The Beatles, Get Back

The first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

2015 in Review

What I’ve done in 2015. This is what a teaching scholar looks like. I accomplished what follows during 2015 while teaching a 4-4-3 load with a one semester sabbatical in the Fall, for which I am grateful to my current institution. What could your teaching scholars accomplish with better support? I know quite a few, and they deserve it. Everything listed below was written or published between January and December of 2015.

Creative:

  • Submitted my first volume of poetry for consideration to a publisher: Tripping the Light Ekphrastic. Still waiting to hear back. These things take time. The poems for this volume were written between 1991 and mid Summer 2015.
  • Submitted about ten individual poems for publication to different venues. Some were declined, some are still under consideration. They may all get declined. That is how it goes. I know, because I’ve been publishing since the 90s. You need thick skin to be a writer; we all face a lot of rejection. I had four poems published in late 2014, though, so that’s good.
  • Wrote about another forty pages of poetry, all new in 2015.
  • Served as a literary agent for Martin Reaves and helped guide his first novel, A Fractured Conjuring, through the entire publication process from contract to editing to release. It was a pleasure. It’s a dark, disturbing novel, but it’s a great one. It is now available in both print and e-book format through amazon.com. This publication is personally meaningful to me — Marty was my best friend from seventh grade through all four years of high school. I spent almost as much time at his house during those years as I did at my own. His family was great to me. He told me about his first date with his wife Charla in our middle school locker room the day after it happened. I was in his wedding party, got pictures of his two beautiful daughters when they were little kids, and now know them both as beautiful grown married women with children. Marty has been writing excellent fiction for well over ten years with only a little luck. My hope for this book is that it makes him a little money, gets him at least a little recognition, and helps to land his next book with the higher end publisher that he deserves.

Exhibits. The “Exhibit” category falls between the categories of “Creative” and “Scholarship,” I think:

  • Blake in the Heartland. This great exhibit ran in the Spring of 2015. It focused on the work of visiting scholar Dr. Michael Phillips, who I recruited to visit. He curated William Blake exhibits at the Tate, the Met, the Petite Palais, and most recently the Ashmolean. He delivered two lectures open to the public, gave two printmaking demonstrations (one for local high school students and one for my institution’s students and faculty), and guest lectured for an honors class. The exhibit was curated by Associate Professor of Art Lee Fearnside — who is the gallery Director. She suffered through all of the institutional work to make this happen, doing most of the heavy lifting to make it happen. I co-authored a grant to support these events with her. For this exhibit, Phillips provided his facsimiles of pages from Blake’s illuminated books that were printed using Blake’s materials and printmaking methods. The exhibit also featured contemporary art by regional artists inspired by Blake. You can see images from the exhibit linked above.
  • I then came up with the the idea for an exhibit at my institution’s art gallery dedicated to Ohio rock and roll. Lee liked the idea, so we wrote a grant to support it, recruited three Ohio rock photographers to contribute photographs, and I recruited two scholars to come present papers in a roundtable session either about Ohio rock bands or rock scholarship in Ohio. I’ve also contacted several Columbus-based bands to see if any of them are available for performance, pending budgetary approval. So far, things are going well. But, there’s more — one thing leads to another. I then came up with an idea for an honors class that would study the intersections of rock and roll with literature — and they are many and fertile, believe me — so I queried a Romanticism listserv for ideas. It turns out we’re not running honors classes this Spring, but responses to my query were so enthusiastic that I decided to develop an edited anthology titled Rock and Romanticism, which leads to my next category: scholarship.

Scholarship: Books

  • Rock and RomanticismWonderful project. I sent out a CFP, collected over forty paper proposals, sent out three book proposals (waiting to hear back), and since then have received seventeen papers and edited fourteen. I see this as an ongoing project resulting in two to three volumes, so I’m still accepting proposals. I’ve set up a book blog (linked above) and am continuing to receive and edit essays.
  • Interpretation: Theory: HistoryI started this anthology back in 2012 and have been wrestling with it ever since. I was awarded a contract last summer, didn’t like the terms, went back to my contributors and slimmed down then revised my proposal, and now have a very good publisher looking at it. I’ve edited three essays and wrote a provisional introduction to provide the interested publisher a writing sample.
  • The Pretenders: I co-wrote a proposal for this book with a colleague, and we submitted it to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. They received 605 proposals and accepted 16. Ours didn’t make it. I revised, expanded, and resubmitted it as an individual project, and it is now moving through the stages with another publisher. It’s gone through one round of editorial review and is moving into another. We will see. This project was supported by a week of research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives in Cleveland. The archivists there were great.

