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Failed States

I am pleased to introduce all of you to a wonderful new literary journal produced in London by the artist Jamie Atherton.

failed states: a journal of indeterminate geographies

My friend Carrie Friese and I collaborated on a piece in the first issue!

Click here for more info:

A journal of indeterminate geographies

Sofa Dérive

Mz Mary Brown’s feet on a Greek island. My temporary inability to walk has reminded me of all the photos Mary and I took (separately and together) of our feet while traveling.

It has been a little more than two weeks since I have left our apartment and I have six more weeks to go. I could leave. But that would entail getting off the sofa, still an ordeal, scooting down our three flights of stairs on my bottom, shuffling into the backseat of a car that we do not own, being dropped off within ten feet of a location, a restaurant perhaps, and then hobbling in on crutches and sitting down immediately to elevate my broken foot and bring down the swelling with a bag of frozen peas. It is possible, and I may attempt such a voyage next week, just before the cabin fever completely takes over.

In June we visited New York City. I wish pedestrians in San Francisco would walk in rhythm together on the crowded sidewalks like New Yorkers do. New Yorkers know to walk in rhythm with each other; young people to the quick snare beats, and older people or parents with babies to the slower bass beats, but they are all in sync, and that makes navigating the pedestrian traffic smooth and musical.

In my dreams I am walking all over the place, in Manhattan, London, San Francisco, on the marble sidewalks of Athens. I walk quickly, and then I panic, “My doctor said that I have to use crutches or I will ruin my foot forever!” My foot reflexively kicks in my sleep; it is confused; it thinks it can kick the bandages off, and then a sharp pain in the last joint of my big toe shocks me awake and I am back on my sofa.

As one who never has enough time for reading, films, radio shows, and writing, I thought that being stuck on the sofa in my apartment for weeks on end was the best thing to ever happen to me. But what I would give now to spend an hour walking the streets and avenues of New York.

Mz Mary Bad on a Greek island dérive

Mz Mary Bad and me on a Greek island dérive.

While on the sofa, I have spent countless hours online looking at places I would like to travel. These images feed my mind, but without my body in motion there, without my senses taking in all the scents, sights, textures, and sounds that are there, my spirit feels hungry and trapped.  I understand more profoundly now, I know in my body, that the body is the mind is the spirit is the body, etc. etc. And I know that all these need to be tended and integrated. Doing, walking, cooking, participating, are necessary in equal measure to reading, writing, and watching films. And even more importantly, I miss wandering about, the anticipation of possibilities, the experience of the unknown, that mystery around the corner. One feels the beauty not simply by looking at the buildings, but in the ambiance, and the sum of possibilities, in the possible situations that may arise.

I am reminded of my dear friend, geographer and psycho-geographer Mz. Mary Brown. On her birthday every year she would lead a dérive through the geography of San Francisco.

Guy Debord defines the dérive as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” It is a wandering through a landscape, usually a city, in which those walking drop their everyday associations and relations to work and the mundane, and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

Pyscho-geography = “the study of the effects of the geographic environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

On Mary’s birthday, a group of us would dérive through San Francisco neighborhoods, past gorgeous Victorian or deco buildings, through gardens and stairways, up hills, over Twin Peaks, under the radio tower, into the woods, and back down the west side through mid-century modern boxes toward the ocean and sunset viewed while sitting on a WWII fort constructed to watch over the Golden Gate Bridge. Mary would often give a short explanation about a bit of architecture or tell an historical tale inspired by something we may have stumbled upon along our way.

Mary on dérive in Paris, France.

Mary on a dérive in Paris, France.

She had worked for the city of San Francisco, walking through the city, documenting the historical architecture of each neighborhood.  She had traveled the world, wandering through Paris, Athens, New York, among other cities, and she rode her bicycle solo from the west coast to the east coast of the US. She was an expert at the dérive, and she gave all who were lucky enough to join her the gift of the dérive as a practice, as a way to counteract the deadening effects of long hours at meaningless jobs and fleeting highs of consumer consumption. She gave us a practice for living in a more deeply engaged, joyful, and conscientious way.

