Oscillate an Ocelot

If you kiss your elbow, you’ll turn into a girl!

Gender bending contortionist wizardry

When I first heard of this magic spell from my trickster mother as a young boy, I turned into a contortionist, trying in vain to give the pointy, forever too far away elbow joints of my right and left arms a gender bending smooch. When we were done with this fun and futile exercise in youth yoga, she would often ask me a question about Adam and Eve: “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me were on a raft. Adam and Eve fell off. Who was left on the Raft?” Upon gleefully answering her question and scampering away from her, the inevitable gentle pinch would always follow.

April Fool’s day morning was a smorgasbord of tricks. The chairs were often tied to the table legs with string, making it impossible to pull them out to sit on. Once we got them untied a cooked breakfast was brought to us – A rare treat as our early morning meal usually consisted of a bowl of Cheerios, Wheat Chex or Shredded Wheat. Toast was unusual and quite exotic. The most baking my mother usually did was to help me turn on the oven so that I could mix, make and bake a Betty Crocker packaged cake mix. On April first she was always up well before the rest of the family, making pancakes and pop overs. We were so surprised and delighted by her culinary efforts that we never had any prankster suspicions. The maple syrup for the pancakes was adulterated with bitter black coffee and the pancakes had large disks of brown cardboard baked into their centers, making it impossible to cut them into bite sized pieces or eat them at all. The popovers were filled with puffy clouds of white cotton balls. Each glass of orange juice was liberally laced with several teaspoons of salt.

The side of my mother’s gravestone monument in Heath, Massachusetts has the phrase “Inclined to Mischief” chiseled into it and her delightful and mischievous spirit lives on today in the lives of all of those whose lives she touched, helped, mentored, humored and honored. Much of her mischief making was protesting against inequities and advocating for positive change and social justice, a humanitarian crusade which will never end.

My Mother • Inclined to Mischief for Eternity • Photo by MMB

When you come down from this self delusion, you’re gonna need a soul transfusion.

Dolly, the first cloned animal

I first heard this compelling song lyric (probably written about George W. Bush) being sung by T Bone Burnette at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. The closest I have ever come to having transfusions of any sort have been through having IV infusion catheters temporarily implanted in my forearm during hospital stays. While I have had blood extracted from my arms dozens of times for testing, I have not yet had a blood or a soul transfusion.

In the 17th century, It was believed that volatile, hot-tempered people could be calmed by transfusing them with the blood of a gentle and docile animal, such as a sheep or a cow (xenotransfusion). Today, sedatives and anti depressants do the job much more safely, quickly and effectively – providing a soothing golden fleece for the mind.

I have consumed lamb many times, mutton as few times as possible, and have eaten haggis, an unusual Scottish concoction of sheep offal, suet, oatmeal and spices stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. It is considered the national dish of Scotland, and is surprisingly palatable, considering the ingredients. I have seen the taxidermed body of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned animal, named for Dolly Parton, in the national museum of Scotland. The cells for cloning came from a sheep’s mammary gland, inspiring the name of Dolly. I was attacked by a friend’s sheep named Baby Bob several times, having to defend myself with a 2 x 4 and a baseball bat, so docility is not a guaranteed trait in a sheep.

Are you for Ike or Adlai?

Ike • Photo by MMB

I went to kindergarten in the Gothic splendor of Riverside Church (built by the Rockefeller family) on the upper west side of New York City in 1956. I was standing in line waiting to be picked up by my mother in the early afternoon when I had my first political conversation. The girl next to me asked me if I was for the Republican Ike (general and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower) or the Democrat Adlai (Adlai Stevenson – governer of Illinois and later ambassador to the United Nations). Both were running for president of the Unitied States. When I said “I’m for Adlai.” She said “Oh No! That’s Terrible. Don’t you know that Ike’s a very nice Man?”

Who you for man – Nixon or Kennedy?