Scholarship: New Media. Since my institution may be moving toward a professional writing focus in its English major, I’ve started to expand my profile in New Media publishing.

Scholarship: Articles, Edited Anthologies

  • “Late-Romantic Heroes as Archetypes of Masculinity: Breaking Bad, The Fast and the Furious, and Californication,” by invitation for the edited anthology Class, Politics, and Superheroes: Populism in Comics, Films, and TV, Ed. Marc DiPaolo. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with the University of Mississippi Press.
  • “Silly Love Songs and Gender in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron,” by invitation for the edited anthology Assemble!: The Making and Re-making of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ed. Julian Chambliss and Bill Svitavsky. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with McFarland & Company, Inc.

Scholarship: Book Reviews

  • Rev. of Sexy Blake, eds. Helen B. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of The Emigrants, or, A Trip to the Ohio, A Theatrical Farce (1817), by George Cumberland. Elizabeth B. Bentley, ed., and Angus Whitehead, Intro. 2013 for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 by David Sigler for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions, published October 2015.
  • Rev. of William Blake and the Production of Time by Andrew M. Cooper for Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 38.3 (Sept. 2015): 472-4.
  • Rev. of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation by Roderick Tweedy for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, published Summer 2015.

Scholarship: Conferences. I’ve been presenting papers at three to four conferences a year since 2007. Most of them have been national, with some regional and some international. Unfortunately, my institutional support only covers about 25% of my costs at most, so I’ve had to scale back. I had a panel and a paper accepted for the CCCCs conference, but I had to pull out because of costs. I will still list the panel below, though, as the panel itself was accepted and did run. I also had a paper accepted for the Midwest MLA conference, but I had to pull out. I’ve been trying to focus on lower-cost regional conferences near me lately.

  • “Cohorts and Risk Management,” CCCCs National Conference, St. Petersburg, FL 2015. Successfully wrote the panel but did not attend.
  • “Imagining the Mind-Body Relation: The Skull as a Cave in Blake’s Mythological Works.” March 2015 for the national College English Association conference, Indianapolis, IN.

Scholarship: Digital Humanities

  • I attended a coding workshop for the Mary Russell Mitford project (Digital Mitford) in June of 2015 and finished my first round of markup for her poem Watlington Hill. I need to mark up people and places and write site index entries for it now.
  • I created an online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit.

I haven’t included blogging for my book projects or for my personal blog (here), which includes the online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit linked above, but I can provide links to my annual reports for my personal blog and my Rock and Romanticism blog.

All that I’ve listed here is my publishing productivity during 2015. It doesn’t include teaching, advising, or committee service: four courses in the Spring and three graduate courses in the Summer, including being a reader for one Master’s thesis. It also doesn’t include about twenty letters of recommendation, editing books for two friends of mine, and editing a few essays for friends too. This stuff is all part of the job that most college teachers do.

I’ve also tried to be a husband and father, but I think I suck at that.

Support your teachers. I’m just one of them, but they’re all working hard for you, their students, and their schools.

I would like every teacher to post a list like this about their summer work so that people know what we do.

Next up: forthcoming in 2016.

A Taxonomy of Feedback…

2014-10-02 18.47.00

I had a great time the first week of October workshopping poetry and creative non-fiction with other writers at the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference hosted by Connie May Fowler. The best things I heard there, in no particular order:

  • Sascha Feinstein (poetry and creative non-fiction workshop leader) described people he’d met who were so completely committed to their art they believed that their artworks were their children. His response: “No, your children are your children.” His poetry and creative non-fiction were great to listen to. I was in his workshop, and it was run very well. We all helped one another.
  • Laura van den Berg read half of a short story, which was cruel — it was such a good story that we all wanted the rest of it.
  • Loved the poetry of Parneshia Jones and was encouraged by her presentation as editor of Northwestern University Press: it’s good to hear that there are people in the industry trying to treat their authors ethically.
  • Connie May Fowler‘s reading selection from her forthcoming autobiography was lyrical and beautiful. What I think I loved the most was when she told the group that she didn’t take being a writer for granted — that it was a privilege to be able to write and to publish.
  • And one unnamed participant’s description of how she started writing will stick with me for the rest of my life, for better or for worse. When she was working in finance she would have one male client call and ask her to “talk dirty” to him on the phone. She couldn’t because she was in an office with an open door policy. But she did start writing stories for him. And from what I understand, the male caller is a frequent figure on cable news. Now everyone at the workshop will be scanning cable news channels for the guy.

