Saturday, June 25, 2011

at the city of gold, it's marx versus murdoch

I grew up in the far northeast heights. I went to a high school that was named for a mythical city which supposedly was made from gold and precious jewels.

That metallic school, which was as heavy and hard to hold as any precious metal you can imagine, was populated with a diverse group of students. A fair amount of them were unconventional and untamed, eccentric dreamers and idealists. Thhy were young humans who could easily visualize, one supposes, the gilded future that awaited them. Whether that gold took the form of ingots or ideas, this tendency would serve them well for the most part, later on in life.

Some of the faculty was similarly quirky and exceptional. James Murdoch, the history teacher, wore a flat top and dressed in woolen suits during the winter. He had taught at the same school for years and years, though he had Ivy League cred.

When he was my instructor, he was near retirement, but still outspoken and exacting. Murdoch was a serious fellow, alright: required reading for his class included selections from Marcus Aurelius, Candide and Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. He gave long and passionate lectures on the subject of European history. He weaved Tuchman’s narrative into his inherently structuralist analysis and admonished those students - especially those could not readily draw a parallel between their experience and that of Cunegonde’s suitor - with impossibly intricate questions, as he walked up and down the aisles of desks.

The desks were filled with freaky and geeky kids, and he called upon his students respectfully, by their last names. The latter bit is a habit which I took up with due and appropriate solemnity in my second act, as a college lecturer.

Anyway, when Murdoch discovered that I had enlisted a few of my trusted peers to attend a meeting of the Young Socialists Alliance at UNM, had also and nefariously been seen at the local communist bookstore near Central and Maple, the name of which I cannot remember (probably from embarrassment or disappointment, the place was dark and shabby, in recollection), he asked to have a word with me, after class.

At first he spoke in technical terms, testing my knowledge of the nomenclature and theory, saying things such as, “a socialist, eh?" and "Fabian or revolutionary, Mr. Carrillo, Fabian or revolutionary?"

I told him that I was merely curious, while trying to hide the Lenin pin that until very, very recently had been adorning my shabby black cashmere overcoat.

Murdoch suddenly stopped stopped his inquisitive discourse and walked to the door, which faced towards the east, towards Tramway Boulevard. He opened it and said measuredly, with only a hint of awe in his voice, “So this is what you believe in...all this material, material that you believe to be the basis for everything, and ultimately the only thing perceivable in a measurable’re a materialist, eh?”

Then he sat and his desk and was quiet. An early springtime gust blew through the door and there were kids outside laughing and joking as they passed by and I could hear them.

Finally, after adjusting his tie and coughing loudly, he told me that it would be easy enough to hold fast to the tenets of Marx and his followers, as a young man. As I grew older, he said, I would surely come to reject them. This would happen he further stated, as surely as any atheist would invoke god, even if only reflexively, when confronted with the imminence of death.

Of course I tried not to listen to what he had to say, about the intricacy of human life and perception and experience and all of that. I tried to act aloof and disinterested, but what the old man said crept up on me, and got me to thinking about the unfathomable wonder of the universe, something I had to admit Marx neglected to talk about in his writings.

After our meeting ended, I decided to ditch school for the rest of the day. I enlisted two comrades and we split. We spent the rest of the day hiking up Embudito canyon. The mountain was snowy and there were deer and birds here and there and the wind was howling near the top. Again, I thought about what Murdoch said, what the man had rather implied, when he had opened up the door and pointed to the mountains.

Ten years later, I happened to pass through the Furr’s supermarket on Carlisle and Constitution. At that time, I had just taken leave of a post at UNM, in order to travel the world with my dear friend Kirsty, a British exchange student I met the previous year. I was at that Furr’s taking one last look at bountiful plenty, before plunging into the chaotic and impoverished world that lay beyond all the material and comfort to which I had become accustomed. I encountered James Murdoch in the dairy section.

Of course he immediately recognized me, and looking over his little round glasses intoned gravely, “Ah, Mr. Carrillo! One wonders, are you still a socialist, a materialist...perhaps also leaning heavily on Hegel’s dialectic and it's consequent assumptions?"

“Not so much, I said, but am of that influence. It's quite complicated, you know. I went hiking that day you lectured me and thought a lot about what you said. I am still thinking about it."

He was much older then, so I helped him load his groceries into his car. I shook his hand and he gave me a solid pat on the back. He drove off with one of Bach's fugues playing way too loudly on his car stereo, a weathered Mcgovern bumpersticker fluttering on the rear fender of his ramshackle Volvo.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

so, I got that going for me, which is nice

Albuquerque 1991: a location on the space-time continuum now blowing around my memory like the Siberian Elm seeds lately clogging up the curbs and culverts of this city. It was an odd year, wasn’t it?

