refused to accept the workers' terms. The next day, demonstrators marched to City Hall. Along the way, they were beset by police with Mace and teargas. In response, black ministers banded together to organize daily demonstrations and boycotts of local businesses which had discriminatory practices.

After weeks of escalating protests (and racial tension) fueled by the recalcitrance of the city council and white Republican Mayor Henry Loeb, Martin Luther King, Jr. was summoned to Memphis. On March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 15,000, urging them to commit acts of civil disobedience, to effectively cripple the city into doing the right thing. 

A major march was scheduled for March 22, but was pushed back to March 28 due to a snowstorm. King led the March 28 march through downtown Memphis. According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford:

March 28, 1968
"Memphis city officials estimated that 22,000 students skipped school that day to participate in the demonstration. King arrived late and found a massive crowd on the brink of chaos. Lawson and King led the march together but quickly called off the demonstration as violence began to erupt. King was whisked away to a nearby hotel, and Lawson told the mass of people to turn around and go back to the church. In the chaos that followed, downtown shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Police followed demonstrators back to the Clayborn Temple, entered the church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.

"[Mayor] Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day, over 200 striking workers continued their daily march, carrying signs that read, 'I Am a Man.'"

King was blamed for the violence and mayhem by local mainstream media, who were white-owned and in cahoots with the police and the FBI (which had hounded King for years and were swarming Memphis). Unbowed, King scheduled a second march for Monday, April 8.

The city of Memphis filed an injunction, claiming concern about civil disorder - and King’s safety. City Attorney Frank Gianotti said, “We are fearful that in the turmoil of the moment someone may even harm Dr. King’s life…we don’t want that to happen.” 

King’s response?

“We are not going to be stopped by Mace or injunctions.”

On the evening of April 3, King was scheduled to speak at the Mason Temple church, but he felt under the weather. King's good friend Ralph Abernathy took his place, while he recuperated at the Lorraine Motel.

But once Abernathy was at the church, where he witnessed the size of the crowd and the energy in the room, King was called and asked to make an appearance.

King began the "Mountaintop" speech by posing a question:

King delivers the "Mountaintop" speech
If I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?"

Following a tour of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt through the great philosophers of ancient Greece, the Roman empire, the Renaissance, Lincoln, and FDR, King said “I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy,’” and tied the theme of human liberation into the many boiling social movements of 1968:

Something is happening in our world. (Yeah) The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: "We want to be free." (Applause)

Once the big picture was established, King brought things around to Memphis, 1968, and asserted his bedrock belief in non-violence: 

We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles; we don't need any Molotov cocktails. 

The moral imperative of unity and self-sacrifice on behalf of the sanitation workers was connected with the road to Jericho parable, and our duty to one another:

And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" (All right)

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" (Yes) The question is not "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question. (Applause)

The speech’s closing was eerily prophetic:

It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane–there were six of us–the pilot said over the public address system: "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane." And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night.

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) (Applause) And I don't mind. (Applause continues) Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. (Yeah) And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I've looked over (Yes sir), and I've seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. (Applause) (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (Applause)

During a speech ten years later, civil rights activist Benjamin Hooks said, "I remember that night when he [Martin Luther King, Jr.] finished, he stopped by quoting the words of that song that he loved so well, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.' He never finished. He wheeled around and took his seat and to my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming down his face. Grown men were sitting there weeping openly because of the power of this man who spoke on that night."

As King lays dying, his allies point in the direction of the gunman
The next day, April 4, 1968, King’s lawyers appeared before a judge to challenge the city of Memphis' injunction. According to Andrew Young, who later became the mayor of Atlanta, King was "surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement...he laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner at 6 p.m." 

Just before leaving, King went outside to check the weather for proper attire. There, out on the balcony, he was gunned down at the age of 39. 

On April 16, after riots and pressure from state and federal officials, a deal (which agreed to most of the workers' demands) was finally worked out between the sanitation workers and the city of Memphis.


Forty-two years later, I walked through a hot, sticky Memphis day to the Lorraine Hotel. 