Now I’ve been teaching poetry since 2008 at the graduate and undergraduate level, and I first published poetry around the early 1990s and then the early 2000s. Once I started graduate school I didn’t have time for writing and publishing poetry, but I also ran a writer’s group in the Orlando area in the mid 1990s for a few years. So I’ve been giving and receiving feedback on poetry for a good twenty years now, and this latest round of receiving feedback has prompted some ideas on the feedback process itself. Some of this thinking works itself out into a taxonomy of feedback of sorts, or a list of different kinds of feedback given.

  • But first, feedback is great. I started writing poems again around November of last year, and I knew they needed editing, but I didn’t feel like I had the distance from them that I needed to edit them. After the workshop, I think I know how to edit my poems now.
  • So the first type of feedback is feedback that confirms what you already know. If there were two weak lines in a poem, I knew they were there, and my colleagues at the workshop focused on those. If there was a slide toward sentimental language, I was aware of that, and they pointed it out, though we may disagree about where it works and where it doesn’t. This kind of feedback tells me two things: first, trust my judgment about the weak spots in my poems, and second, that the people giving feedback are good readers.
  • But at the same time, I wasn’t aware of some verbal ticks I’d acquired, like the habit of repeating some phrases from one line to the next. That may not be bad in every instance, but I need to watch how often it occurs. What I’ve been able to do for the first time since November is write sonnets — I never felt until then that I could write even a passable one, though I’ve written in other formal verse forms and in free verse — but I see now where I was succumbing to form at times rather than making it work for the poem. So the second kind of feedback is feedback about your blind spots. This is perhaps the best kind of feedback a writer can get.
  • Feedback that is, essentially, “I don’t get it.” I don’t know what to do with this feedback. Some of the best works of literature I’ve ever read I didn’t understand fully the first time I read them. I’d even extend this claim to song lyrics. What’s going on here is a negotiation, maybe even a dance of sorts, between the reader and the writer in which the writer makes the work intriguing enough to get the reader to want to do the work necessary to understand it. What makes a work worth the effort is very much a subjective judgment on the part of the reader. Does it give pleasure? Does it address themes important to the reader? But at the same time, there has to be content for the reader to grasp before he or she will want to look more. It’s a difficult negotiation, and we should keep in mind that not all literature is written for the purpose of discursive understanding. Some is written for emotional and, especially in the case of poetry, aural effects. Sometimes the purpose of a work of literature is to communicate a mood or feeling rather than an idea, so readers seeking only ideas will remain frustrated.
  • You have to have thick skin. Sascha Feinstein started our workshops with these instructions: sit and listen to everyone’s feedback without responding, and then you get to respond in the last fifteen minutes of your part of the session. I think that’s good advice. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to just shut up and listen to feedback about your own work without feeling the need to defend it. It’s part of realizing that your writing isn’t your baby, something I learned the hard way while freelance writing for three years after graduating from college –before I started my grad program. Almost everything is subject to revision.   
  • Now overall — in terms of all of my past experience giving and receiving feedback over the last twenty years — I’ve found that there are two types of personal responses writers will give to one another. Some writers see the talent of other writers as an asset to them. Other writers see the talent or education of their colleagues as a threat or a liability to them, as if the extension of recognition to someone else takes away from them, or at least might. If you’re in a workshopping situation, just ignore the latter types and try to be one of the former types. Everyone who attempts to create anything can succumb to professional jealousy. You will at times. Some people may do what they do so well you will be tempted to quit. So to avoid professional jealousy, or at least being too easily threatened, you need to develop a sense of what you can do and what you can uniquely contribute. While you can’t do what other writers can do, others may not be able to do what you can do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two writers say to one another in the same workshop session, “I wish I could write something like that.”