During the last year of her life, when she was weak from cancer and could no longer sustain long walks, she brought a cat into her life. His name was Drift. “Dérive” literally means “to drift” in French. As William S. Burroughs pointed out, cats are not as efficient as terrier dogs or mongooses at hunting rats, so perhaps the reason cats were domesticated lies more in their skills as emotional or spirital guides than it does in their usefulness as rodent eradicators. Mary was amazed that she loved her cat Drift so much, for she had never had a cat before and did not expect such an intense emotional bond. The last few sentences that Mary and I spoke to one another were about Drift. Though I am not quite sure what I believe, at that moment, I said to Mary that time is not linear, and so, maybe Drift was her past lover who had come to help her pass into the spirit world. She replied that no, he was not her past lover. He was her future lover.



Food as Language

Language aka Tongue

Language, tongue in Latin. Food, that which passes over the tongue.

I was recently reminded of a time when the meaning of food, as a form of language, was made clear to me. I was traveling in Czechoslovakia, in 1991, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovakia was still one country and its citizens had not been allowed to study English, but rather they had learned Russian in school. Advertising did not exist anywhere, not in Czech, Slovak, nor Russia. It took me a few days but at our first stop in Prague, I finally realized that the lack of ads made me feel relaxed, made my mind less cluttered. Even signs for restaurants or bars were rare. One had to walk through the main square and down the main streets, looking into windows for tables and chairs, or a bar.

We mastered animal sounds. I would point to an item on the menu and moooooo, or cluck-cluck-cluck, or snort. Potatoes fried in lard and sauerkraut were standard sides. I tried to ask for something vegetarian, but quickly learned that I would be served a piece of chicken with potatoes fried in lard. If you were invited to someone’s home, you ate whatever they served. Being vegetarian was only an option for the most disrespectful of guests. The menu choices might have been limited, but the food was hardy and delicious, dominated by savory meats, garlic, mustard, pickled vegetables, dense dark breads and potatoes.

After some time studying modern plays in London, I returned to Slovakia, to Banska Bystricia, where spring was in full force and my friends had taken up a two-room apartment in a Soviet-built block on a hillside. They were teaching English to the citizens, some still communist, some cynical, some unwittingly dying for Western capitalism to run them over. I tried to explain that in the states, we never ate at Micky Ds but the fantasy of western goods was greater than my meager explanations about American corporate culture being generally bad for the workers, the environment, cultural production, etc.

It was May 1992 and in just the six months since I had visited last, kiosks had started to sell American candy bars, Snickers, Mars bars and M&Ms. They cost the same price as an entire meal at a restaurant but some citizens were going mad for them. The kiosks also sold newspapers with more info about when the next wave of American corporations, e.g. when Micky D would be coming to their town. Foreign foods, even from nearby countries such as Italy or France, were not available behind the Iron Curtain but kiosk-style spaghetti had popped up as the closest option to an Italian restaurant. The spaghetti was fairly standard, served in a paper American-style French fry cup, with ketchup, and a plastic cocktail fork.

We ate a variety of delicious Slovak sausages with mustard on thick slices of pale brown bread, and washed every thing down with Pilsner beer. The beer was in green bottles that they didn’t bother to label because everyone knew it was brewed in the neighboring town at the huge collective Pilsner factory. The delicious bread came in only two varieties that I can recall. Pale brown and rye. The loaves were round and large and seemed to all come from the same collective bakery. They were delivered a couple days a week that controlled the rhythm of shopping and dining in the town.

One day I decided to make dinner for my hosts and went to the market which consisted of a counter where one had to ask a battalion of older women in aprons for every item one wanted. I believe this was an informal way of rationing. The shelves usually looked like a disaster had just occurred and only a few items were left. Those items were limited as there were no condiments or prepackaged meals, or even boxed rice or cereals. There was only a limited selection of jars all from soviet-style collective farms and factories. That is to say that there was one kind of pickled beets, one kind of flour, one brand of jarred sauerkraut. I had to wait in line for about ten minutes. It was midday and gorgeous outside. Flowers blossoming in tall green grass, birds singing, the Tatra mountains covered in rich hues of green trees pushing oxygen into the town through gentle breezes. When I reached the front of the line the lady said something to me in Slovak. I replied in Slovak that I did not understand. Nerozumiem.

I began to mimick a chicken, wiggling my arms like wings, squatting, clucking, and then with my hands, I caught an egg from between my legs and held it out for the lady. She was mesmerized but still not clear about my meaning so I mimicked a chicken laying an egg again. I could hear those in the long line behind me covering their mouths, stifling giggles. Finally the other lady next to her brought me a pack of eggs. Then I kneaded bread and formed a loaf. The ladies all smiled this time and brought me a large round loaf of the wonderful bread. Shopping took some time but by the end of my trip I had made many new friends.