Over a long weekend in Memphis, I saw Graceland, the Stax Museum, and the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. I ate divine pulled pork and fried chicken, caught live blues,  took in beautiful old architecture, and attended a friend's wedding on the Mississippi River.

But this was the capstone of my trip, an event, a place, that had been in my thoughts and in my soul for years. 

When I arrived at the hotel and looked up at the balcony, I sat down and teared up for several minutes. After a spell, I got on my feet and looked around.

In the parking lot was this headstone

which faces the balcony where King stood when he was assassinated:

Also in the parking lot, for authenticity's sake, are vintage automobiles, here seen up close,

 here from further back,

and further yet:

Across the street from the Lorraine Motel are carved 
perhaps the most famous words from the "Mountaintop" speech:

The Lorraine Motel could have become just an assassination shrine, a spot to grieve and leave - like a cemetery - but thankfully Memphis philanthropists reached into their pockets to create the National Civil Rights Museum from the ashes of one of the most horrible events in American history. 

Inside are audiovisual displays that give a thorough history of the civil rights movement, from slavery to freedom to Jim Crow to Rosa Parks, the lunch counter sit-ins, all the way through to the present.

As slow as the pace of social progress can seem, the undeniable forward motion in these displays remind us of Dr. King's oft-used phrase "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Tom with the love of his life
Most of all, Tom, I remember laughter. An instant connection based on geography, mutual interests, and parents who read and ask questions. We had a built-in nudge-nudge wink-wink which was repeatedly nourished by the rich theater of the absurd all around us. Your meta was my meta.

My earliest memory:  1998. Leaning back in our rolling chairs, headset mic at our mouths, we sprung canned answers (your favorite was “The numbers pretty much speak for themselves”) - in-jokes among and for the assembled phone jockeys - to frequently asked questions from people on the other end of the country. Just because. Because taking the job seriously at all times would have been surrendering to the notion that selling a product in a call center to make a handful of rich people even richer was our raison d’etre.

When they moved us from our cozy, centrally-located Embarcadero Center digs to the Big Brother building with all the security doors at the tacky, touristy edge of town, where we discovered after logging in that they’d taken away our breathing time between calls without forewarning, you walked out at lunch and never came back. And further stuck it to The Man when you thereafter applied for unemployment and they didn’t show up for the hearing. 

After your escape, I didn’t see you often, but when I did, we picked up right where we’d left off. I’d walk into your apartment and you’d say “How’s it going thar, Danny?” and it fit, though no one else has called me Danny since I stopped watching “Sesame Street” without making me wince.

Above all, I remember sitting in your living room chatting and listening to music. The space was big and open with soft colors that were easy on the eyes and tall windows looking out onto the street. On the wall behind the stereo was a framed “Whipped Cream and other Delights" album cover. On the floor was “The Tower of Conniff,” twenty Ray Conniff 8-track tapes neatly stacked. You were on the opposite couch grinning, gesticulating with your palm up. You took perverse joy in your roommate’s sadistic habit of subjecting me to Gino Vanelli’s deep album tracks, and worse.

We shared a love of The Golden Age of rock and pop, the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Fab Four in particular (we both favored the Beatle with the granny glasses). 

You told me that Bowie’s sweet spot was the Mick Ronson albums “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” and “Ziggy Stardust,” and I later found out that you were right.

Unlike all the people who looked on with irritation or confusion when I exposed them to “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” or “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” you got Frank Zappa, and once even sang a line from “Who Are the Brain Police?”

We also shared a love of ’70s cars, before the style and the sex and the individuality of American automobiles gave way to an undifferentiated mass of glacier-melting SUVs and boxy, faceless economy cars. Though I never had a peek, I heard many times about your famous collection of car brochures.

We shared a home state and a concomitant fondness for beer and cheese, both for purposes of consumption, and as sociological signposts. I remember you sitting Indian style on the carpet in your living room with a small cutting board topped with crackers, a block of cheese, and a roll of sausage which you casually carved as we listened to disco or bossa nova or ‘80s hair metal. You betcha!

While the music played we shared stories about the residential hotels we’d lived in as twenty-somethings, when we were getting our feet wet in San Francisco, and discovered that we’d both lived at the Golden Eagle. We got a snort out of the incongruity between the glorious name and the mold-wraithed, roach-infested reality. 

