Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Into Memory: Jimmy Liptak

A good man passed this week; someone I knew when I was much younger. Whenever this happens, I find myself stuck in some sort of quantum dislocation. In my mind, that person is still young and stays so till I observe differently. This last month, I’ve found myself considering the loss of three fifty/sixty-somethings who still populate my memory as twenty-somethings.

I've not seen Jimmy in decades. My memories of him, like many other camp folk, stem from back in The Dreamtime. (The sixties and seventies) This was a time in our lives of chaos and possibilities. (And hormones; lots of hormones) The universe was young. Stuff apparently happened before us but couldn't have been that important. The summers were warm and endless and we meandered through them obliviously.

It was a time of formation for us. We look back on those days, much like the constantly repeated stories of our parents' childhoods, as a sort of mythology that has guided our lives. (eg. The Legend of Dennycles and the Bottle of Cheap Wine; wherein our hero learns a valuable lesson about unsympathetic friends who will put ice cubes down your pants when you're helpless to fight back.) We learned things but not well or readily and much of what we learned was useless if not downright dangerous.

Like any garden variety universe, we start out with chaos; particles and potential whirling about with no particular direction or form. That would be our teens… Then, suddenly, order starts to impose itself.

You know what order in such a system consists of? Small influences over time. A minor nudge to a careening asteroid, over time, can alter its course by millions of miles. Small influences…

MD camp was an example of the multiplication effect of those small influences. Back in The Dreamtime, there was a concentration of remarkable people; the very type needed to populate a new mythology. Why, there were giants in those days, folks! (Granted they were all oddly dressed teenagers with unusual haircuts and varying levels of no-clue-at-all but this is my mythos and I'll populate it as I like!)  People such as I'd never met in my life up to that point. Everyone has individuals at camp who had some particularly telling effect on them. To me, for instance, one was Ricky Balsamo. Here was a guy my own age who startled and amazed me. Imagine! To be responsible and organized of one's own volition! Hell, I didn't realize, at the time, that was even an option. (My stable of peer group role models up till then was, unfortunately, a rather sad and mangy lot.)  I would observe Ricky wielding that clipboard like a dog watching a human use a can opener, "Hey, he's performing actions in the present to affect conditions in the future! Wow! I wanna be like that… But with a nicer hat!"

There are always people like that at camp. I remember Jimmy, his lovely sister Marian and more in those early years. People like this give you a glimpse of what they are; what you could also be if you just suck up your nerve and open out. These people have an amazing effect on a life's trajectory. Some have more effect on more people; people like Jimmy. Small influences over time tend to build and amplify. They're shared and grown, transferred and bequeathed. Ah, then order and direction develops! Friendships, influences and lessons learned create pathways and orbits in our lives. (I keep working this metaphor and I know it's getting old but stay with me…) Those small influences have developed into our careers, our friends, even, for many of us, our spouses. Worlds and lives were created by the influences we experienced then. I find it wonderful to see that those original influences continue to form order as camp folk have married, had children who became camp folk, married each other and had even more tiny, little camp folk. It's a marvelous thing to look back nearly 44 years (I know; that doesn't sound particularly old to be called "The Dreamtime" but I'm the one telling the story, dammit…) and to see the paths so many friends' lives have taken that can greatly be attributed to people like Jimmy.

As I said, I've not seen him in years. I didn't even know what path his life took, or what all he did with it. I think it's telling, though, that I just assumed he continued to be that force; touching lives, building spirits. That's what people like him do. Reading some of the postings from his friends and students over the last couple days, that appears to have been a safe assumption.

Small influences over time… 

Eventually, you end up with… this.

Look at the worlds you created, Jimmy Liptak…

God bless and godspeed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Spider, Spider, Burning Bright!

"No spider! No spider! Scorpion!"

The food stall vendor's voice was taking the same exasperated tone as the last four and I was getting the strong impression that dinner was off  for tonight. I'd been up and down the narrow lanes of the Beijing night market but, try as I might, could not find the deep fried tarantula I had been prepping my taste buds for.