That evening over big bowls of lentil soup and slices of bread, my friends said, “So you went grocery shopping today, yes?”

“Well of course, how could I make soup for you?” I smiled.

“One of my students reported to the class that there was a foreign lady acting like a chicken laying an egg at the shop today. You are now famous in town.” My claim to fame filled me with joy. Having to communicate without a shared language made my mind have to think differently. I had to think about how another person experiences a chicken laying an egg. I had to get into their mind, see the world from their perspective. I could not simply rest on the crutch of a black and white word, “eggs.” I had to rely on creativity, I had to provide substance, a performance, a physical connection.

The next day our dear friend and guide, Kuko, knick-named after a popular puppet, took me to visit his mother in a nearby Soviet-style block of apartments that looked the same as the one my friends lived in except this one had a view of the garden plots each citizen received and tended on the hillside. Kuko was one of the rare young people who spoke English and to this day I don’t know how he learned. Kuko had to leave so there I was with his mother and a translation dictionary. She pulled me into the kitchen and pointed for me to crawl under the table. Being adventurous I went and found her barrel of fermenting saurkraut with a wooden ladel in it. She had me scoop some out and taste it. It was perfectly sour with a whisper of cloves and black pepper.

Next she asked me to sit on the sofa and placed a large mixing bowl in front of me filled with egg yokes. She handed me an unlabeled bottle of oil. I looked at her completely bewildered. She looked back, bewildered at my bewilderment. Then she laughed kindly and sat down next to me. Slowly she started to pour the oil into the egg yokes all the while mixing slowly with the wooden spoon. She nodded for me to try. I did so. She said, “dobre, dobre,” good, good, and walked back to the kitchen to work on another part of the meal.

Left to my own devices, I wondered what kind of Slovak batter or dough I was making. I was still bewildered, until slowly the mixture started to turn white and thick. Suddenly the mystery was solved, I burst out, “mayonnaise! It is mayonnaise!!!” Kuko’s mom came running into the room worried an accident had happened for “mayonnaise” could have easily been the same word as “help” the way I was yelling it. I smiled huge at her and pointed and said again, “mayonnaise!” She laughed kindly at me again bewildered that I had never made mayonnaise in my life.

Later Kuko translated for his mother and explained that in the US people rarely ever made mayonnaise and instead would buy it in stores along with other condiments. Kuko’s mom immediately understood that making mayonnaise was far superior and enriching than buying it. Kuko said that he for one couldn‘t wait to be able to buy mayonnaise. And there was the difference and the crux of the matter in many ways. To live in a world of consumer goods, commodities, quick fixes, or perhaps sometimes conveniences, or to live in a world where one engaged with fellow citizens and made things together by hand in a creative spirit.

Of course there is a balance, but I loved that world, in that moment, when Czechoslovakia was free from Soviet rule and communist oppression, but not yet a capitalist state, not yet spoiled by financial inequality and obsessions for consumer goods and status. I hope we can find that balance again.


The next generation of political leaders! Women's March January 21, 2017, San Francisco, CA.

The next generation of political leaders! Women’s March, January 21, 2017, San Francisco, CA.

To keep up spirits, here are several of my favorite acts of resistance so far, some hopefully effective, some hilarious. This catastrophe may end up being what we needed to wake up. At least now that we can see the problems more clearly, maybe we can fix them.

—The Women’s March was supposedly the largest protest in US history. Two signs that made me laugh were “We shall over-comb,” and “Free Melania.”

—There are some excellent sites, better than ever, to help us mobilize.

—Scientists are planning a scientist march on Washington DC. Imagine a sea of white lab coats descending on the capitol.

—Stephen Colbert is a must watch:

—Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, etc. are at record highs.

— Mayors of most major US cities have refused to follow Trump’s anti-immigration orders.

—A federal judge just blocked Trump’s immigration ban, for now.

Trump cut funding for the Violence Against Women Act. In Russia, where domestic violence was basically made legal, women painted their faces with fake bruises and walked about Moscow in twos or threes (because a women’s march was not allowed) to protest domestic violence. Brilliant! Maybe we should copy them.

— Last but certainly not least, please support freedom of the press and freedom of speech.



Dada World Fair

Dada Seance by Poly MorphousDada Seance, by Poly Morphous

What can I say? This is not to be missed!
The DADA WORLD FAIR, Nov 1 - 13, 2016!