For me, it really was an odd year, even more so in the metaphorical sense than in the mathematical one; a year of radical changes, awesome events, and bright light.

That year led to summer and that summer led to an unfurling that comprises a now that is constantly peeling and peeling, revealing layers that are thin as an onion skin and as complex as any living and cellular structure you can imagine.

In that thin year, I lived north the university and it so happened that the weather did not get really cold until the end of January. There were patches of ice on the sidewalks near my house and near the apartment of my friend, Kenneth W. Seward.

Seward was a lighting designer whom I worked with at the University of New Mexico. I had recently graduated from Art School and worked at Keller Hall, in the department of Music. Seward studied in the Theatre department and held a part-time job at the concert hall. We had become good friends, collaborating on multi-media projects, discussing literature and music, generally encouraging each others reading and art-making.

Listen: Back then, Ken was dying of a brain tumor. At the end of the previous summer, he had come into my office and complained of numbness in his hands, a dark circumstance for a manipulator of lights and electricity. In my concern, I suggested he go to the student health center. One thing then led to another. By mid autumn, he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly type of cancer.

By January he had lost the ability to walk and manipulate tools and therefore, to work. His parents were in California. He had become estranged from them because he was gay. He had loads of friends in Burque though, and everyone pitched in to help him. We all took turns keeping him company, taking him to UNMH, and finally, feeding and bathing him. When his parents finally arrived to make peace in February, I resignedly noted that his father looked more like Ken than Ken did.
Kenneth W. Seward died in early March and they had a glorious memorial service for him in
Rodey Theater.
I kept a picture of him on the crew bulletin board at Keller Hall. In the picture he looked young and full of life, holding a crescent wrench in his hand, smiling up towards the bright lights that beckoned him.

Soon after Ken died, I broke up with my long-time girlfriend. She was a classical musician and played the clarinet. I'd like to believe that we drifted apart during Seward’s illness, but the truth was much simpler and profoundly more tragic. I was hip; she was square.

Spring came, anyway; it was warm again and the grass was green at the duck pond. I kept busy by painting large, abstract, confusing, loathsomely bright pictures and managing the concert hall.

Sometime in April or May, the news went around the Fine Arts Center that the Dalai Lama was going to be visiting the university and would be speaking at Popejoy Hall.

I knew little about the man. The organization Friends of Tibet had occasionally visited the college, had brought around a group of touring monks to entertain and perplex the patrons of art and music who haunted the foyer, mostly on the weekends. These followers of the lama performed traditional dances and chants and were magically entrancing to those who had the privilege of attending.

Coincidentally, my room-mate, David Sonenfield, a graduate student in Art History, was a devout Buddhist and filled me in on the concepts and events which related to Tibetan Buddhism and the consequent preeminence of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Somehow, through a bit of unexplainable synchronicity, it came to pass that the Dalai Lama and his entourage needed a place to camp out before his speaking engagement. These were in the days before UNM renovated the Fine Arts Center and much of it was a rambling old place. That included the Popejoy Hall green room, which was mostly a place where the technical crew hung out.

Owing to the fact that Keller hall was a genteel venue where chamber music was performed, its green room was chosen as a headquarters for the visitors. The Keller Hall Green Room was clean, quiet, well-furnished and looked out onto a small garden.

I remember when I informed my boss, the Chairman of the Department of Music ( a man with a doctorate of music, for crying out loud) of this decision, he was not exactly sure who the Dalai Lama was. Further, he seemed agitated and offended, in the most parochial tone he could muster, that a non-musician of unknown reputation would have access to all the glorious accouterments offered by the department.

“Well he did win the Nobel Prize", I said to that former band director from Portales New Mexico, with a vacant smile and a wink. And so began to make my preparations.

When the day arrived, the Dalai Lama was driven to the loading dock in back of UNM art museum, in a limousine. He was accompanied by advisers, a meteorologist with magical abilities, members of Friends of Tibet, and a small press corps. Though he had recently won the aforementioned notice of the Nobel Committee , he was not nearly as famous as he is now; the issues surrounding Tibet had just begun to creep into the public’s consciousness.

He was immediately whisked to the Keller Hall green room, where different dignitaries, including the President of the University, came and went, presenting him with fresh fruit and prayer shawls. The chairman of the Music Department sat in his office and glowered and grimaced. He left early that day, to hit the links one supposes.

Sometime later in the afternoon, I noticed that there was an empty space on the couch next to the lama, so I went over and sat down next to him.