Richard Milhous Nixon • Photo by MMB

In the autumn of 1960, Nixon and Kennedy were fighting for the presidency, debating on tiny, grainy black and white TV’s, plotting the future of the Cold War and suggesting what you could do to help your country or declaring who in his secret heart of hearts was a Communist and should be blacklisted or jailed. I was going to school at P.S. 125 in the heart of Harlem in New York City. I was walking on one side of a ten foot tall chain link fence on the edge of the playground (four acres of cracked asphalt with no play equipment) when a thin black kid, probably a year or two older than me on the other side of the fence said “ Who you for man – Nixon or Kennedy?” I said “Kennedy. He said “Gimmie Five Man!” I said “Give you what?” He said “Slap me some skin!” I said “Slap you what?” He demonstrated on himself, right hand on left and proceeded to stick his skinny hand and wrist through a single chain link diamond, up to his elbow, reaching toward me for political consensus.

I slapped him some skin and gave him five, securing JFK’s victory and putting Nixon and his twisted vision of the dark night of the American soul into a well deserved limbo for the next eight years, after which Nixon would make his dark and dangerous presidential comeback in 1968, later loudly and falsely proclaiming to the nation “I am not a crook!”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy • Photo by MMB

Fishing is as close as most American men will ever get to meditation.

Gone Fishing

This mini insight came to me as I was watching large American men slowly and methodically bait hooks, lower them into the ocean and patiently wait for a strike while eating bags of potato chips and sucking down endless cans of beer on the Santa Cruz, California wharf a few years ago. Fishing is basically doing nothing very slowly; with a distant, questionable, unpredictable payoff or reward, activities which otherwise would be frowned on by our frenetic frantic culture, if the word “Fishing” was not included in the description of activities for the day.

Fish on!

Every ten years my father married someone ten years younger than himself. Then he married someone ten years younger than me.

I heard this matrimonial statement of family history from an old friend I had not seen in decades at the 56th reunion of my sixth grade class from Stanford Elementary school, proving that the academic life never has to be dull or boring for aging professors.

I do – He does too

I’m not related to no fucking monkey!

Monkey business

This loud denial of Darwin’s theory of evolution was shouted at me by a Muslim man I was trying to have a science based conversation with at a party in California.

Monkey Business with Poor Man’s Whiskey • San Francisco • Moments later the monkey threw the banana at me and hit me in the face with it • Photo by MMB

How do you titillate an Ocelot? Oscillate its’ tits a lot.

Resting recumbent ocelot

This question combining alliteration, inter species friendship and subtle inter species eroticism was posed to me by my brother Tom, moments before a wedding. I have only touched an ocelot once, and then simply patted it on its head, scratching between its upright and very alert ears, refraining from titillating oscillations of any sort. 

It is not often that one gets to pet a tame Ocelot on a golden chain. The only time I ever had that opportunity was in the shadow of Monterrey’s famous Cannery Row in 1963. At that point Cannery Row was a rusting, dilapidated seaside wreck of a neighborhood, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row”, but at that point all of the sardines had been caught, the fishery had a been decimated by over fishing, the industry had been shut down and the neighborhood was mostly in ruins. The ocelot I stroked was like a small jaguar, and was surprisingly friendly. Cannery Row is now a bustling rehabbed tourist attraction, with high end restaurants, hotels and a world class aquarium founded and run by one of my high school classmates. The many times I have returned in recent years, it has remained 100% Ocelot free. There are very few armadillos, iguanas or opossums in the neighborhood, the mainstay of an Ocelot’s diet.

Those stains are evidence of process!

Punk it up!

This remark was made to me by Melanie Walker, a photography teacher at San Francisco State University when I was getting a Master’s degree in Printmaking in the early 1980’s. I had been commenting on the poor, amateur quality of the fuzzy, frayed, stained print on display in a photograph that a Punked out student had put up on the wall for a critique. This was in 1982, when Punk was in full flower and a lot of the kids at SF State were showing up with full moon tans, ripped clothes, safety pins riddling their flesh and heavy black Doc Martens boots on their feet, full of angry antagonistic attitudes. It was a short lived era when some people believed that anyone could make art or music, and a lot of very bad art and music came out of those beliefs. At the same critique Melanie told me that she was afraid the I would “Get Stuck” in my future art making life because of my old, tired ideas.