Hugo Ball

“Every word that is spoken and sung here (the Cabaret Voltaire) represents at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.”   Hugo Ball



tristan-tzara-07“To make a poem, take one newspaper, one pair of scissors, snip the words one by one and put them in a bag. Shake gently, draw them out at random, and copy them conscientiously… DADA est mort. DADA est idiot. Vive DADA! ”   Tristan Tzara




 “I would like to show the world today as an ant sees it and tomorrow as the moon sees it.”  Hannah Hoch




Andrei Codrescu

“With the sound of gusting wind in the branches of the language trees of Babel, the words gave way like leaves, and every reader glimpsed another reality hidden in the foilage.”
Andrei Codrescu, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play


Stookey’s Club Modern, Parts 1 and 2

Aaron Plein, bartender, with owners Aaron Cole, Leslie Cole Stookey, and Tim Stookey

Aaron Plein, bartender, with owners Aaron Cole, Leslie Cole Stookey, and Tim Stookey

Join me in raising a toast to Stookey’s Club Modern, a delightful 1930s art deco-style cocktail bar that opened in January 2015, by a dynamic trio of owners – husband and wife Tim Stookey and Leslie Cole Stookey and Leslie’s cousin Aaron Cole.

Celebrating its first anniversary, the bar is at 895 Bush St. (at Taylor Street), about four blocks northwest of Union Square, not far from Dashiell Hammett’s former apartment, and a roll down Nob Hill.



Gather with Friends

Gather with Friends

Manhattan Trio by bartender Aaron Plein

Manhattan Trio by bartender Aaron Plein

Real Estate

Location, location, location

Location, location, location

Walking through the Mission District of San Francisco the other day, around 14th or 15th Street and South Van Ness and Folsom, a woman swept her front sidewalk. Her brown hair was in a stylish French twist; her pants were a bit ill-fitting so she had to continually pull them up; her focus was intent on the job at hand. She went over the same area more than once to assure that every little leaf, every little gum wrapper, every little piece of detritus was banished. Once the sidewalk was spotless, she swept all the debris in the gutter far away down the street. A small but lushly green tree stood in a square patch of dirt on her corner. She plucked the weeds away from her little garden to free some lovely pink and red geranium flowers. Next to the tree was a short lawn chair, a large red and white cooler, and a gas camping stove with a 1950s chrome tea kettle on it. A fence surrounded the empty lot on their corner. (Location, location, location, this assured that no home owner would come out and ask them to leave.) Along the fence, on a piece of cardboard, a tall person slept, covered head to toe in a fluffy white comforter. On the other side of their real estate, from the tree to an electrical box, she had strung a small rope and draped moth-bitten gold satin, and smokey pink and forest green velvet curtains, to form a tent. I asked if it was okay for me to walk through. She smiled at that and said, “Yes, please make yourself at home,” and waved toward the lawn chair. I said, “Thank you, but I have to get home.” She said, “Mi casa es su casa.”

Greece: The Birthplace of Outdoor Cinema and Democracy, in

Thision Outdoor Cinema

Thision Outdoor Cinema

“Greece: The Birthplace of Outdoor Cinema and Democracy,” an article I wrote about Athens outdoor cinemas and much more, has been published in  I hope you will enjoy it and sign up for emails. The site is a wealth of info, a great weekly treat!


Spring at the Palace of Fine Arts

photo courtesy of creative commons, Kevin Cole

photo courtesy of creative commons, Kevin Cole

On a warm spring day in San Francisco, we walked through the forest of the Presidio toward the Palace of Fine Arts, a relic from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Until a couple years ago the Exploratorium made its home there but now that grand creative chaotic haven has been tamed and bound on a pier. We sat on a large granite bench in a semi-circle with a twin bench across from us, both facing the little pond. Pulling out our picnic, we wondered why there were no swans, for there had been swans at this pond since we were both children. Maybe they had not migrated north yet? Something to look up later, we thought, for in that moment we were enjoying being by the fictional ruin with the high arches of faux greco-roman domes, sculptured ladies on the lookout above us, and the lovely little ducks lazily dotting the pond alongside orange tiger lilies and pale pink magnolias. In that moment we loved our city.

As we peacefully ate our corned beef sandwiches, a group of about six young men approached in extra large t-shirts, baseball caps, and hoodies. Stomping their thick soled, padded, unlaced hightop sneakers, they took big powerful steps toward us, their brows furrowed, staring at us with set eyes, determination in their stiff necks, shoulders, and clenched fists. I braced myself, uneasy about their possible intentions, but they walked past and sat on the bench across from us in the semi-circle. They bounced a bit on the bench even though it was granite, and suddenly seemed not to care about us, so we went on with our picnic.

