To the Beat of Our Own Drum: My Life Among the Beat Generation

This guest post comes to us by way of one of our eNotes educators, wordprof. Besides serving as one of our literary experts, having written two books on drama and worked for Purdue University, wordprof has much to share for having witnessed firsthand one of the most interesting time periods in American literary history. Read on to find out a little more about one of our best educators as well as the decade dominated by the Beat movement.

There is an interesting way to think of History: it is any time you didn’t live through. The Beatnik era, however, for me is not history, because I was there, in San Francisco in the 1950’s, and I experienced the emergence of a new sensibility, in the contrasting lifestyles of the time.

San Francisco (of course, New York also) experienced a dynamic, innovative time just before the invasion of the “Flower Children” in the 1960’s.  It was known as the Beatnik era (named by Herb Caen), combining the Russian suffix –nik from Sputnik (1957) to the “Beat” designation from Kerauoc’s “Beat Generation” (meaning many things, including “The Beatitudes,” because there was a beatific, nonviolent atmosphere to the art of the time). I remember at the time that the aesthetic atmosphere brought an interesting contrast between the commercial, conservative atmosphere of the Ayn Rand  mentality (The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, and the like.

The contrast could most easily be seen in the two dominant book stores—Paul Elder’s Books, downtown, where multiple copies of such novel bestsellers as Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (1957) and Nabakov’s Lolita (1957 in English translation) were stacked in towers in the expanses of window displays, and City Lights Book Store in North Beach. The latter, co-owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featured single copies of books on shelves marked “Alternate Lifestyles” and “Non-Western religions,” where my friends would keep in touch with me by leaving notes on the cork bulletin board made available to all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside City Lights Bookstore, which devoted itself to selling alt and ,yes, banned books.

The reading habits of this period reflected a vital new interest in Eastern philosophies and literature, prompted in large part by translation of eastern thought by Alan Watts ( The Way of Zen, 1957) and by English editions of Herman Hesse’s work (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Glass Bead Game, Journey to the East).  The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran of The Prophet and the ancient Egyptian “Hermes Trismegistus” of The Kybalion also became widely read; Krishnamurti and the theosophists were much admired, along with existential philosophical writers—Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness, but more often Existentialism and Human Emotion), Albert Camus’ novels, Andre Gide, Dostoevsky, Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum,  all much read, passed along, and discussed. It was a time of experimentation for all.

Other influences, both philosophically and stylistically, were Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and especially E. E. Cummings, not only because of his distinct poetry, but for his prose autobiographical The Enormous Room and his seminal Norton Lectures i. six nonlectures. (I enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cummings that started as a paean to his genius and an inquiry about whether we should capitalize his name in our writings, and ended up with a request to be his apprentice, to which he responded in a postcard: “This nonhero is too busy being to teach.”)  Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving (1956), in many ways a contrast to the other popular literature of the time, was also read widely.  My personal “book of wonder” during these years of the Beatnik era was Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (written earlier but enjoying a revival), a conjecture about the next phase of human development, followed by a collection of brief biographies of persons who had transcended self-consciousness into “cosmic” consciousness (Francis Bacon, Walt Whitman, Gautama Buddha, etc.). It was all very beatific.

As for my own enlightenment, I had my spine read by a “chiropracter” who could tell me all about my previous lives (I had been a sailor and an astronomer!). I was charted by a “personology” expert, who read my face, hair, and head bumps to determine my predilections toward a profession in this lifetime.  I also tried to teach myself Greek by reading interlinear translations of The Odyssey (no luck), and took playwriting lessons at the Sears-Whiteside School of Drama.

That was the world of the “Beatnik” wannabe.