Not incidentally, we shared progressive political beliefs. But thanks to you, our discussions generally weren't filled with impotent moral outrage or the finer points of public policy. Your specialty was a darkly comic appreciation of America's right-wing freakshow:  certifiable Republican congressman "B-1" Bob Dornan, plutocratic quack economist Larry Kudlow, gun nuts, fundies. The lies coming from these quarters were outrageous, but tens of millions of people bought the bullshit hook, line, and sinker. This was tragic on one level, and ridiculous enough to be amusing on another. People are strange.  

And of course, we gloated when Slick Willie outmaneuvered the prudes. 

Your bachelor pad was an oasis on my ride back from the ocean, through Golden Gate Park. Intuitively I felt that you would always be there for a drop-by, and looked forward to future visits. In my imagination, I'd come to the intersection before the bison and head south toward the park exit at 41st and Lincoln. Once in front of your apartment, I'd lock my bike to a post, ring your bell. The buzzer would go off, I'd pass through the two gates and go on up. You'd open the door at the top of the stairs, smile and say, "Danny."

Just like that. 


R.I.P. brother, wherever you are
Late last Monday night, when my ringer was off, I received an urgent call from a mutual friend.

Tuesday, in the dark early morning on the way to the bus stop, I heard the message and wondered why he’d called me all the way from Bangkok, so desperate to talk?

About an hour later - not long after I saw a Facebook status update with a photo of a smiling elderly woman under the caption “My lovely grandma turns 90!!” - I answered an incoming phone call and was informed that you’d been permanently grounded at 40.

Over the past week, as I stumbled on vintage cars while traversing the city, or saw tasty, ironic news morsels online, I thought I bet Tom would appreciate this, then had to back off and remember, re-calibrate to the present, where our shared history is cordoned off in my inner attic.   

When they scatter your ashes across the Pacific, I’ll try to hold on to these memories, and to my gratitude that we crossed paths, and fight the urge to ask myself what if

Monday, January 7, 2013

Great Guitar Solos, #4: Dweezil Zappa Slays "Eruption"

"He might as well have had the smoke machines following him, and the lights...'cuz that's all I a superhero walked in the house..."

-Dweezil Zappa, on meeting Eddie Van Halen

In the early '80s, every budding lead guitarist wanted to play "Eruption" by rock guitar's last major sonic innovator, Eddie Van Halen. 

The release of this 1:42-long instrumental in 1978 drove thousands of kids to their rooms for countless hours to master the weapons in Eddie's arsenal:  finger tapping, pinch harmonics, screaming pickslides, and whammy-bar dives/assorted whale sounds.  

One of those kids, Dweezil Zappa, was lucky enough to know Eddie Van Halen personally. Van Halen would produce Dweezil's first record (at right), help him with a talent show, and offer timely condolences at a very difficult moment.   

In the video below, Zappa relates his star-struck wonderment when he met Van Halen, who stopped over in his "bonafide superhero" jumpsuit (pictured above, from the back cover of "Women and Children First") to check out Frank Zappa's in-home studio. At the time, Van Halen's studio hours had been limited by the stingy suits at Warner Brotherswho expected the band to come in well-rehearsed and bang an album out in short order. Eddie wanted a home studio of his own to tinker around in to his heart's content and wrest creative control of the band away from David Lee Roth, a move that would ultimately produce "1984," Van Halen's biggest (if not best) album. 
After paying a debt of gratitude in his spoken introduction, Dweezil lets his fingers do the talking. Armed with a black-with-yellow-tape-striped guitar modeled on the axe Van Halen used early in his career - and later placed in Dimebag Darrell's casket - the Dweez opens "Eruption" at 5:14. 

Dweezil spent a couple years woodshedding to learn his father's complicated arrangements for the first Zappa Plays Zappa tour, and his studiousness shows in this interpretation too, as he nails both the technically demanding phrasing and the famous Van Halen "brown sound." 

This spot-on rendition is the closest live approximation to the original vinyl recording you're likely to find on video, as Van Halen has played only heavily-improvised versions for years. 