Goth punk

Two Four Six Eight, Organize and Smash the State!

Uncle Sam wants you

This was a chant I heard early and often during anti-Vietnam war rallies in the 1960’s. This was often followed by the raising of red and black flags – Red was the color of Communism and Black was the color of Anarchy, the popular choices of the day. For the first three years of my time at Stanford University there were night riots every spring. Riot police were often called on campus by Richard Lyman, president of Stanford at the time. Many large campus windows in the arch conservative Hoover Institution think tank were broken by SDS members (Students for a Democratic Society.) Property destruction was called “Trashing” at the time and was considered much higher morally than violence against people. I was chased by riot police (ironically while wearing a Parisian policeman’s gendarme cape that my mother had sent to me from France for Christmas) while walking home from the library. My freshman dorm was tear gassed a number of times. I saw several students being beaten by the riot police in the darkened tear gas haze.

I later worked for an Art Director at a design studio who had been a policeman at that time, called to the Stanford campus numerous times to quell the disturbances. He told me that many of his sadistically inclined fellow officers loved that duty. They called it “Stick Time,” as they could use their riot batons to beat people senseless without fear of legal repercussions. He soon quit the force and opened a graphic design studio where the hours were more regular and nobody was throwing rocks at him from the bushes or screaming at him that he was “A Fucking Pig.”

A revolution, empowered by Mao’s Little Red Book

I sat with the Master for a week. That’s why I am so happy and centered.

Rocks balanced by MMB • Sedona, Arizona

Lee Schutee declared this, describing his previous week meditating with his spiritual teacher before we embarked on our Upper Sacramento and Klamath river rafting expeditions. Lee, unbeknownst to him, was one of the most important people I ever met, as he introduced me to the work of the artist Andy Goldsworthy for the first time, who has been a huge distant though direct mentor to me in my artistic practices over the last several decades. I saw Lee balancing very tall stacks of rocks in a way I had never seen anyone do before and asked him where he got that idea, and he said “Andy Goldsworthy! Check him out!”

Liquid Ambar LeafLine • MMB

I try to build a cracked mosaic inside of my songs.

It’s important to have a worm in the beautiful apple of your artworks.

A cracked mosaic in Crete

These two statements of purpose, intention and wabi-sabi in art making came from the great singer, songwriter and slide guitarist Lowell George and the wonderful glass artist John Leighton. I heard Lowell George’s cracked sonic mosaics with intentionally awkward chord changes and rhythmic eccentricities on record often and once live with the band Little Feat in the 1970’s. John Leighton was the man who taught me the principles and fundamentals of stained glass art making in the early 1980’s in San Francisco. 

Both men embraced a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, filled with a sense of beauty mixed with simplicity, freshness and imperfect reliability; George in his cracked blues based rock music and Leighton with his beautiful glass pieces which always included something unexpected. Both were wonderful teachers for me as I was finding my way as a young artist.

Window by MMB • 1981

That’s a God Damn, Fucking Mountain Lion!

Mountain Lion • Photo by MMB

I was on a hilltop with my brother Peter and sister Alison in Point Reyes National Seashore when we saw what Peter correctly called a “God Damn, Fucking Mountain Lion” stalking and killing a ground squirrel just down the hill from our rocky ridge top perch. We were out on Tomales Point, home to a herd of about 450 tule elk and their apex predators, mountain lions. Partially eaten elk corpses sometimes lie by the side of the trail. I have walked into a clearing in a copse of trees and poison oak south of this point and stood no more than 10 feet from a mother and child cougar staring us down. Thankfully, they slunk away, moving like rubber Gumbys, and left us alone to walk another day, when we could have just as easily been fresh meat for their morning meal. I have seen one from a greater distance across a valley above treeline in the Sierras and later found his rocky lair filled with gnawed bones and bloody remnants of deer and big horned sheep. Later in the day we saw his tracks behind ours in a snowfield we had crossed earlier in the day, clear evidence that he had been tracking us.