Between that world and the world of ego-driven commercialism lay a chasm only bridged by San Francisco’s geographic splendor.  Besides the obvious tourist attractions—Pelican Island (Alcatraz), the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf–there was Golden Gate Park, containing, besides expansive grass valleys, dozens of commemorative statues (many hidden by fast-growing shrubbery), as well as the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Gardens.  At the park’s western edge, guarded by two old-fashioned windmills, was the Pacific Ocean beach, a free public expanse of sand beyond which nothing existed except the Farallon Islands and the mysterious East.  At the top, northern tip of the beach, was Seal Island, close enough to shore to observe the seals without the coin-operated  binoculars, overlooked by the Camera Obscura and the Cliff House restaurant and bar, next to Sutro’s Bath House (since burned down).  These sites were somehow almost reserved for natives to discover (despite the gift shops), again because the beach was free and we were always broke.

Living as a young adult in the mid-50’s to early 1960’s, I witnessed the contrasts daily. In North Beach, for example, (not a beach, but the Italian-American area surrounding the intersection of Columbus and Broadway streets) one could walk from a sublime, subtle Benny Bufano bronze statue of St. Francis in front of St. Francis Church, to the frighteningly commercial art studio and gallery of Walter Keane, where the big-eyed clown portraits reeked of poor taste.  Elsewhere throughout the Bay Area, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn (my friend, a student at S.F. School of Fine Art, did his gardening and mowed his lawn), and Paul Thiebaud were carving out Fine Art careers. (I remember one abstract expressionist painting at the DeYoung originally called something like “Study No. 2” but renamed “The Unnatural Battle of the Four Primal Elements” but I don’t recall the artist’s name.)

The contrast in drinking establishments, too, was always apparent, from the upscale nightclubs—The Condor, Finnochio’s, Bimbo’s, Vesuvio’s, and the Buena Vista at the cablecar terminus—to “The Place”, a simple bar where anyone could speak publicly on the topic of the day, on Blabbermouth night, posted on a blackboard behind the bar. I myself spoke to “Is Nixon a Stone Fetishist?” (when he was vice-president and was stoned by the crowds as he toured South America on a “goodwill mission”) and to “Is Nudism a Form of Catharsis?” before nudism entered the free enterprise system with Carol Doda.

Poet Allen Ginsberg (right), at North Beach’s popular hangout Caffe Trieste. He’s joined by City Lights clerk Shig Murao, who was once arrested for selling Howl to an undercover police officer.

In music (pre-British Invasion), Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Mose Allison sang out from apartment windows, while Flamenco dance music and West Coast Jazz floated out of the nightclubs (financially out of reach for the Beatniks, who would cluster on the sidewalks just outside the bouncer-doorman’s jurisdiction). A startlingly good recording of Porgy and Bess, with Mel Torme and Francis Faye, came out—in vinyl, of course—with a real red handkerchief in a pocket on the cover. Comics considered cutting-edge at the time would be featured at the Hungry I—Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, George Carlin.

Entertainment—other than the private gatherings in apartments decorated with free posters of faraway places (handed out by downtown travel agencies) featuring cheap wine and Tarot card readings, I Ching yarrow stick interpretations, and Mah Jongg games—was self-generated. We played chess at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (where no bagels were served), or attending Auteur theatre. We watched Jules et Jim, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita and a dozen others, or the free performances in Golden Gate Park of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. There was a growth of experimental theatre, with 1957’s Waiting for Godot, (an outstanding production directed by Herbert Blau, with Jules Irving as Lucky, performed downtown and then at San Quentin prison), Albee’s The Sandbox, Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, the Happenings of Allen Kaprow, and an interest in the New York theatre experiments emerging at the beginning of the 1960’s, Living Theatre, Open Theatre, etc.  In the conservative category at the same time, the best were the movies The Vikings and The Horse’s Mouth and on stage a traveling production of West Side Story.  I remember the Jack Tar hotel (finished in 1960) being built, ugly, rectangular, devoid of charm, an outsider to San Francisco’s opulent tradition of upscale hotels—the Mark Hopkins, and the St Francis.  As one critic put it: “It looks like the box that the Mark Hopkins came in.”

The changing landscape of Broadway and Columbus signified the ushering in of a new era and the end of the time that belonged to the Beats.