The second song, "Somebody Get Me a Doctor," is a raunchy rocker from "Van Halen II," the too often overlooked follow-up to the classic "Van Halen I." This version is also true to the original, down to the singer's blond mane, snug spandex, and Tarzan shrieks (courtesy of one of Zappa Plays Zappa's fun-loving roadies).

          Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," a first-hand             account of Vaughan's final concert

here for "The heaviest New Year's Eve guitar jam ever: Hendrix does 'Machine Gun'"

 here for "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II"

here for "It was 70 years ago today:  an appreciation of Jimi Hendrix"
  here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"          
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

and here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mark Morford's Yoga for Writers

Taking up yoga is the smartest thing I've done over the past couple years.  

I've always worked out regularly, but was never in the habit of stretching. As the aging process and sedentary employ took their toll, I developed lower-back pain and neck stiffness that got progressively worse. 

Chiropractic adjustments pulled me back from the brink, but eventually my recovery plateaued, so I started yoga classes. 

Now any soreness or pain I get tends to be short-term. My posture is better, my center of gravity more firmly rooted. I'm mindful of sitting and standing up straight, chest up, rather than slouching or leaning forward.  

And I like to think yoga has made me more patient. The postmodern world jams us with advertising, multi-tasking, and mountains of mostly useless information in a 24-7 media blur, which is all the more intense in a densely-populated city, where the messy elements of humanity are magnified. At various moments I'm sardined with strangers on slow-moving buses, boxed in behind the Slow Walkers of America on narrow sidewalks, or stuck in long lines for seemingly simple transactions at Walgreen's, the post office, sometimes even the ATM machine. Real time - elongated, contorted - grinds against my internalized, up-tempo city rhythm, which thrives on forward motion.

Yoga slows everything down and separates me from the undertow of cumulative stress. I emerge from a session with a sense of calm, and when I check in to my yoga practice multiple times a week I'm a lot less prone (if not immune) to projection or adverse reactions to people who are rude, unreasonable, or hysterical. 

I also find yoga valuable as a writer. Writing is a solitary activity; excelling at the craft involves hours on end alone, in front of a computer screen. This degree of immersion is necessary to rev the creative jets, to close the gap between an original conception and a realized final draft, but it's a self-contained universe. Too much time in the bubble can erode one's ability to cope with the curveballs of everyday life.     

Mark Morford, a long-time columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and vinyasa yoga instructor, tears down this wall between the mental and physical planes every few months with a Yoga for Writers workshop.  

The last class I attended was in a yoga studio with a shiny parquet floor and soft yellow walls. The sun poured through a skylight and warmed the room. I knew I was in the right place when a young woman with a "So It Goes." tattoo on her ankle set up next to me.

I was intrigued to meet Mark after reading him for many years. In contrast to most dry, orderly newspaper copy, Mark's writing is colorful and free-form - while sober and focused. His approach to yoga is similar:  yoga isn't about becoming mushier, or softer; it's about finding clarity within, and in your relationship to the world around you. 

As the students sat on their mats, notebook or laptop at the ready, Mark gave us some background (a dozen years in yoga and journalism, a million words pushed out into the media sphere) and explained the purposes of the class. Many writers he'd met were pale and out of shape, with bad postures, and wrote from the neck up, with little connection to or balance with the outside world - or their own hearts. When Mark had first written for the Chronicle, he too was often driven by concerns about what his editors (or his audience) thought. We should get in touch with our authentic voice, and let the chips fall where they may.

Once we had settled in and become engaged in Mark's introduction, the workout portion of the class began somewhat abruptly. Mark teaches vinyasa yoga, a form with a heavy cardio component and a lot of movement between poses that's not for amateurs. He circled around as he guided us.  

After getting our asses kicked for 20 minutes and working up a sweat, we sat back down. Mark discussed the role of the muse in art from the Greeks forward, how we channel our higher selves through the people, places, and things that inspire us. Then we did a freewrite on the muse. When Mark saw someone hesitating, he said, "Don't think about it." The idea was to pour out as much as we could from this prompt in the time allotted, without stopping.