Anyway — the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference was a great experience for me. I’d encourage anyone who wants to develop as a writer to try it at least once. It’s worth it just for the time spent in St. Augustine, but it’s a great workshop too.  The months of October to February are probably the best time to visit Florida.

Photograph © 2014 James Rovira: Vilano Beach Marshes, October 2014.

Meditations on a Multicultural Utopia

suburbia1968 — DAIRY VALLEY, CA. Downtown Dairy Valley: the intersection of two lane Gridley Rd. and Artesia Blvd. On one corner the Tastee Freeze stood like a fortress of pleasure against the summer heat; even though it had outdoor seating only, it served up ice cream cones dipped in chocolate, taquitos, hot fudge Sundaes, and ice cold Cokes. Occupying two other corners were a Texaco and a Mobil station locked in a gas war to the death, volleying lower prices and various goodies from fully loaded painted windows. A family owned drive-through convenience store stood on the fourth corner, and immediately behind it was a pony ride. Anyone driving up and down Artesia Blvd. would see an occasional house and endless cow pastures; if you headed due south down Artesia from the Tastee Freeze and took the first left you’d drive into an older neighborhood and pass Luther Burbank elementary school, in the city of Artesia. Dairy Valley surrounded Artesia like a horseshoe; Artesia was the hub of a rural wheel holding the neighborhoods, the older library, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, the elementary school and Faye Ross Junior High, while Dairy Valley itself consisted of farm after farm after farm.

Until 1968, that is. The year Dairy Valley began its sudden transformation into Cerritos, California, home of one of the nation’s first indoor malls and the nation’s first solar powered city hall.

My family moved into one of the first subdivisions built over a cow pasture. The day an ornate, wooden sign was erected marking the entrance into Cerritos my father and I were there, with several other families, planting trees around the sign. Our house overlooked the railroad tracks that ran awkwardly through our city, and ironically across the tracks lay what was to be the last dairy farm in the area. Eventually one of the two gas stations closed and the other was refurbished, the convenience stored was plowed down to make room for a 7-11, the empty lot next to it became a Bally Health spa, and the pony rides were closed to make room for a small community of closely huddled duplexes. Both Gridley and Artesia were widened to four lanes, and eventually the subdivisions took over the entire block, their yellow masonry walls marching down the street like an unassailable army.

In 1968 I was four years old, oblivious to the marvel unfolding before me. I was witnessing the birth of Utopia. Southern California, by nature, gives birth to utopian dreams. Even as of my last visit in the mid 1980’s, a drive from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Pacific Coast Highway could be annoying and inspiring; vast expanses of rolling green hills, the view of the mountains and the ocean and the places where they meet, the cliffs of San Clemente, the insane traffic through the beach towns, the beauty of the agricultural areas with their orange groves and irresistible fruit stands. My father even grew fruit trees in his backyard; we had oranges, insanely large tomatoes, bigger even than my hands are now, apricots, nectarines, plums, apples, and lemons. We had rosebushes in the front yard lining either side of the wide, red brick stairway leading up to our front door. Everything grew and flourished there, everything and anything you could plant. Even people.

My neighborhood grew fat with young families and their small children, and like the Star Trek utopia we witnessed on television our neighborhood was a model of racial diversity. Mexican, Vietnamese, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Puerto Rican, African American, Filipino, and Korean families all lived on the same block, shopped at the same grocery store, met at the same PTA and Cub Scout meetings, and saw their children through the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. We got into fights and played on the same little league teams, and many of us attended the same Catholic Church. We had to work through the accents of our friend’s parents and learn each other’s food when we visited for dinner. Our front doors were thresholds between the outside world of Southern California suburbia and the more intimate world of our family lives, a world dominated by foreign furniture, foods, and smells. Everyone I knew was comfortably well off, and most of the people I knew from the neighborhood lived there for years. We grew up together.

Since I faced this kind of diversity as a child, I took it for granted that things were the same everywhere. Racial and cultural differences were sources of mystery and pleasure to me, differences each family kept without flaunting. My parents entertained often, and largely entertained Hispanics. Finding Spanish speaking people was always a source of comfort to my mother and grandmother, a way of making suburbia seem more like home and less foreign. I remember a visiting uncle asking me once if I was proud to be Puerto Rican, and I told him, “No.”

“What? You’re ashamed of it then?”