Geographically and socially, the Beatnik era ended around 1962, not only because of the Kennedy assassination, but also because Carol Doda at the Condor brought a different kind of tourism to the Columbus and Broadway area (her larger-than-life image in neon became a visual reminder of the change in atmosphere). The creative forces of the writers and poets were moving on, to Telegraphic Hill and to the Eastern cultures that Zen, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Krishnamurti had introduced them to—Japan, China, India, Tibet. The new neighborhoods were the Castro district and the Haight-Cole area (later claimed and re-named by the Flower Children as the Haight-Ashbury area, surrounding the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.) The writing generation just before the Beatniks, such as William Saroyan (Fresno), Jack London (Oakland), and John Steinbeck (Monterey), had branded California as a literary haven, but the Beats took San Francisco as their own (Saroyan lived on Carl Street in the Haight-Cole district before returning to Fresno). They—we—branded it with the indelible image still found today between the stacks of City Lights, or the pages of On the Road.

All in all, if my memory hasn’t distorted the actual facts (Hinman Collator needed), the contrasting worlds served to heighten my awareness of the changes in social aesthetics that were taking place at that time. Whether the Beat Generation or the Ayn Rand Establishment won that particular battle, only history will tell.

Besides, I wasn’t in history—I was in my salad days, in San Francisco during the Beatnik era.


Do Gorillas Use the Underground Railroad? Children Making Meaning from Adult Puzzles

planet_apes

This weekend, NPR’s This American Life featured stories on “Kid Logic.” Over the course of the hour, Ira Glass introduced stories of children who tried to make sense of the many puzzles of the adult world. In one story, a little girl’s best friend discovers that her father “is the Easter Bunny.” Rather than putting two-and-two together, both little girls decide that the dad IS actually the Easter Bunny. Their parents go along with the ruse.

But how would a child know? Do you assume that your parents are playing an elaborate prank on you? Especially when your whole culture is in on the joke?

The story made me think of my own leaps of logic. As you might have guessed from the picture above, every time I heard “guerrilla warfare” on  the news, I thought Planet of the Apes was at hand.

While I have many of my own embarrassing stories,  I also asked my friends to contribute their own “kid logic confessions.” Here are some of my favorite. Please let us hear your stories as well!

underground_railroad

“Ms.  Tubman to Platform 9 3/4s!”

A friend tells me that she thought the slaves used an actual, literal, “underground railroad” to make their escapes. How they constructed something so elaborate without being detected remains a mystery…

gate_water

What’s all the fuss about Watergate?

“I thought Watergate referred to a dam of some sort. I can still see the same image in my mind.”

nightcap_scrooge

“Who wants a nightcap?”

“All those 70s shows when they would invite someone to “stay for a nightcap.”  I thought they were giving them an actual hat. In my head it looked like a Scrooge-style long “nightcap.”

turtle_wax

On “Parting Gifts” at the end of game shows:

“I thought they ALL got turtle wax. I wanted some of that! Only, I didn’t have a turtle.”

pigs_mud

Kennedy’s Crisis

Bay of Pigs? How many pigs fit in the Bay of Pigs? If the pigs could swim, the water must be really dirty.”

deathbed

I wonder if Haverty’s has a showroom…

 “I struggled with the term deathbed…and considered that the bed was specifically bought for a person to lay down and die on. That creeped me out, and still does..such that I never bought a used bed.”

polyester

Who’s That Girl?

“My mom loves to tell the story of me, around 7 or 8 years old, asking her, “Who is this Polly Esther person, and why are you talking about her?”

cake_walk

I Still Wish I Was Right About This…

 “I was told by a friends older sister that there would be a “Cake Walk” at my first-ever school carnival. I thought it would be a GIANT FOAM CAKE with a line across the middle. The game was to walk the line. If you diverged, you’d fall into a pile of foam (like egg-crate foam) in the middle. If you made it all the way across, you won a real cake. 