When they made that enormous rug, that made sure to make one mistake in the design, because only God is perfect.

I was touring the new United Nations building in New York City with my fifth grade class. We were looking at a huge rug, woven in Iran and hung vertically, that covered a wall in the lobby that was at least 50’ tall. I asked the guide where the flaw was but she did not know, instantly proving to me that only God knows everything.

United Nations building

Moral slippage – Beware of Moral Slippage.

My mother liked to say this jokingly to her kids. She had heard it from one of our Stanford neighbors, a conservative Christian woman who had two sons who had become Eagle Scouts – There was no moral slippage or lack of focus or ambition in her family.

Boy Scouts of America serving Lady Liberty

Does the Bible go in the fiction or the non-fiction section of the library?

This very perceptive question came from a young teenager. 

Bible stairway to Heaven

Drive thru ashes available today.

This unique offer for people who couldn’t be bothered to get out of their cars was displayed on a sign outside a church in Mountain View, California on Ash Wednesday.

Drive through ashes option • Photo by MMB

May you rise up to Heaven and may your daughter come home with me.

This wish was expressed to my high school Spanish teacher and her teenage daughter in Spain by a young Spanish man.

We could get lost inside of a closet.

Sylvan Lake • South Dakota

According to the park rangers, the most frequently asked question in Custer State Park in South Dakota is “Where are the Buffalo?” We spent a long, meandering, magical day trying to answer that question ourselves. We started our search at Sylvan Lake, a beautiful peaceful, alpine lake surrounded by fantastic granite spires, crags and pinnacles. Still waters created beautiful reflections of the rocks on the mirrored surface of the lake. A fairytale landscape. We circumnavigated the lake, stopping to helping a couple find the well worn trail half way around the lake. He told us that the two of them “Could get lost inside of a closet.” As a child, the closet I most wanted to get lost inside of was the one in “The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe,” which led to the fairytale kingdom of Narnia through its back wall.

Karen hiking at Sylvan Lake

“One hen • Two ducks • Three squawking geese • Four Limerick oysters • Five corpulent porpoises • Six pairs of Donald virus tweezers • Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array • Eight homosexual brass monkeys from the secret, ancient, sacred crypts of Egypt • Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates, with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth • Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who all stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.”

I first heard this strange jumble of phrases late one night when I was living in France in 1971 from my friend Paul Mosher, whose father was the creator of the iconic 1950’s family sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” At the time it sounded like a Monty Python or Firesign Theater routine, but decades later I found out that it had been used as a classic radio announcer’s test from the early days of broadcasting and involved the pronunciation of difficult words, as well as retention, memory, repetition, enunciation, diction, and using every letter in the alphabet a variety of times. Announcers were required to be clear, clean-cut, pleasant, and carry with them the additional charm of personal magnetism brought forth through their melodious and authoritative voices.

On the air

I woke up in bed laughing and realized what I had done.

My grandfather, James Claude Thomson said this to his wife after realizing that he had bent over and picked up a clip of bullets and given them back to the man who dropped them and was about to load them into his rifle to shoot him. His good manners saved his life when the soldier was so taken aback by his instinctive polite gesture that he did not kill him. He was in China where he was chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Nanking. He and his family were caught up in a civil war between Chaing Kai Shek’s forces and the soldiers of the Feudal Warlords. His house had been looted by several groups of soldiers earlier that day and everything of value had been already been taken when a soldier demanded silver and gold. When he explained that everything had already been taken the soldier picked up a clip of bullets to load into his rifle to shoot him and dropped them on the floor.

Great Scott! – I had to go and see the King of Thieves!

My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller and told me this tale, describing his life in Nanking, China in the 1920’s after his house was burglarized, having already paid the King of Thieves protection money to keep from being robbed. After explaining in person to the King of Thieves what had happened to his household possessions, his stolen items were soon returned along with an apology and a deep bow.

The apprehension of a thief