He looked me over and said, “You are brave! Then he put his arm around me, said something in Tibetan to the monk sitting next to him and continued, “Don’t worry, he said, everything will be fine”. He laughed a deep and happy laugh, looked me in the eye and hugged me tightly, as a father might a favorite son.

Then motioned to one of his advisors and the two got up from their seats. The lama needed some time alone, to eat and meditate, the advisor told everyone in the room. The Dalai Lama waved at me, then retired to the downstairs lounge in Keller Hall. Later I was asked by one of his aides to join his procession over to Popejoy Hall. I didn’t have another opportunity to speak to him, though. He and his followers left soon after the event was over.

The rest of that spring and then the summer seemed to zip right on by that year. The old chairman retired. I finished a decent painting and then welded together a sculpture that held a bit of Ken’s ashes inside of it. In June, I got a tattoo from the legendary J.B. Jones. In August, David and I decided to rent out a room in the house we shared.

The ad we placed in the Daily Lobo was answered by a group of exchange students from Britain. They were named Rachel, Jo and Kirsty. They were beautiful and full of life and wonder. Two of them would end up living in the house. The third, a mystic wanderer from Wales, would, in the years to come, share a journey with me to the place where Nepal borders Tibet, to a river that climbed up a long valley into the kingdom of Mustang, the place where the lamas dwelt and walked among the buckwheat and dusty trails, in search of light.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

the sailor

My father was famous for cussing. He learned some of it in the Navy while diving for dead sailors and some of it later; writing outrageous memos for commissioned officers. This after the stress of pulling his cohorts out of ditched F4U-1As and subs with holes in their sides resulted in a coveted transfer stateside to beautiful San Diego.

Though he honed his craft while simultaneously participating in a team that unashamedly and with great violence forced a very brutal form of fascism back into its very own iron box, he had already learned quite a bit of cussing from his father, a pecan farmer named Albino Carrillo.

Albino cussed in the Spanish vernacular peculiar to the farmers of the mid and lower Rio Grande Valley. He cussed quite a bit, on occasion darkly singing his sometimes poetic damnations. He would cuss in order to express just about anything, but favored admonitions arisen from the frustrations borne of a leaky irrigation system or the joy of realizing a bumper crop.

My father heard it all and had whispered the same words among his friends. So, he too ultimately become bold in his usage, passing with severe pomposity, that seething passion and those damned words to his sons.

When translated, some the phrases seemed wildly obscene; some were more humorous than anything else.

One phrase, used to express extreme frustration, translated as, “How you fuck (with) my soul!” A lesser degree of ire could be expressed by comparing the object of frustration with the agitating action of an electric washing machine.

In fact, cuss-word laden references to machines had often signified the tenuous nature of the real lives of farmers and workers en el valle; and the phrase “a la máquina” reflected a general distrust towards machines and technology, which were typically, resignedly viewed as destined to fail at some unforeseeable point in the future.

My father used these
loaded pistols to make his way through life, which he viewed as a struggle. Those words were weapons in his struggle; he half whispered the word chingao and smirked defiantly when informed that he had colon cancer.

Back in the Navy, he had added to stockpile, for full measure and towards his joy of variety in phraseology. Among my favorites: when he was particularly happy about something, the old sailor would say “I’ll be good and god-damned”. The cadence of this utterance became staccato when my father felt true and unrestrained joy, if something had gone inexplicably right in his world, like when his half-assed and duct-taped flashlight actually worked during a power outage.

Often, when he was really excited, he would mix English and Spanish together, creating original and sometimes highly vulgar exclamations. “Get your nalgas over here”, he would yell at the kids, summoning us to account for serious infractions, such as spending the day up in
Embudito canyon instead if going to class.

Despite his salty leanings, he was an educated man who served in the legislature, read
Foreign Affairs and liked to listen to Ravel and the Beatles. Late in his life, he would often drop by at my house and we would ride around in his Pontiac Firebird. We would listen to music and discuss politics. He preferred to refer to refer to republican politicians and union busters as a babosos and pendejos.

One day he came by on a Sunday morning and asked me to drive up to
Sandia Peak with him, to admire the beauty of the summertime in the coolness of the nearby mountains. His lab results from the colonoscopy were setting on the passenger seat, so I read them on the way up the mountain.

He played Bolero and then Magical Mystery Tour as the car wound and wound upwards. When we arrived at the summit, the song Your Mother Should Know began to play. And I noticed that he was crying. He leaned on the steering wheel, looked over the mountain and as we turned into the parking lot near the Crest Trail he said, to no one in particular while grasping the universe with his thick voice, “Sonofabitch, life is beautiful”.