“No, I’m just not proud of it. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t make myself Puerto Rican, I was born this way. It’s nothing to be proud of.” By the time I was a teenager I saw race and culture as givens; only those lacking any other assets would fall upon their ancestry as a source of self-worth.

I had come to define myself by my reading, and never learned to speak Spanish.

I used to spend a lot of time looking out my window over that last cow pasture. I’d study the cows whenever I got too bored, and wondered about the people that lived in the house just across the tracks. They seemed alien to me, not Tom Quan, my best friend down the street. The cows were a study in tedium. They sat, or stood, they ate and shit, feeding the grass that fed them in an endless cycle, seldom approaching the boundaries of their world. They seemed to see no sense it in, staying happy so long as the grass was green and they were left alone. They lived to produce milk then be slaughtered for their meat. In the middle of the cow pasture the ranchers built a structure to keep the rains off the hay–it was probably three stories tall, no walls, just a frame supporting a roof stacked to the top with hay. Shortly after the cows were gone, I watched it burn. Someone set fire to it. The house stood unoccupied for some time, and we liked riding our skateboards and motocross bikes in the empty pool. By the early 1980s, a strip mall featuring various upscale restaurants conquered the last dairy farm left in Cerritos. Dairy Valley was gone forever, its only reminder being the Black Angus I’d take my dates to occasionally if I liked them well enough.

My Irish friend was expelled from Catholic school after Catholic school, entertaining us all with his stories. One time he kicked the chair out from under a short nun while she was writing across the top of a blackboard, another time he put dish soap in the water cooler and gave several boys diarrhea. He poisoned one boy with mistletoe and got into fights with four others, by the time he was 17 his mother finally gave up and put him in public school, where he got me and another one of his friends into a fight with 12 Mexicans. I was stabbed in the back with a Phillips screwdriver six times, then thrown down by four of them and kicked in the head and ribs until I couldn’t see or feel anymore. My only consolation was kicking in someone’s front teeth when he tried to grab my boots, and a well placed fist given to someone who tried to bury that screwdriver in my chest.

Older California was as segregated as the Northeast; the poorer Mexicans in our area lived in a barrio, while the blacks lived in Compton and their football team always beat us badly. We cruised Whittier Blvd. afraid of the Chicanos in their ridiculous cars, flirting with the cholo chicks with their corduroy jeans and tight white T’s under unbuttoned flannel shirts, with their long dark hair and painted dark eyes, with their thick accents and hot breath, and their sweet wisdom. One of them, one who could barely speak English, loved me. I figured that out three weeks after I moved out of state.

The bad parts of town spread across Southern California like a cancer.

We got high with our psychology teacher on field trips and laughed at him when he couldn’t find his way back to the school. Girls who wanted an easy A visited his room at lunchtime; someone had written “Chester the Molester” in my book where the teacher’s name was supposed to be. I showed it to him and he laughed. My Algebra teacher was a Buddhist monk, and the school principal retired to pastor a Baptist Church, saying it was his lifelong dream. Almost all of us took drugs; we bought speed and acid from one of our High School counselors, and got free grass from his brother’s Sens plant next door. Quaaludes and mushrooms were accessible too, just a little harder to get. We had special places we’d go to get high, quiet secluded areas inside a bank of trees, where we’d push the limits of consciousness in search for meaning, finally settling for temporary relief. We took our dates there too because the ultimate high was getting laid, usually at the expense of a young girl’s self respect.

Our music was our identity, the only sacrament in our religion of despair. Everyone’s father was an engineer of some kind, it seemed, or a lawyer or a psychiatrist. We fed the burgeoning technological monster that is the late 20th century economic system with our purchasing power, being fed in return through high paying jobs in a never ending cycle. My friends, none of them, saw any point in living. We were killing ourselves slowly, angry for reasons we didn’t understand, straining to find the boundaries of our world within well defined comfort zones. We had everything we needed and nothing we really wanted for our vision of the future was of a treadmill; we saw ourselves someday transformed into hamsters running on an exercise wheel, turning the machine that fed us daily, living only to eat, sleep and shit. In the middle of utopia we knew emptiness, we conquered nature but became estranged from ourselves.

Our Utopia was Hell. Thank God “utopia” means “nowhere.”

This paper was originally published on towerofbabel.com in 1998 where it has also been translated into Spanish spain.

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