I was SO disappointed to discover what it really was.”

fouND_it

Finder’s Keepers

“I thought when a business was founded…. that they had found it somewhere.”

Don’t forget! We would love to hear your own tales of kid logic!


Having a Ball at the MOTH

Last week I caught a live show called “The Moth.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s a little like a live version of This American Life–ordinary people (some aspiring writers and performers, many not) headline a show in which they each have five minutes to tell a true story on a theme. On the night I was lucky to spectate, the theme was simply “The Deep End.” Performer after performer came to the stage to relay their amazing true tales, which could at once be heartwarming, thrilling, bitter, hilarious, somber, you name it. The stories ranged everywhere from a woman’s return from rehab, to a honeymooning couple’s view from a Nepali mountaintop, to a wife’s desperate plea to stop her husband from taking a bullet for the sake of his Native ancestry. There wasn’t a badly told story amongst them, which meant that what I took from this show was the understanding that everybody has a great story to tell. What most of us need is the guts to tell it, of course, but also the right medium through which to tell it.

For you that may be The Moth (which accepts applications to appear on its main stage year-round, by the way) or it may be by leaving a piece of your art out on the street, waiting to be discovered. It may be through Twitter, WordPress, or Instagram. The important thing is that sharing art is as creative an endeavor as making it.

And if you’re studying the arts, that’s an important lesson to take away. Don’t involve yourself merely in the admiration of others’ art. Be involved in the creation of it. You’ll find a whole new respect for the arts that you study.

Check out this calendar for a Moth show in an area near you. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have the guts to get up and tell that story that’s burning inside of you.

And if you’re in LA, I’ll see you at the Moth on the West Side this Tuesday!


If You’re Going to Procrastinate, You Better Do It Right

A little unorthodox advice from a fellow student–our eNotes intern.

There’s winter, spring, summer, and fall…

And then there’s midterm season.

For us quarter-system kids, the time is now. (For you semester kids, don’t pity us—they’re coming for you.)

If you’re in college, you know this is one of the worst times of the year.

It feels like you’re being pummeled by hail until you’re curled up in the fetal position and simultaneously being burned by blaring sunlight shining through holes in the ozone. And  then maybe being stung by a jellyfish.

Somehow, we prevail, though, and keep on chugging through until the next exam season rolls around. We’re really awesome when it comes to making it out alive. What we aren’t good at is studying “efficiently.”

If you are not a procrastinator, congratulations. You’re awesome. I respect you. I literally don’t know how you do it, and I don’t think I ever will. But I want to give you some props. So, here. ::gives props::

Most of us though… we’re world class procrastinators.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to write about ways to change procrastination behaviors. For us tried and true procrastinators, changing the habit is not a process that can occur over night (like cramming)- it’s going to take a lot of work. MTV Intervention style work. And since you’re likely already amidst the test season, there’s no turning back now to try and fix your situation, because you’ve already dug yourself a nice, fat hole.

So for the 95% of the population that falls prey to this habit, I thought I’d talk about some ways to really get the most out of your procrastinating. If you’re going to procrastinate, you might as well do it well and with style.

These tips will make you the talk of the library.