Months before our trip, I had planned a trip to the Donghuamen night market, famed for cooking up the most horrible things imaginable and feeding them to tourists. There were all manner of crunchy delights emerging from pots of smoking oil. Here were racks of fried silkworm larvae, fronting skewers of live wriggling scorpions. Off to the left was a brace of skewered intestines with my name on them (In English; seriously, what were the odds?) and row upon row of whole fried quail whose tiny heads stared back at me reproachfully. Every imaginable horror was present, accounted for and ready to be dipped in hot sauce for my gastronomic delight, save one.

The quail stared back reproachfully.

The big black scorpions are meatier.

Skewers of live wriggling scorpions
Where, oh where had my fried tarantula gone? I'd seen them on TV travel shows, checked them out on YouTube videos, learned the best way of eating them and what to avoid. (Their taste is apparently reminiscent of crab except  that crab doesn't make you scream inside for several months after eating them... ) I had also internalized a cautionary tasting note that the abdomens of some are full of egg sacs that are, apparently, not as fun to eat as the rest of the otherwise yummy arachnid. I'd even planned ahead. Our tour guide, Joe, had  e-mailed us several weeks before the trip to ask if there were any special requests; sights we wanted to see that weren't on the itinerary or a bit off the beaten path; cultural highlights or holy sites that called to us. I gave careful, deliberate consideration to his question and replied back, "Night Market! Fried tarantulas!"

Drumsticks for everyone!

I could imagine his internal response. "In all of China and it's 9,000 years of history and culture, he wants to eat crunchy nightmare with the tourists..." I followed up with a lame explanation that while I, of course, would rather drive a few extra hours to see how the restoration of my favorite gorge Buddha was coming along, I had promised my (fictitious) grand kids that I would go eat a giant spider and film it for them to take to show and tell. "Kids", I chuckled weakly and unconvincingly. He promised to write out a route for us to follow and, I assume, consigned us mentally to the lowest level of hillbilly tourist hell.

In Beijing, on our first night, as we visited with the guide and our 12 travel companions, I sheepishly brought up a reminder of our interest in spider eating. I explained to the group that we were planning to skip the Chinese face changing show in favor of a visit to the night market in a bid to achieve hard core immortality in the eyes of some 8 and 10 year olds. The response was amazing. Several others had the same idea and, in short order, all the others did, as well.

"We want to be hardcore, too!"

"We want to eat tarantulas with Dennis! "

"Yeah, let's go to the night market and gross out the little kids!"

"I am Spartacus!" (At this point I was feeling a bit giddy...)

Joe's expression shifted back and forth from dismay to disbelief a few times before coming to rest on resignation. Face Theater was off; Night Market expedition was on.

This turned out to be a good thing as that weekend happened to be Mid-Autumn Moon Festival weekend and you know how hard it is to get a cab during moon festival. Even if you can find one, they jack up the price by a factor of 10. Joe ended up having to herd 10 Americans ( Still chanting "Spider! Spider!"  and giggling amongst themselves) through a series of subway and bus changes through crowds that could only occur in a country with 1.5 billion people on call for crowd duty.

We finally arrived at the night market and plunged into narrow lanes that were a riot of sound, color and smells; and, oh, the smells...  The aromas of roasted nuts and corn intermingled with barbecue, the occasional waft of open sewer and lots and lots of ????. I went stall to stall, followed by my hard core foodie posse but, though we found everything imaginable that shouldn't be eaten by rational beings... no spider. The crowd turned surly and drifted off to shop for other deals among the lanes. I pestered additional food sellers for a while before conceding defeat. This was a shame as I had reams of carefully prepared ad libs ready for my tarantula encounter:

"Are these spiders farm raised or free range?", I'd ask with a sly grin, imagining millions of these multi-legged horrors sweeping majestically across the open plain.The vendor, despite understanding no English, would point both index fingers at me and go "Ooooooohhh!" (Chinese for- My, what a witty riposte. Well played, sir!)

"Hey", I'd burble to the appreciative tourist audience as I pulled off a leg. " Drum sticks for everyone!"

"Mmmm. That's good spider!", I'd mug to the camera in my best Dave Letterman, before looking down at the skewer and screaming uncontrollably.

"Staci! Are you eating the centipedes? I was saving those for company!"

A dozen or so similar gems went begging.