I wrote about the sunny sky I often see first thing in the morning, on my days off - an instant sign that my neck of the universe is smiling. My freewrite was in stream-of-consciousness prose, just a big block of text, but I'm breaking it up here into verse to denote the accents, the flow, the way it was meant to be read and heard:

You [the muse] are the light that streams through the window when morning comes,
the sun
(click on photo to enlarge)
the sky                                                                        
out there
the mind's eye capsized,
pulled along,
a magnet
thrusting outward
knocks you up and out of bed willingly,
on the feet
arms swing lightly
plant each step slow,
out to the bathroom
light footfalls,
door shuts
shower comes on cold against your hand 
then lukewarm,
then warm,
then hot,
turn the dial back slightly 'til it's just so
clothes drop to the floor in a pile 
on the inside of the door against the wall
curtain comes back
warm, rushing water caresses your face
hold it in place
imagine the water removing the dirt, 
the buildup, 
the residue, 
the creases, 
the crow's feet,
then turn around and feel the flow against your neck,
knocking the knots loose
and so on and so forth
until every cranny and crevice is fresh-scrubbed,
pace back to the bedroom
look up mid-stride
the window in the front door announces another sunny day,
an invitation,
a feast,
a gift.

When the freewrite time was up, Mark commanded us back into position for another vigorous workout. 

Afterward, as we caught our breath, each of us received a ball of cotton and a little square of dark chocolate, which we were told not to eat until further instruction. Mark talked about the importance of tapping the senses in our writing.

What did the cotton feel like? 

We rolled it along our palms, pulled it apart. 

Given the go-ahead, we ate the chocolate, slowly. 

How did it taste? 

Next up was a freewrite on either the chocolate, the cotton, or both. I chose chocolate and expanded outward. Again, this was originally an amorphous blob of text, here versed out to read like it was meant to sound:

dark brown
the flavor rolls around your tongue
suck on it slowly,
as long as possible,
the piece gets smaller and smaller until it's a nub,
the hub
of your senses
outside is outside
inside is right there on the tongue
taste buds active,
it all comes back to the ocean...
pigs at the trough leaning in 
give us today our daily spread,
a long dinner table with a white linen cloth 
hanging over the edge
silver dishes 
a long drink of wine 
ruby red and sweet
down the gullet
arm extends back, 
out from its crooked eminence,
set the goblet down quietly
look back up
the world opens up again 
full focus
ten people gorging and talking and smiling and
when the moment comes 
breathe deeply
look to the sky,
the sun,
it smiles down on you and me and everyone you know 
and don't
on the peninsula [San Francisco],
the thumb,
the vibrating
city on the hills
facing west the heads turn in sync,
a line,
a string,
lose yourself in the deep blue.

Not long after I finished inking this freewrite we were summoned back into vinyasa mode. The class was more tired now. As we lowered ourselves down to the mat in plank pose for a 10 count, Mark dragged the countdown out ("ten...nine...eight-and-a half...eight..."). Groans went up in the room, and laughter. 

Two dozen poses later we were seated and awakened and in the final topic of the writerly discourse, the self versus the ego. In this formulation, the self is our truest expression, our authentic, intuitive voice. The ego is our need for order and control, our concern about what others think. The goal is to let the self steer while the ego rides sidesaddle. As one woman in class put it, the ego should be in the car with you, but not behind the wheel. 

To close, people read their freewrites, revealing a rich cross-section of  approaches to basic prompts. While I spat out a faux-etic series of loosely linked images, others spun he said-she said thumbnail narratives, created scenes with dialogue, or offered heartfelt renderings of what the prompt meant to them emotionally.

The whole experience was an exercise in opening up, dumping everything out, and re-assembling the pieces, all of which reflected how fluid our lives are, how empowered we are to re-invent ourselves as necessary, to shape our destiny.  

When class ended, the collective broke apart and walked outside into a bigger, more alive, more interconnected world.

© Dan Benbow, 2012

p.s. here is information about Mark Morford's upcoming  "Yoga for Writers:  Bali Immersion" two-week intensive

p.s.s. here's another take on the Yoga for Writers class