  1. Television. You could catch up on all those sitcoms you watch. But if you want to up your game, you should really start watching a new show entirely. For maximum exploitation of this procrastination period, I would recommend shows that have at least 3 seasons, can be watched on Netflix or HBOgo and even Hulu (if you don’t mind the obnoxious advertisements about car insurance). If you don’t have subscriptions to these sites, the person next to you probably does. Make new friends…and then exploit them for their subscriptions.
  2. Go through your list of New Years Resolutions and try to bring them all to fruition in an expedited fashion. Need to be healthier? Why not spend 7 hours at the gym taking every class they offer that day, or maybe hang out in the produce section of the grocery store, carefully selecting the fruits and vegetables you need to create the healthy feast you’re about to cook (which will take another 3 hours). Want to travel more? Get on a bus and just, you know, get off at a random stop. Then find your way home (This can also help with a “get to know the city you live in” resolution).
  3. StumbleUpon. Get an account. Waste an entire afternoon. Excellent.
  4. YouTube. Don’t stop. We all get caught up in the recommended videos in that darned sidebar. Why fight it? Watch all of them. Especially the tutorial and challenge ones, which you must obviously watch and also perform yourself. Oh! And read the troll comments. You have to read the troll comments.
  5. N64. You don’t even need to get off your couch for this one.
  6. Those hobbies you dropped back in the day because, I don’t know, band became “un-cool” and your art teacher scared you—pick them up again, and do them until you are just as good as you were back in the day. Clarinets are going to be making such a huge comeback.
  7. Sleep
  8. Read for pleasure. Les Miserables is over 1000 pages, and then there’s always encyclopedias and the dictionary.
  9. Buy the entire contents of your nearest grocery or convenience store, and eat each item in succession. No one can eat and study at the same time. It’s scientific fact. You can even do this one with friends.
  10. Remember all those things you had to do that you kept putting off that don’t have to do with school? They’re lookin’ pretty good right now. Who doesn’t love laundry?

And then you just cram. Cram like the wind. Do anything you can to stay awake and absorb every bit of that information you didn’t even take in when it was first presented to you in lecture (because you were sleeping). Caffeine is your friend, water (thrown at face) is your friend, uncomfortable chairs are your friends, eNotes is your friend (shameless plug). Your bed is your enemy, pillows are your enemy, thoughts about things that aren’t your exam are your enemy. You know the drill. You’ve got it down pat.

Really, though… you should try not to procrastinate. You won’t learn as much.

… But if you do procrastinate, I mean… just do it right.

In life, you really should always give your all. You don’t want to be the kind of person who only gives 50%. It’s time to step it up and reach your true potential. You came to college for a reason, right? Procrastinate like it’s what you were born to do.

I have to go watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, now (it’s the extended edition), so I’ll leave you with this one line to rule them all:

I have faith in you.


Every Book A Surprise

Ah, the instant gratification of the vending machine. Always there when you desperately require a dozen eggs or a business card, and no dilly-dallying about it! Well, perhaps that’s only in Japan… Regardless, the capabilities of the vending machine have now been pushed to new levels in Toronto, where you can now find the amazing, the wondrous “Biblio-Mat.”

With the Biblio-Mat, customers of Toronto’s second-hand bookshop The Monkey’s Paw can snag an obscure, out-of-print book for just a Toonie. (That’s Canadian for $2.) The one catch may be that when you insert your 2 bucks into the machine, you have no idea what book it might divulge. Then again, that’s also half the fun; rumor has it that the Biblio-Mat, aside from being the first vending machine of its kind, also possesses psychic abilities in its book-granting powers. So if you don’t like the book you get, well, you probably have the imagination and enthusiasm of a mollusk.

Other fun things about it are the retro mint exterior, not unlike a 1950s refrigerator, accompanied by the mechanic clank upon the Biblio-Mat’s mystic delivery.

When a customer puts coins into it, the Biblio-Mat dramatically whirrs and vibrates as the machine is set in motion. The ring of an old telephone bell enhances the thrill when the customer’s mystery book is delivered with a satisfying clunk into the receptacle below.

Another fun fact: bookshop owner Stephen Fowler initially envisioned the Biblio-Mat as a metal locker with his assistant inside, delivering books upon payment. The end result is almost as good, only because nothing really beats a human hand emerging from the other side of a vending machine (though it probably would have violated several fair employment laws). Also, I secretly believe that every ATM hides behind it an elf, and every automatic door a man with a thin piece of string, but I think that’s just me…

I just love this idea and can’t wait to see what book within the psychic interiors of the Biblio-Mat awaits my next visit to Toronto. Check it out in action below!

*No assistants were subjected to confined spaces in the making of this vending machine.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 804 other followers