I settled for picking out a skewer of live, wiggling scorpions which were then deep-fried before my eyes for guaranteed freshness and tucked right in to them. It wasn't fried spider but would still garner some hard-core respect from those 8 and 10 year olds.

Staci unaccountably turns down my generous offer to share the scorpions.

2 days later, I was still picking legs out of my teeth.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Harris the Rain King: Chaac and Awe in Belize- Part 1

Hunapu stood at the edge of the forest, looking up the road into the distance.  The far trees danced and jumped in the shimmering heat. A flinty, scorched smell mixed with the smoke and dust filling the air; making his eyes tear and each breath burn.

He turned back to his family's open hut and the stunted plants wilting in the sere earth around it. Mother sat in the shade of the hay roof, holding his baby sister, Cuicatl, and staring blankly at the dying garden plot. His father moved slowly among the dusty plantings, metering a small amount of precious water to each, only to watch the ground swallow it and dry up again immediately. Chicahua dropped the empty calabash gourd to the ground and sank, exhausted, to his knees beside it. The rains were long overdue. In Hunapu's ten years, a' yax-hau; the first rains, had never been this late. He muttered a quiet prayer to Chaac, as he and his parents had, daily, since the drought had deepened.

Turning back to the road, he kicked the dust into small swirls that moved only slightly into the dead air before settling back at his feet. Hunapu raised his eyes again, shielding them against the searing glare beating down from the cloudless sky. In the distance, the images still danced in the heat and haze. 

Then, gradually, one began to resolve itself.

"Tat, Na'na; Someone comes!"  Hunapu shouted to his parents, who moved hesitantly to join him, squinting into the distance at the approaching figures.

As the travelers neared, Chicahua's eyes widened in alarm. "Hide your face! Look to the ground until they have passed!" he hissed urgently to his wife and son. Hunapu did as he was told. He could feel the closeness of the strangers, hear the sound of feet shuffling over the uneven road, smell the dust kicked up by their passing. At the last moment, defying his father's words, he raised his head slightly to steal a glance at the procession.

His eyes locked immediately with those of the man being carried down the road and widened with amazement. His skin was pure white! He wore white hair and a white beard and his great dark eyes (the Mirrors of His Eyes!) reflected back Hunapu! Frightened at being caught he tried but could not tear his gaze away. "Chaac!" he murmured. "Chaac, Lord of the Rains! Lord of Thunder!" Alarmed at his boldness, Hunapu dropped his face again but not before seeing Chaac smile back at him as he turned the Mirrors of His Eyes back to the road he travelled.

As the procession moved out of sight, a single drop fell from the sky in front of Hunapu, raising a small puff of dust and leaving a tiny crater. Another followed, as did another, slowly but with increasing speed. The scent of the air changed as distant thunder rolled over the forest.

"A' yax-hau!"  Chicahua exulted through cracked lips. "The First Rain has come, Hunapu! Always remember this day!"

And Hunapu would remember it. When he was very old, he would share the tale of how his eyes met the mirror eyes of Chaac with his children and with his children's children...

Or at least he would have if he and his family hadn't been carried off and drowned in the flash flooding fifteen minutes later.


"Did you see that Mayan family we just passed?" I turned to ask Staci as I pulled off my aviator sunglasses and wiped the sweat from my face. "I can't imagine working in this sun all the time. I go from pale to stroke without ever hitting tanned." Digging through my backpack, I double checked the sunscreen's SPF  for reassurance before settling back. "The little boy smiled at me. It's probably the white hair. All kids think "Santa Claus" when they see me."

"I'm sure that's it", Staci muttered through clenched teeth as our jeep rattled her spine like castanets. "The Mayans have always been big on Santa, you know." It hit another rut and launched her a foot in the air before catching her, again, like a baby in the hands of its drunken, least favorite uncle. "God, does this thing have a suspension?!?"

We were an hour south of Belize City, bouncing down what had rapidly changed from pavement to dirt to rutted mud to a game trail  apparently cratered by years of indiscriminate cluster bombing. Being the last jeep of three, we were also nicely coated with dust while being shaken like human martinis. One moment, Staci would bounce across the back seat atop the luggage. The next moment, the luggage would ride her back the other way. By virtue of my heroic proportions, I had wedged myself tightly in place and was watching the jungle deepen as we passed.