I finished my sandwich and began nibbling on a fine piece of chocolate, while sneaking a peak at the young men. They had taken off their bulky shoes and were walking about in their white socks.

I assumed their feet were tired from walking all day. We continued to discuss the birds and how the mean seagulls bullied the poor little ducks and wondered again, out loud, “Where are the swans?”

I looked back again at the boys, and this time, they had pulled shopping bags and boxes out of their backpacks and were unwrapping shoes from huge mounds of folded white tissue. The beefy ring leader was strapping on six-inch high stilettos created from wide black leather straps with a tassel down the back. Tres chic! He began to demonstrate his cat walk for the others who were mesmerized by his skill. The others slipped their feet into their “glass” slippers, all sexy high stilettos, and gave them a whirl. The ring leader coached them. They were all so graceful, gliding almost silently around the circle, far exceeding my ability to walk in even one inch heals. They practiced walking without looking at the ground but rather holding their necks tall, chins high, and focusing on the reflections in the pond before them.

I was so impressed, I called out to them, “Those are hot shoes and you wear them so well!”

The ring leader responded, “Ross Dress for Less!!!” with a swing of his hips, a wry smile, and a wink. The other boys pretended not to notice us, a bit shy. The ring leader yelled gleefully, and pointed to the others with a flick of his wrist. “It’s their first time!!!”

With a huge smile, I called back, “They are lucky to have you as a teacher. You are all gorgeous! Have a wonderful day!”  And we left, feeling our day was complete.

courtesy creative commons

courtesy creative commons

December Story: Sacred Birthday Cake on the Subway


Subway lines like Christmas lights. Manhattan, a piece of land, like one big birthday cake.

December is a month of birthdays, most notable, Frank Sinatra’s and Jesus Christ’s. To be more inclusive, December is the month of cool and death, that which gives us something to look forward to, another swing around the sun. Winter solstice is a moment marking the very beginning of longer days that bring more light to read by, more sunshine to grow food by, and more dresses to stride in along city sidewalks.

Here is one of my favorite birthday stories. On a New York subway car, rush hour crush, hot bodies dripping sweat from the heat of the crowd, sniffling, coughing into their sleeves, the doors open hard with a slight groan from the embankment of faces on the platform eager to push into our dense mass but instantly registering the futility. Front and center is a young boyish man, slim, freshly showered and shaved, no coat, just a crisp white shirt, navy tie, and pressed gray slacks. He is holding a flat, desk-size, six-inch high, chocolate cake slathered thickly in chocolate butter-cream frosting with dozens of pink, yellow, white roses, and letters reading, “Happy Birthday!” There was no plastic wrap covering the cake, no special cake tupperware, just the naked cake. He stepped into the car and everyone pushed back against each other in an intimate way (shocking two tourists) that is only acceptable between strangers in large cities with underground trains. The doors closed. Everyone drooled. The young man smiled valiantly as the train lurched forward. He positioned his feet as if he were surfing, a trick that all veteran subway riders learned intuitively at a young age. Both hands were spread out under the board that held the cake. The muscles in his arms were strained and visible through his white sleeves. Holding the cake just an inch from his white shirt, just a centimeter from the woman in a pearl necklace to his left, just a fast stop away from the older man in a camel hair coat to his right.

“Where you getting off?” The older man asked.
“96th Street.” The young man answered, his voice cracking, as he used his knees to rise and fall with a bump, at one with the train, moving with great dexterity, much to the awe of the other passengers whose eyes were set vigilantly upon him.
“That is a loooong ride.” The man in the camel coat spoke for all of us. He looked down at the cake, and back into the young man’s face, and we all heard his eyes say — you are crazy.
“Yes sir.” The young man smiled with confidence and sweat beading on his brow.

Just then the train screeched into the next station, slamming on the breaks, the cake swaying forward, the young man with it like a dancer holding his partner, not letting go, for dear life, flowing with the motion of the train, the movement of the mass, saved.

The young man carried on like this with his cake for the length of Manhattan without getting a spot of chocolate frosting on his white shirt, nor any fellow passengers. Whomever that cake was for, it took great faith to deliver it like a naked babe through the subway masses, on a snowy December day. Surely it was a type of divine body, a type of eucharist by the time it reached the birthday party.