The driver, Hernan, glanced back apologetically. "The dry season has been tough this year. That's why it's so dusty. The farmers are having a hard time of it. If we don't get rain soon, it's going to be very bad for everyone."

Hearing this, I smiled knowingly at Staci as she rattled past, clinging to a couple of playful scuba tanks. "Oh, I have a feeling the rains will come." I grinned. "I have a feeling the rains will come soon. Don't you think so, honey?"

Staci, closed her eyes and groaned apprehensively. "You know, forget the suspension. Hernan, can this jeep float?"


I'm not sure when I first realized I was a rain god.

That sort of realization comes slowly, on little catfish feet.

I don't even try to justify that status anymore; everyone thinks that the weather has it personally in for them. However, anyone reading this who knows me is silently nodding their heads, some violently as if to dislodge an unpleasant memory. (See October 12, 2009 entry, "Travels With Dennis in Search of...) Some who, unaccountably, have travelled with me more than once (Usually due to marriage or other unavoidable circumstance.) are even able to silently mouth the common refrain, along with the local survivors digging themselves out of whatever wreckage is currently burying them. Ready, kids? All together!

"I don't know what happened! We've never had weather like this before at this time of the year! It was... It was just on us with no warning! Oh, God... Where's the baby?!?!"

Unfortunately, I have no actual control over precipitation levels or exactly what form the weather event will take so there's no money to be made by, say, breaking droughts or ushering in an occasional Ice Age. Normally, the only recognition I get is a friend's occasional look of stunned disbelief at what's happening outside or a high-five from my brother when our combined mojo has rendered an entire region uninhabitable.

There was this one time, however...

Stay tuned (or online, whatever) for the next riveting (meh...) installment!

Who'll Stop The Rain. Anyone? Anyone at all?


I, Me, Mayan

Monday, April 8, 2013

On the Beach...

I got a call from my buddy, Glen, this afternoon informing me that one of his major fantasy girls had just passed away. I had this horrible mental image of him holding up a picture of Margaret Thatcher with one hand before he told me it was Annette. 

It was amazing how close I came to crying out loud. 

Just a couple weeks ago I had googled to see where she was in the M.S. path. It was heartbreaking to see the recent video of her; frozen, unable to move or speak; unrecognizeable. I know it wasn't all that long ago...

Way, way back when I was an incredibly young DennyHarris, I would watch The Mickey Mouse Club religiously. While I can remember many details of the show; Spin & Marty, Anything Can Happen Day, Talent Roundup Day and so on, the most clear and retrievable memory is Annette Funicello. As I was very young and my fascination with the development of her sweater contours was several years away, I can't tell, for sure, what it was. The precursor to passion is, apparently, wishing she could be my sister. I would do nice things for her (Which I would never have done for my actual sister but don't confuse me with logic. This was Annette and I was extremely young.) and she would smile at me me which, for some reason, was a wonderful, wonderful thing.

You young, sarcastic bastards need to understand that this was a different world then. Pre-Kardassian, being a hideous slut was not considered  to be a plus. There was a finely polished pedestal reserved for a select few. Annette showed up in all the shows I loved. She had a 3 episode arc in Zorro, for Christ's sake! She completely had me even before the Beach movies. (Note to younger folk; Imagine the place Princess Leia held in your erotic fantasies... Multiply by 10)

In 1987, the film "Back to the Beach" came out. A 20-some year sequel to the Frankie and Annette beach movies of the sixties, Annette was, to my mind, more attractive than she had ever been. This was also about the time she noticed that something was wrong. She had trouble walking through the sand without tripping. Some time later, she announced they she was suffering from M.S., after a number of news items had snidely ascribed her clumsy gait to alcohol. From that point on, she served as spokesperson for M.S. and did much to attract attention to the disease.

It's about 7:15 P.M. now. I've had the T.V. on in the background as the news has been playing. There have been disturbing reports about North Korea, tributes to Margaret Thatcher and debates about the state of gun control efforts.

Those are not the reasons I seem to be sobbing like a baby right now.